The Villains came into the match in seventeenth place, seven points behind the Reds, with just one away win and three away goals from their previous eight away league games.
Villa were up against a Liverpool outfit which looked to be gaining some real momentum after recording back to back wins in the league for the first time this season and, despite a run of just two defeats in their previous nine league games, few anticipated that Paul Lambert’s men would provide too stern a test for Rodgers’s Reds.
Before the match Liverpool fans, myself included, had been looking at the next four fixtures, home games vs Aston Villa and Fulham, followed up by trips to Stoke and QPR, as a chance to get some points on the board in the run up to New Year, with an eye on being right in the mix for a top four challenge come the January transfer window. Now, however, the wind has been taken out of our sails somewhat and we’ve been left pondering some familiar problems after Paul Lambert’s side ruthlessly exposed our deficiencies, exploiting them clinically and to great effect.
All Reds fans, and most of the footballing world, is well aware that we lack options up front, and yesterday this glaring fault was again all too often in evidence. It’s been well documented that Rodgers was thwarted in his efforts to bring in further attacking options in the summer; since then Rodgers has relied on youth in the wide positions, with Sterling now an ever present and Suso and Shelvey regularly being asked to take up a position in the front three. For the most part the youngsters have done well, however yesterday and not for the first time this season, the pitfalls of relying on youth were all too apparent.
Liverpool lack decisive players when it comes to the final third, of that there can be no doubt. So often this season, the Reds have moved the ball fantastically until the final twenty yards of the pitch and, once there, the player with the ball hesitates, dallies and inevitably picks out the wrong ball or the move breaks down because the pass is mistimed or inaccurate. This phenomenon was particularly in evidence at Anfield on Saturday when on numerous occasions promising moves simply fizzled out and came to nothing.
I am a big fan of Raheem Sterling, however it seems clear that his level has dropped in recent weeks. This is to be expected given that the lad has just turned 18 (perhaps all this contract talk has also affected his game) but I can’t help feeling that he’s more effective from the left rather than the right. Having seen him play on both flanks on several occasions, he carries more of a threat coming from the left as he tends to stay narrower and offer better support to Suarez.
Sterling is a weapon, but he’s one that should be used sparingly at the moment. The lack of squad depth and the injury to Fabio Borini has afforded Rodgers little opportunity to rest the teenager and we’re beginning to see his effectiveness curtailed, particularly when he’s deployed on the right. When he plays from the left, he offers far more of a goal threat, links the play better and can go either way which gives defenders a real problem.
When he plays from the right he tends to hug the touchline, not allowing Johnson to get on the overlap where he’s more effective. Although he regularly had the beating of Lichaj on Saturday, Sterling’s final ball was often poor and was all too frequently just tossed into the box with little effort to pick out a man. While this may be an effective weapon for teams who flood the box or have more height in their team, it hasn’t worked for Liverpool for a number of seasons, just ask Stewart Downing.
That brings me onto the England winger. Downing has enjoyed a return to the first team in recent games, particularly in the Europa League, as a converted left back. Whilst he played there for Boro on a number of occasions, notably on their run to the UEFA Cup final, and he’s put in a couple of alright performances for Liverpool playing from there, he isn’t a left back – certainly not a good enough one to be starting for Liverpool in the Premier League.
After the opening 20 minutes against his former club in which he played quite well, Downing’s influence on the game waned, as it does with monotonous regularity, and he was caught on his heels for Villa’s second goal. Downing has apparently now been told he can leave the club and for my money it’s not a moment too soon. The way I see it, the Downing experiment has been a catastrophic failure and we should cut our losses on him at the earliest possible juncture, freeing up the wages for a player that can actually bring something positive and consistent to the party.
