This Saturday, Liverpool hosted Aston Villa at Anfield in what turned out to be a thrilling Premier League match, as Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke had the visitors storming into a first-half lead before the Reds mounted a comeback via Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard.
Under pressure right from the start of the match, Liverpool got what their sloppy and uncertain play deserved when Weimann nipped in to score from a Gabby Agbonlahor cross, before Benteke doubled Villa’s lead 10 minutes after their first.
Sturridge’s finish to cap off some excellent combination play from the hosts was what they needed right on the stroke of half-time, and Gerrard calmly slotted away a penalty after Brad Guzan was adjudged to have fouled Luis Suarez in the box.
Here are eight positives and negatives from Liverpool’s draw at Anfield. Let us know your thoughts and views in the comments below.
All throughout the season, Liverpool have generally been solid against most opponents; their fourth-place standing in the Premier League will be an accurate reflection of that.
But against a certain style of team, the Reds have encountered an almost fatal Achilles’ heel: pace and power on the break, through the middle of the park.
So it’s no surprise that, after a comprehensive home defeat at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, an unfancied Aston Villa side led by Paul Lambert were just one goal short of taking all three points at Anfield on Saturday.
To be sure, Brendan Rodgers’ tactical experiment backfired spectacularly—and we’ll have more on that later—but the deep prompting of Ashley Westwood and the power of Fabian Delph, allied with the pace of Agbonlahor and the industry of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, meant that the hosts just didn’t have enough in the tank to deal with an impressive first-half performance from the visitors.
If the Reds’ back four were on a whole unconvincing, it was the midfield that allowed Villa to storm in. After 22 league games, this remains a glaring problem for Liverpool.
All the same, credit must be afforded to the way the home side came back in the second half.
A flowing move deep in stoppage time in the first half, featuring an exquisite Jordan Henderson back-heel assist, ended with a clinical Sturridge finish and sent the Reds back to the dressing room with some encouragement.
And while Rodgers erred with his starting lineup, there was no prolongation of the same old problems when Lucas was introduced at the expense of Philippe Coutinho, which helped restore balance in the Reds’ approach play.
More importantly, and perhaps the silver lining from the game, was Liverpool’s mental resilience in mounting their comeback in the second half.
Regardless of whether their penalty was from a Guzan foul or a Suarez dive—and the debate will rage on for some time yet—a newfound aggression, not to mention familiarity with the system, was evident in the second 45 at Anfield.
But back to the midfield, which, when the dust settles from the two dropped points, is ultimately the root of the Reds’ current troubles.
The current senior central midfield lineup at Anfield stands as thus: Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen.
Glaringly missing from the quartet is a specialist defensive midfield with pace and capable of breaking up attacks and clean, crunching tackles to start counterattacks. The role of such a player cannot be understated: He provides the shield in front of the back four and alleviates both the midfield and defence by providing an additional safe outlet in the middle.
While all the noise after last weekend’s victory at Stoke City was about Steven Gerrard’s new role as holding midfielder, and while he even replaced Lucas in the latter’s now customary position, it was evident from the first 45 minutes that the captain just doesn’t have the legs or the cautiousness to excel in that role.
Henderson, tasked with being a defensive option, a midfield runner and an advanced attacking outlet, was simply overawed.
On the bright side, Henderson replied to those who leveled at him the criticism that he shies away when his captain is in the same side with a mature and intelligent performance in the heart of the midfield.
While taking on the three aforementioned roles simultaneously was always going to be hard, he showed good responsibility tracking back and also inventiveness going forward, as shown clearly from his sensational back heel to set Sturridge up for Liverpool’s first goal.
So besides his famous work rate and never-ending harrying of his opponents, Henderson has also added flair and guile to his game.
Alongside him was another young starlet who had been written off for the majority of the 2013 calendar year. Raheem Sterling has been in exciting form since returning to Rodgers’ first team in December, and against Villa he turned in a performance that will have justified his manager’s continued faith in him.
Probably one of the few positives of the first half, Sterling then went on to cope well in a less familiar role at right wing-back in the second half, but yet he still timed his forward runs perfectly and showed his maturity and strength on the ball while doing his defensive work.
While the midfield is clearly in need of quality additions, in Henderson and Sterling—if they can keep up their development under Rodgers—Liverpool already have two key cogs in their ever-developing machine.
Rodgers has rightly received many glowing plaudits from the way he has managed and grown this Liverpool side into genuine top-four contenders this season, yet Saturday will have been one of his lowest points as a Reds manager.
If not for the sheer reason that he couldn’t continue Liverpool’s momentum and home form, then definitely because it was his tactical naivety and proneness to tactical experimentation that cost his side two points.
The same fixture last season ended in an embarrassing 1-3 home loss to the Villans, and while Sturridge’s early goal handed Liverpool all three points at Villa Park back in August, the second half also saw the Reds kept at bay against an incessant and dominant Villa side.
After suffering the same fate against similarly fast and physical teams this season, Rodgers yet again faltered in selecting a weak midfield core of just Gerrard and Henderson, and in going with a conventional 4-4-2, left his left flank exposed with the rapidly deteriorating Cissokho and the weak Coutinho.
So Liverpool fans will be hoping Rodgers has come away from the draw thinking not only about their spirited second-half comeback but their shockingly disjointed first-half performance.
Twenty-two games in is not necessarily the time for Liverpool to be experimenting with new tactical systems, especially when their previous one had been working so well. They had just started seeing some impressive results.
Rodgers will also realize the importance of Jose Enrique and even Jon Flanagan’s imminent returns from injury, while Joe Allen can’t come back into the side quickly enough. And while Lucas might not be the best specialist defensive midfielder, it was his introduction that restored a sense of balance to the team in the second half.
A switch out to the left for Suarez with Sturridge as the central striker also didn’t have the desired outcome, though it was Suarez, of course, who won the equalizing penalty.
Having a fit and firing strike duo of Suarez and Sturridge would be the dream of many a Premier League manager, yet Rodgers needs to find a formula that can keep them scoring and assisting each other without adversely affecting the points on the board.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, Liverpool remain fourth in the Premier League standings with 43 points on board.
With third-placed Chelsea on 46 having played a game less, there is already a small gap between the Reds and the top three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, but Rodgers will now be looking nervously over his shoulder.
For both Everton and Tottenham can come dangerously close to Liverpool—and in the former’s case, even overtake their Merseyside rivals—if results go their way in the remainder of this Premier League weekend.
And if David Moyes finds a way to end Jose Mourinho’s impeccable home record at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Manchester United will suddenly storm back into top-four contention.
It’s a tight league this season, and the constant stress can’t be doing any good for everyone, especially the Liverpool manager.
As Tottenham look to continue their resurgence and possibly end Week 22 level on points (but with a vastly inferior goal difference), Liverpool will know that their main rivals to date are still Everton, who have impressed many pundits and fans with their enterprising and aesthetically pleasing style under Roberto Martinez this season.
Which makes the upcoming Merseyside derby on January 28 arguably one of the most important in recent seasons, simply because of the potential ramifications.
A thrilling 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture in November could well have ended in three points to the Red side if Allen had converted his easy chance, but it also showed the propensity of the Blues to score and come back. Liverpool required a returning Sturridge to save a point off the bench at the death.
While in reality there are only ever three points at stake, the proverbial “six-pointer” game applies more aptly to the 222nd Merseyside derby.
Liverpool’s next fixture will be an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth, but Brendan Rodgers can be forgiven if he is already setting his sights on the following Tuesday. It could define Liverpool’s season—and, indeed, even their short-to-medium-term future.