Benteke 29' 51'
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
The lesson, as always, is never ever get optimistic about Liverpool. It is inevitably a lie. There are no turning points.
So much for the belief that a resilient comeback victory at West Ham marked a new dawn. Nope. Same old Liverpool, with the added bonus of conceding multiple times to a side that Liverpool had no business conceding against in the first place.
Credit where due: Lambert's three-at-the-back strategy nullified Liverpool, and Villa were undeniably potent on the counter-attack. Benteke caused even more problems than Carlton Cole last week, and was far, far better in front of goal and with the ball at his feet. But it's hard to give the opposition manager full credit when we've seen similar so often. The fact that Villa kept a clean sheet through the opening 30 minutes was due to Liverpool wastefulness as much as Villa defending. During that spell, Liverpool's pass accuracy in the final third was a paltry 66%, with just three completed passes into the penalty area and one chance created. A disciplined, determined defense surely played its part, but awful final balls from Gerrard, Suarez, and Johnson – Liverpool's three best attackers – did as much to prevent an opening goal.
And then came the stomach punch. Well, stomach punches. It's hard to decide which of Villa's three goals was the most infuriating. Two started with Liverpool giveaways; sandwiched between was Liverpool's tender underbelly carved open like a Thanksgiving turkey.
For the first, Suarez lost possession at the halfway line, Lichaj and Holman moved the ball down the flank, Holman laid off to Benteke, and no one (read: Joe Allen) closed the striker down, as Benteke rammed a shot just off the inside of the near post from more than 20 yards out.
The second began as Bannan spun away from Gerrard in his own half, pushing the ball forward for Weimann and Benteke's attack. The two strikers sliced and diced through Liverpool's midfield; Weimann's throughball seemingly took Benteke too far wide, but a brilliant backheel removed Skrtel from the picture, setting up a wide-open Weimann on the penalty spot, with neither Agger nor Allen tracking his run and Downing unable to cover in time. Just a wonderful goal. Unless you're a Liverpool fan, in which case it's utterly soul-killing.
Both were regrettable, both were avoidable, but the third was probably the most exasperating. Cole stupidly lost possession in his own half, turning into trouble after receiving the pass from Allen, allowing Holman to intercept and hand off to Benteke. The striker ran unhindered at Liverpool's dishelved defense – Skrtel backed off and Allen recovered too late and too weakly – ambling into the box before blasting past Reina from 12 yards out. Maybe someone tackle the striker who's caused Liverpool so many problems before he gets that far, yes?
And in the meantime, Liverpool were summarily awful from the moment the first goal went in until the final whistle. No cohesion in midfield or attack, little self-belief, lots and lots of standing around, and lots and lots of crosses to no one in particular. The substitutions that worked against West Ham added nothing today, with Cole at fault for Villa's third and Henderson unable to add much to Liverpool's attack in place of Lucas, especially with Villa determined to defend resolutely when ahead by such a comfortable margin. Once again, Liverpool attackers were massively outnumbered when inside the penalty area, all too often resorting to shots from distance (14 – six off-target, six blocked) and crosses (44, with just nine "successful"). Liverpool's attack made it easy for Villa. Liverpool's attack needs to stop making it easy for opposition defenses.
Gerrard's consolation was nothing more than that, another notch on the bedpost against the side he's scored against more than any other. Johnson attempted another shot from long range – able to replicate his brilliant strike last week with none of them – but this time, Gerrard's stooping header redirected the blast past Guzan. Amazing what's possible when Liverpool get more than one player in a dangerous position deep in the penalty box, but pity it wasn't a lesson learned sooner.
Look, we all knew there would be growing pains this season. Nonetheless, this is a game that Liverpool should be winning no matter the circumstances. Villa had won all of one away game this season, a narrow 1-0 win at struggling Sunderland (where, naturally, Liverpool drew 1-1 after going behind). They had scored just four goals in eight away matches, just 12 goals through the 16 Premiership matches.
So far, Liverpool have beaten Reading, Wigan, and Southampton at home. That's it. Teams currently occupying 17th, 18th, and 20th (after Villa's win lifts them all the way to 14th).
Liverpool aren't going to win many matches when Suarez, Gerrard, and Johnson all disappoint, when they're so unable to defend counter-attacks. It's slightly unfair to single out those players when Liverpool were comprehensively awful to a man, but that's how it goes when you're reliant on the big names. Gerrard and Allen look every bit the players who've started every single match, Sterling's also suffering from fatigue, Lucas was positionally poor when defending counter-attacks, Skrtel and Agger both underperformed on Villa goals, etc. etc. I cannot explain why Henderson - in better form than both Gerrard or Allen – didn't start, or why Suso and Şahin have become personae non gratae. Sure, there's a lot of blame for individual players, but it's hard to defend some of Rodgers' decisions as well.
Last week's win meant all the talk was about being four points behind fourth. Well, after this, Liverpool are still just five points behind that place (albeit with Tottenham and West Brom still to play), but also just seven outside the relegation zone. Momentum can swing both ways, and in such a tight league, just a couple of bad results will be the difference between fourth and fourteenth. Liverpool already have had too many bad results.
Last week's win didn't lead to a proper response to build on Liverpool's momentum. Now we'll get to see Liverpool's response to further adversity against Fulham next week.