18 December 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa

Bellamy 11'
Skrtel 15'

Winning with ease when not on top form is far more fun than frustrating draws or defeats when dominant. Still, if not for converting the first two corners within 15 minutes, Liverpool could well be ruing more missed chances and more effort rebounding off wider-than-normal goal posts. That narrative's not going away.

Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 formation, with Shelvey replacing Kuyt in a free role behind Suarez and Bellamy in Maxi's stead, announced the game plan. The away side were content to smother and nullify the opposition while playing for the counter-attack and set plays, allowing frequently goal-shy Villa (missing its top two attackers) less than zero time and space in the final third.

Those tactics paid off quickly thanks to Villa's abysmal set play defending. It was easy to see how they'd conceded more than a third of their goals from corners. All involved stood still as statutes while Suarez then Bellamy attempted to prod in Shelvey's near-post flick for the opener. Four minutes later, Skrtel's straight run across the six-yard box easily freed him from both Dunne and Hutton, although his header had to be perfectly placed to beat Guzan.

Two goals to the good, rather than the usual tenuous one (at best), meant Liverpool could focus on cementing defense solidity. Villa took 16 shots, 11 in the first half. Just three came from inside the penalty box (one in the first half). None troubled Reina. But Liverpool only threatened once more before the interval, with Guzan saving Shelvey's point-blank toe-poke in the 38th, set up by Suarez after nutmegging Petrov on the break.

The away side should have extended its lead in the 15 minutes after the restart, with five excellent opportunities to exterminate the game once and for all, denied by a mixture of poor finishing, decent saves, and that blasted woodwork. Agger headed wide after continuing his bursting run forward, Suarez cheekily hit both bar and post on separate delightfully-created chances, Guzan saved Johnson's swerving bolt, and Adam saw his selfish shot on the counter deflected just wide with Shelvey open and screaming for the ball. It's a good thing that Liverpool didn't need those goals. For once. The side's 17 shots off the frame is more than 15 of 20 Premiership sides had through all of last season. Suarez remains the only player to hit the woodwork more than once in a match, and he's done it twice this season.

The last thirty minutes were a mere formality. Liverpool stopped sending so many forward when countering, Villa remained wholly unable to penetrate a resolute back line. That Dalglish used all three subs – Carroll for Suarez, Kuyt for Bellamy, and Carragher for Shelvey (playing as a holding midfielder!) – seems the only matter of note.

Villa were absolutely dire, as in last season's Anfield meeting, devoid of confidence and shorn of the two players with any attacking competence. That Liverpool rendered them more hopeless than usual – while scoring twice for only the sixth time in 16 games – can't be overlooked, though. Some credit has to go to Dalglish's tactics, both in nullifying Villa's attack and exposing a slow back line with direct counter-attacks. And it's been more than a year since Liverpool scored twice from corners, Liverpool's third and fourth goals from corners this season.

The defense was the star of the show: Johnson and Enrique bombed down the flanks, Skrtel was successful in all of his tackles and aerial duels again, and Agger completely blunted the already-blunt Heskey. Bellamy's probably man of the match, scoring one and making one. Downing had another good game on the right of midfield; while still assist-less, he played a crucial role in taking Liverpool's first corner. Shelvey did well in his first start, trying to dictate play from a free role high up the pitch. Suarez, usually hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, merited at least one goal, pressing furiously from the front.

If it were eight months ago, this would have been another 5-0 or 5-2 romp a la Brum or Fulham, but we'll have to be satisfied with a comfortable 2-0. Yes, Liverpool should have had more – not the first time that's been written this season – but two goals is more than Liverpool have scored at Villa Park since 2007-08, which required an unfathomable Gerrard free kick in the dying seconds for three points. Liverpool now have five wins away from Anfield in eight matches, which is the same total taken through all of last season. Regrettable losses against Stoke and Fulham aside, Dalglish and Clarke have so far solved Liverpool's away day calculus.

Now Liverpool just need to calculate a way to convert more of its chances and remove that bedeviling woodwork from the equation.

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