Unfortunately Rodgers’s squad is still littered with the mistakes of managers past, the most glaring of which is Joe Cole. After spending a season away from the club on loan, Rodgers has brought Cole back into the squad with most fans dead against the move. The thinking behind it, for me, seems to be either to put him in the shop window or, because we have so few goals in the team, Rodgers is willing to risk Cole’s tactical indiscipline and lack of fitness/stamina in the knowledge that he is capable of hitting the back of the net. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two, but surely after Saturday Rodgers will conclude that the risk is not one worth taking.
Against Villa the introduction of Joe Cole cost us almost immediately as, just minutes after being brought on as a half-time substitute, Cole dallied in possession and was robbed by Benteke, allowing the powerhouse Belgian forward to go on and register the killer third goal. Cole simply has to go and if he can’t be sold, his contract should be terminated, he is not a player I ever want to see near the Liverpool first team – in one word, liability!
There’s no doubt that the Reds’ squad is thin, we need a left back, an attacking midfielder and at least two forwards who can also play wide however, I can’t help but feel that sometimes Rodgers doesn’t make the best use of the players he has at his disposal. For the most part Rodgers has been tactically aware and his tactics have worked, his in game management has been good at times and lucky at times, but his reasons for changes have been sound and the stats have borne out that the player replaced has been the correct one in nearly all cases. Yet he’s not without his faults and some of his decisions have left me scratching my head.
I cannot understand for the life of me why Rodgers hasn’t tried Gerrard further forward as either part of the front three or as the top attacking midfielder. Instead of replacing Shelvey with Cole on Saturday, would it not have been more logical and effective to move Shelvey back into the midfield and push Gerrard further forward? Gerrard carries a much greater goal threat than Cole and is tactically far better and Shelvey, who’s got goals in him. In fact why was that not the way the team lined up from the start? Rodgers isn’t getting the best out of Gerrard and in my opinion it’s because he’s using him in the wrong position. Playing Gerrard in the middle and asking him to do all that legwork is hindering rather than helping the team. Not only are we lacking potency in attack but also legs in the middle of the pitch, particularly with Lucas still returning to match fitness, and Villa simply exposed that yesterday with the energy they had in their midfield.
Surely after his performances of late Jordan Henderson should be starting in there. Henderson provides the energy that our midfield was sorely bereft of on Saturday and it’s no surprise that we visibly improved following his introduction. There’s the argument that Henderson is being held back to replace Lucas after 60-70 minutes but isn’t that a waste of a valuable resource? Especially when you consider that Nuri Sahin is in the squad and can naturally come on in place of Lucas if and when the Brazilian tires.
Aston Villa were excellent and I tip my hat to Paul Lambert who appears to be building something real at Villa Park for the first time in a long time. Villa played excellent football and expertly and clinically exposed our frailties and punished them accordingly. They beat us at our own game, capitalising on their extra energy in midfield they harried us relentlessly after weathering our slight early storm, moved the ball quickly, displayed the decisiveness in the final third that was conspicuously absent from our lads and, in Benteke, they had easily the best player on the pitch on the day.
Nothing can be taken away from Aston Villa, they thoroughly deserved the victory and played in a way which made a mockery of their lowly standing in the league. However, this result should act as a wake-up for Brendan Rodgers and his side. The shortcomings which were exposed can and must be dealt with before next week’s game with Fulham and, provided that’s done, we can still be in the mix come January. What we can’t afford is to ignore the problems and to blame the result on poor finishing or bad luck. This is around the time when the wheels began to come unstuck last season and, although circumstances would appear to be different, Rodgers will have to take care to ensure that they don’t fall off again this year.
We can look at statistics and feel hard done by but, truth be told, from the minute they hit the front, Villa were the better team by quite a distance. That is the issue that must be resolved, we must be better all over the pitch in the games to come and if that means that Rodgers has to take some tough decisions and re-think tactics and personnel/positions in the run up to January then so be it. This is a crucial part of the season for us, what we do now could have a major effect on our activity in the transfer market come January, and therefore how we’ll perform in the rest of the season. Rodgers must realise this and act accordingly; now is the time.
You can catch up with Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/