Liverpool (3), Aston Villa (0) – Villa Stumble at Anfield

Sunday, September 3

As noted in the Pre-Game Assessment, Liverpool’s come from behind win over Newcastle posed a significant danger for our Villans:

The win should give Sunday’s home team an extra boost of confidence in facing our Villans.  Expect them to be very aggressive in the early going with their “high press” aimed to snatch the lead and further excite their fans. 

So, since Unai Emery is so smart, why did he not prepare for the Reds’ “Gang-Press” effectively enough and for Villa to find a way to counter?  Was it that Villa players had a plan and just were not good enough?  Did our Villans have some bad luck?  Are the Reds just too good?  We can only assume it was a combination of all these factors. 

To start with, Emi Martinez was not able to train properly as he was just coming back from injury and, yes, Liverpool, with their fans’ support, can press as well as any team in the game.  So, it was no surprise that Liverpool created one goal thanks to the press and that two goals were from set-pieces.  Emery will be able to turn these into teachable moments and there is enough talent in his line-up (and on the bench) to be able to defend better next time.

That Liverpool would score was well-nigh inevitable.  The problem was that our Villans could not counter punch!  Certainly, the injury to Carlos in the 17th minute was huge because it had a ripple effect.  It forced Emery to change the formation from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 with Konsa replacing the Brazilian and Cash sliding back to the conventional fullback position with Digne, the other fullback given license to support our Villan attacks.  Only Torres did not have to change too much in adapting to playing left center back.

It was a very subtle change, but it put Cash in the mode of being primarily a defender and not a wing-back, a role he used to great advantage against Burnley scoring Villa’s first two goals.  Five minutes after the change against the Reds, he found himself trying to protect his goal only to run into a Nunez shot rebounding off the post.  A disheartening own goal for Matty and the team.  He was on the scoresheet again, but in the wrong column!

The inclusion of Bailey to fill the void on the right caused by Cash’s reassignment also worked against our best chance to score.  Unable to stay on the right, Leon wandered across the field coincidental with our best chance to score.  Then, as Digne’s low cross from the left flank zipped into the 6-yard box, he almost bumped into Watkins ready for a tap-in.  Poor Ollie was so distracted he missed a sitter.  Cash would not have made that mistake.

It’s not that Emery erred in his line-up change.  Against Liverpool, he undoubtedly wanted his strongest backline possible and Konsa was his best option to replace Carlos and Cash was, and is, his best fullback. Even the best can be affected by circumstances.

Certainly, Emery could not do much about the superior performances of Liverpool’s new midfield trio of Szoboszlai, Mac Allister, and Jones that impacted the play of Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold.  When Villa played at Anfield in May, Trent Alexander-Arnold was not a major influence on the game nor was Mo Salah until the Egyptian assisted on Firmino’s goal in the 89th minute.  The energetic contribution of the new Reds trio gave T.A.A. all the time in the world to pick out his passes and Mo Salah knew what to do with the service.

Back in May, our Villans also benefited from the two-way play of Jacob Ramsey who scored and was quickest to the ball in midfield.  Jacob also gave Digne lots of support in harnessing the Reds scoring machine.  This time, with Ramsey unavailable through injury, Digne was unable to contain Mo Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold was able to spray passes with impunity. 

Enough overview!  So, how did this play out?  To start with, the Reds fans got a boost from seeing Darwin Nunez in the starting eleven.  The faithful were able to recognize his seemingly magical performance in scoring two late goals while playing one man short in the Newcastle game, overcoming a deficit, and stealing all three points.  The roar caused the Uruguayan to beam with glee and anticipation. 

From the kickoff, it was obvious which team was ready and which team was intimidated.  When Villa dallied in passing out of the back, Mo Salah blocked Pau Torres and Nunez joined in forcing Villa’s new Spanish signing to concede a corner.  With less than three minutes on the clock the poorly hit corner evaded everyone in the penalty area and ran to one of Klopp’s excellent additions, the young Dominik Szoboszlai, the Hungarian national team captain at the tender age of 22.  He ran onto the ball and launched a blistering shot with his left foot, on the fly, that was untouched as it entered the net at Martinez’s left post.  Our goalie could only watch.  Liverpool (1), Aston Villa (0), and the crowd erupted.  It was the youngster’s first Premier League goal!

With Villa still recovering from the shock of that, they managed to resist another Reds attack, but at a cost of an injury to Diego Carlos.  It had the eerie feeling of a Newcastle déjà vu when it forced another Villa center back to withdraw from the game.  Emery made the changes previously described and soon after Trent Alexander-Arnold was able to tee-up a pass down the right flank for Salah to run onto a step ahead of Digne.  Nunez outraced both Villa center backs and Salah’s pass was pinpoint.   Darwin hit it first time, attempting to find room between the advancing Emi Martinez and our goalie’s left goal post only for the shot to hit the post and rebound into the path of the rapidly retreating Matty Cash.  Villa’s Polish international could not evade the ball striking his legs and ricocheting into the back of the net.  Liverpool (2), Aston Villa (0), in the 22nd minute.  Villa’s scoring hero against Burnley turned into a “goat” just a week later.

