Gerrard 53' (pen)
Brendan Rodgers lost Liverpool two points today. And at least it was only two.
Liverpool's defense and midfield have been in shambles, the former ravaged by injuries, the latter unbalanced by Gerrard's return. You conceded three to Stoke – Stoke! – last week, you've kept three clean sheets in the last 18 league matches. Yes, Liverpool have succeeded by scoring goals this season, but maybe don't line up with a balls-to-the-wall attacking formation that further exposes your obvious weaknesses.
And if you're going to go with a balls-to-the-wall attacking formation – which, again, I don't recommend in the first place – you probably shouldn't concede the initiative to the opposition. The two midfielders need to be able to win and control possession (*glares at Gerrard and Henderson and then Gerrard again*), the defenders need to be comfortable on the ball (*glares at Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho, and a still-wildly-out-of-form Johnson*), the attackers need to press the opposition midfielders (*feels bad for poor, isolated Sturridge*). None of those things happened.
Liverpool deployed a 4-2-4 formation but also decided to defend as deeply as possible, inviting Villa onto them. And Villa gladly complied, hoofing deep into the final third from kickoff and pretty much keeping the ball there for the next 25 minutes, winning almost every single aerial duel, exploiting the acres and acres of space down either flank, and bypassing midfield every single damned time. Neither Henderson nor Gerrard – neither a holding midfielder, no matter what Rodgers wants to believe – could get a foot on the ball.
The only surprise was that it took Villa 25 minutes to score, having wasted three good chances before finally tallying. Toure charging out to miss a header, allowing Agbonlahor to nip in ahead of a retreating Skrtel before poking just wide within a minute set the tone. Gerrard dispossessed in the 16th minute ended with Weimann's blast fortunately straight at Mignolet. Clark, eluding Johnson, cannoned a free header off the foot of the post from Villa's first corner of the match in the 24th.
Liverpool could only live dangerously for so long. I guess it was fitting that Villa's goal came from a blitzkrieg counter despite all the pressure created through possession to that point. Suarez lost the ball deep in Villa's half, two quick passes from Delph and Benteke released Agbonlahor, spinning away from and out-pacing Toure before cutting in and centering to an arguably offside Weimann in the six-yard box, with Gerrard failing to fully track the forward's run. A comedy of errors, insane positioning and anarchic marking, but I'm not laughing.
Liverpool didn't take its first shot until the 28th minute, didn't test Guzan until the 32nd. But then it was straight back down to the other end: more errors, more comedy. Cissokho so far out of position he's not even in the camera angle, forcing Toure to come out wide in an attempt to mark both Agbonlahor and El Ahmadi. Agbonlahor, with space to cross before Gerrard's able to close down. Mignolet and Johnson in a complete muddle, the former flapping at the cross, the latter leaving Benteke to try to head away. The Belgian won't score an easier goal, stooping to tap in a header from six yards out. It was his fourth in four games against Liverpool.
From there, you assume it's last season all over again. Two unexpected first-half goals, and the feeling that Villa absolutely have more in them. But at least Liverpool righted the ship, getting the necessary first before the interval: lovely build-up from Suarez and Henderson to dice through seven Villa players strung across their 18-yard box, Henderson's back-heel releasing Sturridge, finished wonderfully with his weaker foot.
Halftime also gave Rodgers a chance to rectify his mistakes, bringing on Lucas for Coutinho, who'd done absolutely nothing of note in the first half. Villa no longer bossed midfield. And Liverpool were level within eight minutes of the restart: another slightly fortunate penalty won when Guzan made marginal contact with Suarez, sent through by Gerrard's picture-perfect long pass, the penalty unsurprisingly converted by Liverpool's captain.
That should have been the platform to win the game. And Liverpool soon had chances to take the lead, but Guzan made three saves: the first routine from Sturridge's tame shot, the second on Suarez's fierce blast straight down his throat, the third the best, somehow parrying Henderson's effort despite seeing it late.
And then Liverpool's substitute had to be substituted, going off with a knee injury, seemingly a similar situation to when he tore his ACL at Chelsea, trying but unable to play on. Allen came on, and through little fault of his own, Liverpool lost momentum, the only chance of note Suarez's long-range free kick whistling wide in the 77th until a furious but futile injury time.
I like Brendan Rodgers. There's absolutely no doubt that Liverpool are a vastly better side now than when he took over, and on the whole, they've improved over his tenure. But today's starting XI was criminally, suicidally stupid. As Stoke did last week, Villa throughly exposed Liverpool's weaknesses. But they didn't need to be helped by the starting XI. Unlike last week, Liverpool didn't have five goals in reserve, as Villa didn't defend as unrelentingly stupidly as Stoke did.
Liverpool need their defenders to get fit, and probably need both another midfielder and full-back before the end of January if they're truly going to push on to fourth and possibly beyond. Especially if Lucas is out for an extended period of time. The 20 minutes he was on the pitch – as well as the first 45 minutes that he wasn't – demonstrate how important he is to the side even if he hasn't been at his best at all this season. And it's also evidence why Henderson "out wide" had been so important out wide when Liverpool had used a similar formation with both Suarez and Sturridge available earlier in the season. Gerrard struggles in a two-man midfield. So does Henderson. Never put them together again. Although, as much blame goes to the defense: Toure on the first goal, Mignolet and Cissokho on the second.
Liverpool have taken four points from the last two matches. They took zero from these two last season. That's no small matter. But had Liverpool started with the lineup that came out after halftime, it almost certainly would have been six.