Aston Villa 0-2 Liverpool

An Aston Villa side lacking in both bite and spirit succumbed to two Liverpool set-pieces in a game that was effectively over after 20 minutes. The hosts were guilty of defensive neglect, and their manager hampered their cause with an uninspired formation that his oppostite number trumped. Outnumbered in midfield, Villa’s tactics were all wrong and forced them on the back foot.

In a battle between two Scottish managers in search of improved results, both managers made changes to their starting line-ups. The telling factor was that Alex McLeish’s were forced upon him, while Kenny Dalglish’s were chosen. For Villa, Agbonlahor missed out through suspension, while Bent was a late injury withdrawal; leaving McLeish without his two top scorers. Delfouneso and Heskey deputised up front for the hosts. For the visitors, Shelvey made his first start of this campaign for the Reds, after recently impressing at Blackpool during a loan spell. Bellamy replaced Kuyt as Dalglish shuffled his pack in anticipation of the intensive silly season fixture schedule.

Dalglish Packs the Midfield Again

Villa lined up in a fairly standard 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1, with traditional wide midfielders on their best feet in N’Zogbia (left) and Albrighton (right). Up front, Heskey was detailed to drop deeper when Villa where chasing possession. Following its success against QPR, Liverpool again went with a 4-2-3-1, with Suarez leading the line and inverted wingers in Bellamy (left) and Downing (right). Shelvey sat central, just ahead of the second band of Adam and Henderson, who played ahead of a back four with attacking full-backs Johnson and José Enrique. This gave Liverpool midfield superiority on paper, and from the outset it transpired that theory translated into practice, as Villa were perceptibly outnumbered three to two in central areas. Heskey was too advanced to help the midfield significantly, but too deep to help Delfouneso on the counter, and he was fairly anonymous as a result.
On top of that, Johnson and José Enrique were allowed to join in down the flanks as possession tipped Liverpool’s way, and Villa were continuously forced back. Villa’s right-back Hutton, who is at his best on the front foot, was often unable to participate in attacks due to Liverpool’s midfield dominance and Bellamy’s lively movement. This tipped the balance further towards the visitors. By half-time, the ball had spent twice as long in Villa’s defensive third of the pitch (30%) as it did in Liverpool’s (15%). However Villa also did their chances no favours with sloppy defending and unforced errors.

They were behind before they ever really got going. They had forged one decent chance – a Heskey header from an Albrighton free kick – that was  offside and aimed straight at Reina, when they handed Liverpool the lead. Downing, who as an ex-Villan laboured under a cloud of boos whenever he touched the ball, clipped a tame inswinging corner into the area from Liverpool’s right side. Shelvey broke off the near-post untracked and diverted the ball goal-ward with a clever flick, and when Suarez’s subsequent copy-cat flick was only parried by Guzan, Bellamy was on hand to poke the ball home. The marking of all three Reds players was shambolic. This highlighted the reasons why Villa have a poor record defending set-pieces: only stricken Bolton had conceded more goals from dead-ball situations this season.
This would be foregrounded just four minutes later when they conceded the second in similar circumstances. Scorer Bellamy turned provider as  Skrtel headed his corner home: the big Slovak lost his ball-watching marker Dunne with ease, beat Hutton to the ball, and glanced a header high into the top-right corner. With Liverpool two up and barely breaking a sweat, the Villa fans were so unsettled that they couldn’t even give Downing stick with any conviction, their barracking somewhat hushed for about ten minutes.
Adding to their problems of poor marking and midfield inferiority were the number of their players who sloppily gave away possession. N’Zogbia, Delph and Delfouneso were repeat offenders, indeed when an outnumbered N’Zogbia passed directly into touch minutes after the second goal, it  was broadly symbolic of Villa’s first half efforts. Villa edged back into the game for the latter part of the first half, but Reina still went largely untested by half-time. Heskey, operating in the hole, wasn’t able to break fast enough when Villa countered, which left Delfouneso breaking without adequate support more than once. N’Zogbia was lively but wasteful, shooting from range too often, and looked somewhat frustrated throughout the ninety minutes.
When the break arrived, this loudmouthed pundit was calling for McLeish to make a tactical change that would augment Villa’s midfield. His side’s best chances had been hopeful shots from range, and they were clearly losing the battle in the centre of the park. However, he opted to send out an unchanged team, as did Dalglish who had no reason to change anything.

