Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: 6 Things We Learned
Brendan Rodgers opted to change the shape of his side in order to accommodate Sturridge alongside Luis Suarez up front, and the decision backfired dramatically. The team selection was extremely attacking and was woefully exposed by Aston Villa in the first half.
Villa looked likely to score on every counter-attack and overran Liverpool in midfield in the first half.
Here are six of the main talking points from the game.
Stick to 4-3-3
Liverpool have played some excellent football this season and there is one consistency in each of their best performances—their formation.
Rodgers changed from a 4-3-3 shape to 4-4-2, partnering Suarez and Sturridge and also playing both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho. It was an extremely bold and attacking line-up, but alarm bells were ringing before kick-off.
Was it brave or was it stupid? Against a Villa side whose strength is on the counter-attack, it was proven to be the latter.
Villa's three central midfielders were dominant against Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in the middle, and only once Liverpool changed to 3-5-2, did they gain any control of the game.
We are Liverpool Football Club and we play 4-3-3 should be our mantra regardless of who we have in the squad— Jim Fishlock (@JimFish286) January 18, 2014
Liverpool play 4-3-3 throughout their academy, and Rodgers' philosophy revolves around the use of it. He should stick to it.
Having Joe Allen or Lucas Leiva starting this match from the start, replacing the off-form Philippe Coutinho, would have been a much wiser decision—something Rodgers belatedly did at halftime.
The Gerrard Experiment
Much of the talk this week has revolved around Rodgers' belief that he can convert Gerrard into a holding midfielder.
The idea has sparked much debate, Gerrard, himself, admitting it's something that will require work if he is to adapt his game suitably to perform in the role.
Gerrard as a holding midfielder in a three-man midfield, within the 4-3-3 shape, may work against some sides, but Gerrard as a regular central midfielder in a 4-4-2 will never work, as proven here.
Rafa Benitez quickly realised it wouldn't work, both Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson attempted to make it work, as have numerous England managers.
Rodgers did not help Gerrard's cause by leaving him so exposed here. If Gerrard is going to grow into the role, he needs to be as the pivot midfielder behind two technically sound midfielders who look after the ball.
Gerrard has attempted only 16 passes. That's unheard of (75% accuracy).— AnfieldIndex (@AnfieldIndex) January 18, 2014
Gerrard was woeful in the first half, although he wasn't the only one struggling to keep up with the pace, caught in possession frequently and failing to make any positive impact.
Liverpool's midfield has looked at its best with Lucas, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson as the trio; accommodating Gerrard in the side is increasingly becoming a major issue for the manager.
If Gerrard is a holding midfielder I'm a Portuguese lap dancer— Philip Blundell (@PhilBlundell) January 18, 2014
Defensive Deficiencies Exposed Again
Let's be honest, Liverpool's defence has been far from impressive all season—not least due to the constant chopping and changing by Rodgers.
Admittedly, much of this inconsistency at the back has been caused by a series of injuries in defence.
Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel is far from a solid partnership; this was their third game together. They conceded three at Hull and three at Stoke in their previous two. Eight goals conceded in three games.
Throw in the hugely out of form Glen Johnson and the inadequate Aly Cissokho and Liverpool's defence, especially lacking any form of protection from midfield, was always going to be exposed by Villa on the break.
If you want to finish in the top four you can't defend like a team in the bottom four. #LFC simply not good enough today— Kop Magazine (@TheKopMagazine) January 18, 2014
Liverpool changed to three at the back, Johnson becoming the third centre-back, with Raheem Sterling and Cissokho as the wing-backs. It was better, but far from solid.
Aly Cissokho Is Not Good Enough
Cissokho is in the side only due to injuries to Jose Enrique and Jon Flanagan.
With both of them due to return from their respective injuries later this month, Cissokho will soon find himself not only out of the team, but unlikely to even be in the squad.
Admittedly, he was later asked to perform a less natural role at wing-back, but before and after the change, he was out of position, failed to maintain possession and constantly looked off the pace.
Again, like at Stoke, he gave away cheap free-kicks out wide by diving into challenges when it wasn't required, and any defensive header was cleared centrally into a dangerous area.
I think 90% of the crowd below the age of 30 could do Cissokho's job if they had a full pre-season.— Vincent T. Juan (@GoingJuanLoco) January 18, 2014
Rodgers Needs to Accept Limitations
Brendan Rodgers claimed this week that Liverpool were still title challengers, but their glaring defensive frailties suggest otherwise.
Liverpool are sensational in attack but terrible at the back. Rodgers needs to find consistency in defence and also realise the need for reinforcements in midfield—Gerrard as a holding midfielder is not the solution, far from it.
Reinforcements in January are required; primarily in the full-back and holding midfield areas. The suggestion that Liverpool need attacking players such as Mohamad Salah should be much lower down Rodgers' priorities.
As Rodgers alluded to post-match, you can't perform at your best every week. And again Liverpool showed good character to at least take a point from the match.
There is cause for criticism of Rodgers' initial system, but reason for praise for him changing to salvage something too.
The problem for Liverpool is that they can't afford too many slip-ups of this nature if they are to finish inside the top four—teams around them are not losing games, and with many of the big sides still to come to Anfield, more tricky home matches are on the horizon.
If Liverpool had won this match, and should Manchester United lose at Chelsea on Sunday, they could have created an eight-point gap on one of their main rivals for the Champions League spot. This was a huge opportunity lost, especially ahead of the Merseyside derby.
The Reds could now enter that derby match behind their Merseyside rivals.
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