What a feeling of déjà vu in that first 45 minutes, before going into first half stoppage time. Remember last season when Christian Benteke hit a shot outside the box that went in off the post, before his clever back heel allowed Andreas Weimann to send Paul Lambert’s side two up? Well, we all know what happened after that.
This was slightly different though. For that all that possession and chances in this game last season, Liverpool felt hard done when Benteke broke the deadlock against the run of play. This time though, Brendan Rodgers’ men were overrun and outrun in the first-half, and were deservedly trailing. Simon Mignolet will have to look at himself once again after his flap allowed his Belgium compatriot a free header towards an open net.
First issue here is Mignolet’s form. After an inspiring start to his Anfield career, the Reds’ Belgium stopper has since entered a bad run of form, starting with his weak flap at Alvaro Negredo’s goal at Manchester City. Then his weak attempt to keep out Samuel Eto’o’s effort at Chelsea. At the Britannia, Mignolet mistake allowed Stoke back into the game at 4-3, after somehow failing to stop a slow Jon Walter’s shot that was literally beside him. Then last night against Villa, his flap meant Liverpool went two behind. The issue here is Rodgers brave enough to drop Mignolet and play Brad Jones? It’s almost for sure Jones will get the gloves against Bournemouth in the FA Cup next week, but if he impresses once again like he did against Oldham, will Rodgers play Jones in the Merseyside derby? Right now, Mignolet’s slew of errors puts him in worse form than Jones, and if Rodgers is truly playing players based on form, Jones should start the next couple of key Premier League matches against Everton and Arsenal.
Another person arguably at fault for the draw yesterday was Rodgers himself. Tactical naivety on his part? Complacency? Or forgetting how Villa thumped Liverpool at Anfield last season? Most fans knew that playing all four offensive players was ideal on paper, but no where possible on the pitch. That meant leaving Jordan Henderson and skipper Steven Gerrard to marshall three Villa midfielders and Benteke, who drops deep to create space for Gabby Agbonlahor to run onto. Playing a 4-4-2 was not the worse call, but any fan would know with Gerrard’s ageing legs, he needs Lucas beside him and Henderson on either flank tucking in, forming a three men central midfield when necessary.
With Raheem Sterling in great form, continuing against Villa’s new on-loan left-back Ryan Bertrand, Philipp Coutinho’s lack of finishing ability should have saw him dropped, given a break and a chance to rethink his creative ideas. This could easily shift to a 4-3-3 with either SAS going into the flank Henderson was meant to occupy.
Rodgers cannot ignore his defence anymore. Maybe he thought by outscoring Stoke last weekend, his side could outscore every team? Too many goals has been conceded, but plastered over by the brilliance of Luis Suarez and the immensely impressive attacking play. However when the Villa defence superbly denied Suarez and co., you simply need your defence to stay firm to give the attack a platform and chance to find a way through Villa’s defence. This display reemphasised how lacking Liverpool’s defence is right now. Glen Johnson, along with Mignolet, needs to be dropped and given a kick up his backside; Martin Kelly, should he impress again against Bournemouth, should start with Jones. Kolo Toure’s career resurgence at the start has been going downhill, not least because he is playing at his less favoured left centre-back position, but again he looked too incapable. And then there’s Aly Cissokho. For all his “decent” defensive displays, he looked awful in defence today, and even worse going forward. He wasn’t running out of ideas, he simply has none. By-line, cross to space. That’s all he knows.
Gerrard, in his new role, cannot be risked against higher opposition, just simply seeing how five goals has been conceded in just two games. Lucas can rest easy knowing his place in the team is safe after this result. Maybe another defensive midfielder is needed. But Gerrard and Henderson, for all his energy and running, lack the tactical discipline required to hold a two-men central midfield.
Away to Bournemouth for the FA Cup. Never an easy game, but with Roberto Martinez’s side visiting Anfield three days later and potentially displacing the Reds in fourth, Rodgers must view the derby as a must-win game and subsequently put the FA Cup tie in the back-burner.
The return of a 3-5-2 should be Rodgers’ next move. Even if he doesn’t want to drop Johnson, the best solution could be for Johnson to move to left wing-back. With lesser defensive responsibilities than a right-back, Johnson could rediscover some form and also reduce the need to play Cissokho. Sterling will move into right wing-back, and seems more than capable of defending recently.
A back three of Kelly, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho with a three men midfield consisting of Joe Allen, Coutinho and Luis Alberto, with Sturridge and Iago Aspas up top. This is more of a test and familiarity exercise for the Reds before utilising this formation against Everton. With that being said, Suarez should come on for Aspas at some point, while Lucas will replace Coutinho in the second-half so as to give Rodgers the real gauge of this formation with his current strongest eleven.
Bournemouth will just be the game for Rodgers to transit the Reds back into the 3-5-2 formation, a win should come, but I would prefer a defeat than a draw and a replay. The three Premier League games where West Brom away is sandwiched between two home ties against Everton and Arsenal should be the main concern for Rodgers, not excluding his leaking defence.