It could have been worse as Joel Matip was all alone to receive a perfect delivery from a set-piece only to see his header go wide of Martinez’s left post in the 27th minute.

Slowly our Villans started to get some traction into the game.  An excellent break by Diaby, who took advantage of Joe Gomez’s stumble to break drive into the penalty area, culminated in a slide rule pass to the arriving John McGinn.  Unfortunately, our normally reliable captain blazed the opportunity over the bar.  That was in the 33rd minute.  Still, the side came back and fashioned an even better opportunity as previously described but Ollie Watkins, distracted by Leon Bailey, shot wide in the 38th minute.

Within a minute, the ball, courtesy of another Nunez shot, rebounded off the bar and, this time, Matty Cash headed clear.  It was end-to-end action with both sides anxious to get the ball in the net prior to the halftime whistle.  The most impressive effort was by Moussa Diaby who, when confronted by Joe Gomez, shaped a left-footed curler around the defender that was just a whisker outside the left post.

Of course, Mo Salah seized the final opportunity, forcing Emi Martinez to fully extend himself to tip the drive over and maintain the game within reach. 

Our Villans started the second half much better than the first and Matty Cash almost made amends for his unfortunate own goal when he nailed a bullet of a header at short-range from a Digne cross.  Allison showed incredible reflexes to parry away.

Nunez had a much easier opportunity to get on the scoresheet when all he had to do was get his head to an exquisite cross from Salah at the far post.  A gaping net awaited.  Instead, he steered the header the wrong side of the upright.

With our Villa still holding a chance to claw their way back into the game, the usual suspects made sure to close that window.  Trent Alexander-Arnold worked his way down the right wing against McGinn and Digne and squeezed out a corner for his efforts.  Andy Robertson ran all the way from his spot at left-back to take the kick.  It was a left-footed inswinger that Nunez ran towards and flicked on with his noggin and Salah was there to meet the ball on the bounce in the six-yard box for the easiest of tap-ins.  Digne, outhustled, threw his head back in frustration.  Not a good day for the Frenchman.

It was Liverpool (3), Aston Villa (0), in the 55th minuteand the game was essentially decided.  Villa’s manager spared Watkins having to put unnecessary effort into a losing cause, after having already introduced Nicolò Zaniolo for Leon Bailey, and Tielemans for Douglas Luiz.  While the manager would have been reassured by Zaniolo who looked like he belonged, he must have winced at the lack of effectiveness of Tielemans, and the immaturity of Duran (on for Watkins) as he recklessly attempted to score twice from impossible angles when teammates were available and then compounded his errors by acting truculently.

The Colombian soon saw what he should have done when teammate Moussa Diaby, who played to his utmost throughout the game, was able send a perfect pass across the 6-yard box in the 84th minute, a pass that a mature Duran would have anticipated and scored from.

As for the rest of the squad, Konsa was consistently outstanding, Diaby was industrious and always a threat.  It’s not that Villa played badly; it was that they were never given the opportunity to get into a rhythm.

For Liverpool, the opposite is true.  Out of the box, they were a threat and always looked both composed on defense and dangerous on offense.  Based on this outstanding performance, Liverpool, are now seen as a likely top-four finisher.  With Newcastle losing three games in a row and Manchester United sputtering, only Manchester City and Arsenal seemed solid front-runners.  Spurs frequently flatter to deceive and West Ham do not appear to have a deep enough squad to maintain their current excellent form.  Brighton are often brilliant but find ways to lose games they shouldn’t.  Klopp, on the other hand, must already feel confident about his Reds.

Meanwhile, our Villans have won handily against Burnley and Everton and lost at two very inhospitable locations (St. James Park and Anfield).  If we can build upon our 8-game Premier Legue home winning streak against, in order, Crystal Palace, Everton, Brighton, West Ham, Luton, and Fulham while picking up points away to Chelsea, Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Spurs, Bournemouth, and Brentford, we should be heading into December in good shape as our young team matures and solidifies, especially with Ramsey and Moreno coming back into the fold.

Ideally, Carlos’s injury is minor, and Cash can revert to his wing-back role.

Liverpool: Alisson Becker, Alexander-Arnold (Quansah 71′), Matip, Gomez, Robertson, Szoboszlai, Mac Allister (Endo 87′), Jones (Elliott 65′), Mohamed Salah, Núñez (Gakpo 65′), Díaz (Jota 65′)

Unused Subs: Tsimikas, Bajcetic, Doak, Kelleher

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Diego Carlos (Bailey 19′, Zaniolo 65′), Torres, Digne, Cash, Kamara, Douglas Luiz (Tielemans 72′), McGinn, Diaby, Watkins (Durán 73′)

Unused Subs:  Chambers, Lenglet, Olsen, Dendoncker, Kellyman

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