Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Dossena
Kuyt Mascherano Lucas Keane
I am not used to Liverpool setting up shop to come away with a point on the road, and I’m not happy about it. Without Gerrard and with Torres going off after 26 minutes thanks to an injury, Liverpool were without invention and rarely looking like getting a goal.
But even before Torres was substituted, Liverpool seemed like they’d be content with a draw. For the first 40 or so minutes, Liverpool played in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Alonso trying to distribute from the back and Keane relegated to the left wing. Keane was often invisible on the flank, Torres was isolated thanks to the five-man midfield, and both teams were unable to break the other down. It took 20 minutes for either side to get a shot off, which Lucas nearly ballooned out of the ground.
Once Torres picked up an injury, clutching his hamstring while chasing down a lost cause (he’ll have a scan on Monday; please don’t let this be serious), Benitez sent on Ngog in his place. I have no idea why Benitez brought the young Frenchman on for his first minutes outside of preseason with Keane struggling in a wide role and Babel (who’s played on the left, and who Liverpool fans desperately want to get a run as a striker) on the bench. Especially in a tough game away from home against an opposition you’re already struggling to break down.
And it continued in the same vein until the 35th, when the legs of Pepe Reina kept Liverpool from going behind after Young got open on the left and cut it back for Carew. Soon after, Keane began playing more centrally with Lucas shifting left, and Liverpool (surprise, surprise!) began to create some chances.
First, Kuyt shot into the side netting after Luke Young’s header fell to him in the 40th. Two minutes later, Keane played a lovely reverse ball to Ngog, who just fired over from the top of the box.
After the break, Liverpool continued to attack more effectively, with the best moment coming in the 52nd after good play between Keane and Lucas led to Alonso getting a shot in space that was deflected over the bar. But aside from one other moment, that would be Liverpool’s last chance at goal. Villa began to see more possession and take the game to the away side. Although the home side still struggled to get shots at goal, Liverpool had to see off a fair few free kicks and corners.
Even though Liverpool were less and less threatening as the half went on, they should have had a penalty in the 73rd. Mascherano put Keane through on goal, but Reo Coker recovered to challenge. It sure looked like Reo Coker caught Keane’s leg when he dove in, causing Keane to mis-hit his shot, but the referee played on and Liverpool were left complaining about a non-call for the second straight game. However, it shouldn’t have gotten to that point; a more confident striker would have buried that chance before Reo Coker could get back.
Although Liverpool had won their last three with late heroics, it was Villa who looked the more likely in the final 10 minutes. Reina had to be aware for Milner’s snap shot in the 83rd, Laursen narrowly missed a header from a free kick in the 85th, and Carragher had to clear another free kick in the six-yard box in the 89th.
Admittedly, a point’s a point, and it’s another point despite a poor performance. This was a game that Liverpool would have lost in previous years. In five matches, the only goal let in was Mido's last weekend, which at least shows some of the defensive improvement we’d hoped for after the last campaign. Thanks to the defense for getting that point, especially Reina, who’s had to make some stellar saves already this season.
But once again, Liverpool’s toothless in attack, even after spending £19.3m on Keane (and relegating him to the left wing for almost an entire half). I can’t think of a shot on target if we’re not counting Alonso’s deflected effort. Not only that, but Liverpool seemed content with a point, which is nowhere near enough ambition for a team with this quality, even when they’re missing key players. And to compound matters, Torres was forced off with an injury early on. Liverpool cannot afford to lose him at a time when they’re struggling for goals.
I still can’t comprehend bringing on Ngog for Torres. I’ve criticized Babel more often than I’d like of late, but he seemingly had to come on there, which would allow him to play in his preferred position or move out to the left to let Keane to play more centrally.
But instead, Benitez chose to blood a player that’s never seen Premiership action, and Babel never even came off the bench. Aurelio came on for Kuyt in the 70th and Benayoun came on for Keane in the 79th. Neither did anything. Meanwhile, Villa brought on two midfielders for defenders in the second half, but there was no one with Babel's speed to attack the Villa back line over the top.
International breaks, especially those early in the season, usually infuriate me. But this one comes at a good time. Hopefully, Gerrard and Torres will both be able to recuperate over the next two weeks, and the team as a whole will be able to get their acts together. It’s a pity so many of the others will be away with their international teams.