Liverpool (1), Aston Villa (0) – Villa Fail to Thwart Mo Salah

This was for all, but a moment, a game of thirds.  Not time, but zone thirds.  Gerrard decided that our Villans best opportunity to get something out of this game against Liverpool at Anfield was to frustrate their efforts to create and score goals.

The Reds team that Klopp was able to field had no weaknesses.  From the superb Alisson to the phenomenal Salah, they were world class.  Still, such is soccer that a well-coached team with a good game plan can effectively make up for their deficiencies and hold their own, if not prevail.

Gerrard correctly assessed that the one area of the field that his Villa team would not be overrun would be the back third.  Villa’s combination of Emi Martinez complemented by our Villans’ excellent backline of Cash, Konsa, Mings, and Targett can stop just about any team from scoring.

That he could select one of the best defensive midfields (McGinn, Nakamba, and Luiz) to support them meant that goals were going to be extremely hard to get.

That this strategy did not immediately inspire confidence in Villa fans was not surprising.  Even with Ramsey lining up more as a midfielder, meaning that we had four of ours facing Liverpool’s Henderson, Fabinho, and Thiago, the Reds trio dominated early possession and our goalie and defense could not find anyone capable of holding the ball.

As early as the first minute, the Reds were able to put a high press on Martinez and he had to be very calm and skillful, to not get caught in possession.  One strategy that did seem to work was to have Jacob Ramsey run with the ball.  Even Fabinho was forced to foul our talented Academy graduate.

Another technique that the Reds forwards use is the quick give and go in the penalty area.  Most defenses like to run a little interference to slow the action, but Mané can look convincingly fouled when, in reality it was incidental contact.  Matty Cash almost got caught by an example of this in the 8th minute when the Senegalese international tumbled after the slightest touches (this was, of course, after the pass was a little behind him). Fortunately, referee Stuart Attwell shrugged off Mané’s unconvincing plea.

When the Reds conjured up a sharp play in the 13th minute, we were fortunate to have Targett back from a short injury break.  Salah unselfishly stepped over a Mané pass with Trent Alexander-Arnold better positioned, but Matt was ready to block the blast from the England international.

In the 13th minute we were reminded that with Firmino, Jota, and Origi injured, the Reds were missing a real striker and employing the alternative of a false 9, with Oxlade-Chamberlain in that capacity.  The reminder was the effective running of Ollie Watkins who managed to not only hold-off van Dijk but to get behind him at the Reds’ goal line.  It took a wrestling hold to keep Ollie from breaking free and van Dijk was rewarded with a yellow card. 

The angle was tight, and Luiz attempted to sneak a shot in at the near post.  Douglas was originally in the Liverpool system but let go.  That made it personal.  He hit the side netting – wasteful. 

Finding that all the possession was leading to a stream of crosses from the right that Mings was eating up, Klopp’s team adapted and aimed beyond the penalty spot for Robertson.  That led to a decent header, that was partially blocked by Cash but almost handcuffed our goalie.  He quickly recovered.

The only shot attempts that reached Martinez were deflections and they added a little excitement but did not unduly concern Emi.  In fact, it was an opportunity for Young that was more dangerous.  He beat Alisson to the ball in the Reds penalty area and headed over the goalie who was in no-man’s land.  Fortunately for Allison and the Reds, Young’s attempt to lob over the 6’ 5” Joel Matip was headed clear by the German.  That was in the 30th minute and it signaled a period of intense Liverpool pressure.

For all their endeavor, the only danger was posed by Mo Salah taking an excellent Fabinho pass and then cutting inside Mings to zip a left-footed shot to Martinez’s right post that the goalie comfortably blocked.

The best effort all game was the product of Liverpool’s defense.  It came in the second half, and it was from a Robertson corner that van Dijk reached on the run in the 6-yard box only for his bullet-header to be acrobatically pushed over the bar by Martinez.

Closing in on 60 minutes, both managers required subs.  Nakamba had taken a knock and Gerrard replaced him by Sanson.  In fact, the Frenchman replaced Ramsey as the all-purpose midfielder, Ramsey took Luiz’s spot on the right and Luiz moved into the holding midfielder role that the Zimbabwean had performed so impressively.

Klopp sent on the less than 100% Jota to perform a real striker role in place of Oxlade-Chamberlain.  Perhaps it was the presence of a real scoring threat that unnerved Mings into fouling Salah but, as described in the Welcome Page, that changed everything.  Certainly, it changed the score: Liverpool 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 65th minute.

Playing from behind, Gerrard brought on Buendia for Young, and Ings for Ramsey, and it almost paid off.  Alisson again muffed a clearance and it almost fell for Ings enticing Alisson to flap wildly and he came close to clattering Ings and conceding a penalty.  Then a brilliant run down the left touchline by Watkins was followed by a brilliant cross that Ings was tracking only for the imperious van Dijk to ease into the former Liverpool player and move him away from the flight of the ball.  So smooth and effective, no Villa player even appealed to the referee.

Two penalties, one given.

Game over, Liverpool hang on, 1-0.

Liverpool: Alisson, van Dijk, Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Fabinho, Henderson, Thiago (Milner 84′), Mané (Minamino 88′), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Diogo Jota 58′), Mohamed Salah

Subs: Tsimikas, Gomez, Keïta, Milner, Konaté, Kelleher, Minamino, Williams, Diogo Jota

Aston Villa: Martinez, Cash, Targett, Mings, Konsa, Douglas Luiz, Nakamba (Sanson 57′), McGinn, Jacob Ramsey (Ings 74′), Watkins, Young (Buendía 69′)

Subs: Carney Chukwuemeka, Hause, Trézéguet, Steer, Sanson, Ings, Buendía, Tuanzebe, El Ghazi

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