A fluent, though rather wasteful, first game against Stoke City needed Simon Mignolet’s terrific late double save (from a penalty and rebound) to secure 3 points that should have been secured long previously. Though the saves were clearly not as crucial as Dudek’s famous double save against Shevchenko, they were nevertheless critical in converting a rather nervy first game for the Belgian into a morale boosting one.
Overall the football was smooth and silky, with decent possession stats (55.3%) and chances created (25 shots with 11 on target).
The win over Aston Villa was just as valuable, but rather different in its execution. Liverpool played well in the first half, but despite creating good positions in the final third didn’t convert them into many clear chances. Aspas and Coutinho weren’t quite at their best and the team relied heavily on Daniel Sturridge.
An excellent move, with a thoughtful dummy by Coutinho, was ended by a wonderful dribble by Sturridge leading to the winning goal. However Villa dominated the second half, and while they didn’t have too many one on one chances, were able to get plenty of shots away- 17 in total, though only 3 on target (to Liverpool’s meagre 5, with the goal being the only goal-bound effort).
The most interesting theme for me was how Brendan Rodgers was willing to be pragmatic with his tactics in relation to the Barcelona type style he has tried to implement. Don’t get me wrong, Liverpool wanted to play the same football in the second half as the first; that we didn’t was due to a number of factors, not least added verve and pressing by Villa and nervous play on our behalf trying to defend just a single goal.
However in his first season, on too many occasions, including our previous Villa game where Benteke ran riot, we consistently maintained a high line regardless of whether the opposition had pacey forwards or were a counter-attacking team.
In this game, when our own brand of football was not getting out of gear in the second half, the defensive line retreated to the edge of the 18 yard box to ensure few balls could be played behind Agger and Toure (who was excellent again). During the game I had thought this was simply as a result of the Villa pressure, but Rodgers insisted in his post-match interviews that the team had prepared for such an eventuality in order to negate the pace in behind of Agbonlahor, Benteke and Weimann.
If we do, then Rodgers can take an equitable dose of credit for the successful rearguard action against Villa, if not and the team still drops to the 18 yard line regardless of the type of opposition forwards then our deep line against Villa was most probably due to fear rather than planning.
Regardless, an away win against an organised Villa that beat Arsenal, were unlucky not to do the same against Chelsea and have one of the top strikers in the league is still a very good result. They are now a much stronger unit than the one that finished in the bottom 6 for the previous two seasons.
Last season Rodgers, at times, showed a lack of flexibility in adapting his system to the opposition or indeed the characteristics of our own defenders. I wrote in an article in Febuary, and on a number of other occasions, how our centre-backs had grown up playing deeper during their Liverpool and international careers. They weren’t well suited to hold a high line as they hadn’t much experience playing that way, didn’t have the pace to play that way or weren’t that strong one on one against an agile attacker.
Kolo Toure, despite being 32, has played that way, particularly during his Arsenal days, and the others have had a year more experience understanding and becoming more comfortable. However until we buy a lightening quick centre-back (Andre Wisdom is probably our fastest at present but also our most junior), making pragmatic defensive tactical decisions when tiki-taka or our pressing game isn’t quite working is the right way to go.
The season is long, but Brendan Rodgers seems to have shown signs that he’s learnt a number of lessons from his first season. Another example is that a fully fit Joe Allen has played just 7 minutes of Premier League football so far, and I for one think the team has been stronger for it.
I’m not totally writing Allen off yet, but for Rodgers to recognise his mistakes of last season and correct them shows that he’s improved. Let’s hope the team also continues to do so.
You can catch more from me on my own blog: http://taintlessred.blogspot.co.uk/