Too Little Too Late for McLeish Response
It took two more defensive errors before McLeish  decided “enough is enough”. First, Dunne robbed Suarez only to carelessly give him the ball back in the area, and the little Uruguayan rattled the crossbar with a powerful effort. Then Warnock sloppily gifted the ball to Johnson, who was then allowed to drive at goal unchecked and hit a stinging drive which Guzan did well to slap around the post. McLeish’s response was to send on Bannan for Heskey, which was a perplexing choice as Heskey is a good lone striker who can bring midfielders into play, while McLeish’s choice Delfouneso was still conceding possession cheaply. Then again, McLeish has been criticised for failing to get the best out of his strikers, and on this evidence he is playing his forwards either in the wrong roles, or with the wrong tactics.

With Bannan on the right flank and Albrighton shifting to left, McLeish also now had two inverted wingers, and N’Zogbia dropped into an attacking midfield role ahead of Delph and Petrov. This reshuffle evened the midfield contest and opened the game up a little, temporarily galvanising Villa to casual appearances. However this was little more than competitive balance being restored, and Liverpool still had the edge in terms of quality and their lead. Villa did make chances, N’Zogbia firing a shot into Reina’s arms, and Delph’s deflected shot looping just wide of the target, but again these chances were largely speculative shots from outside the area. At the other end, Liverpool also forged a handful of opportunities, the best of which saw Adam’s shot deflected wide when a square ball to Shelvey or Suarez may have been the better options. Suarez also struck the woodwork a second time with an artful chip, before being replaced with the largely anonymous Carroll. The match was dwindling into a fairly placid affair, with Villa still guilty of giving the ball away, and Liverpool happy to knock the ball around patiently and hold on to their lead.
As time began to run out, McLeish had one last throw of the dice, sending on their last (barely) recognised forward. Austrian striker Weimann replaced midfielder Delph, Villa thereby reverting to an attacking 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 with the third band as wingers. Dalglish countered this by deploying Carragher at the expense of Shelvey: with Bannan and Petrov playing fairly deep in the centre, the extra central midfielder was increasingly unnecessary, so a spare body was added to the defensive line. Now playing a 5-2-2-1, with Agger as a covering sweeper, Liverpool soaked up what little pressure and opportunities the hosts threw at them – generally from Albrighton and N’Zogbia on the flanks – with a minimum of effort. When the final whistle came, it signalled a result that had basically been decided over an hour before.

Conclusion: This match was not so much a game that Liverpool won, as one Villa threw away. McLeish got his tactics wrong: the 4-4-2 left his team outnumbered in the centre, and his forwards lacked the quality to worry the Reds’ defence. Even with Agbonlahor and Bent returning, there are questions over the service they receive (or don’t). Liverpool therefore dictated large passages of play, and weren’t really tested. The victory will satisfy the Anfield support, but their team perhaps should have had more goals and put the game to bed, pointing to ongoing problems with finding the net and killing teams off. Villa’s problems mount: they were pretty ineffective up front, lacked creativity in midfield, and were sluggish and unfocused at the back. With three tough matches before the year is out – Arsenal (H), Stoke (A), Chelsea (A) – Villa fans will be eyeing the slim 6 point gap between their club and the relegation zone nervously. Their squad is not deep in stars or even squad players – the untested Johnson and Burke on today’s bench are testament to this – and with fixtures coming thick and fast; an injury to Bent, Agbonlahor or N’Zogbia could leave Villa in a sticky situation towards the end of the season.
Man of the Match: there weren’t a lot of outstanding performances, but Craig Bellamy scored, assisted, and kept Alan Hutton’s attention enough to keep him downfield for a lot of the game.
Fun Fact: Today’s victory at Villa Park was Kenny Dalglish’s first as Liverpool manager.
Fun Fact 2: Reds midfielder Charlie Adam got his competitive debut under Villa boss Alex McLeish at Rangers.

ASTON VILLA: Guzan; Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; Albrighton, Delph (Weimann 80), Petrov, N’Zogbia; Heskey (Bannan 56), Delfouneso. Subs not used: Marshall, Clark, Cuellar, Johnson, Burke.
LIVERPOOL: Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Jose Enrique; Adam, Henderson; Bellamy (Kuyt 88), Shelvey (Carragher 83),  Downing; Suarez (Carroll 73). Subs not used: Doni, Maxi, Coates, Kelly.
Referee: Peter Walton.