After their scintillating display at White Hart Lane before the international break, this was to be a game where Liverpool underscored their top four credentials and put a halt to Aston Villa’s tidy start to the season.
That it was nothing of the sort will have left Reds fans scratching their heads, and perhaps asking fundamental questions about where their side is headed this season.
Brendan Rodgers likes his players to be problem solvers on the pitch, so he’ll have been troubled by their inability to answer the questions posed by a Villa side whose tactical plan played out to perfection.
There were extenuating circumstances on Saturday, of course. Injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Joe Allen, for instance. The former’s ability to find and create space, his foraging runs and deadly finishing were sadly lacking. And as for the Welshman – well, sometimes you don’t miss what you’ve got til its gone.
Liverpool fans will doubtless also point to the fact that their front four of Mario Balotelli, Lazar Markovic, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho – three of whom were making their home or full debuts – had never played together competitively. Resting Raheem Sterling will also be seen as crucial by some – but in reality, he never really looked like changing the course of the game when he came on.
But ultimately, talk of injuries and teething problems shouldn’t be allowed obscure the comfortable way in which Villa kept the Reds at arm’s length in a game the visitors ultimately controlled, rather than dominated, from the first whistle.
Based on this season’s early exchanges, and reinforced by Saturday’s tepid display, I can’t help wondering about the extent to which Liverpool have been worked out by their opponents. After all, the element of surprise is gone, gone like Luis Suarez.
And then there’s the question of Steven Gerrard. Can he reprise his excellence in that deep-lying playmaker role of last season. And if he can’t, to what extent (and how quickly) can Liverpool adapt?
These concerns are related because Gerrard’s role was such a big part of how Liverpool played last season. And the manner in which Villa rendered him an irrelevance on Saturday got me thinking of elephants and rooms and the inevitable decline of all footballers, even legends.
Paul Lambert and his backroom team deserve great credit for Saturday’s tactical triumph. The clever deployment of Gabby Agbonlahor as Gerrard’s shadow had a major influence on the game. Gerrard either lacked the legs or the nous – or both – to find himself space and time to influence proceedings, and Liverpool struggled to find any kind of rhythm, penetration or momentum as a result.
Instead, centre halves Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren were often left uncomfortably in possession and having to make the play – a task that was ultimately beyond them. And while Rodgers’s decision to flip the Gerrard and Jordan Henderson roles half way through the first half threatened to change things fleetingly, ultimately the skipper added little further forward and the former Sunderland man failed to provide a Gerrard-like influence from deep.
Gerrard’s role last season was not as a traditional defensive midfielder as we know it in this part of the world. Rather, he was deployed as a deep-lying, constructive and creative force, another layer in a team laden with ideas and creative options. His inadequacies defensively were outweighed by his ability to create something from nothing from a position that seemed to befuddle most opponents.
His influence and excellence in that role last season is in stark contrast to his anaemic performances thus far this term. Moreover, worryingly for Liverpool, Saturday showed that you can’t just slot another player in there and get the same effect and raised questions about how Liverpool will cope should other opponents follow Paul Lambert’s lead.
The shackling of the Liverpool captain wasn’t the only tactical ploy of interest from Villa. The roles of Andreas Weimann and Kieran Richardson were also key in the Villa plan. Positioned high up and wide, they worked diligently with those behind them to deny Liverpool’s fullbacks easy passage down the flanks. This strategy, allied to the depth of Villa’s defending and the compact and combative nature of their midfield, denied Liverpool space in the kinds of areas they like to exploit. A tactical conundrum Liverpool’s manager and players failed to overcome.
So ultimately, this was no lucky smash and grab by Villa. No backs against the wall battle, seat of the pants operation. It was a deserved win born of good tactical planning, discipline and organisation. And the ease with which they disarmed Liverpool should perturb Reds fans.