There's just something about Aston Villa. Something soul-killing. Something like death warmed over. I could have sworn I was watching Liverpool's last two matches against Villa at Anfield.
We've spoken before about Liverpool not learning from its mistakes. And we're going to do it again. I've a terrible feeling this won't be the last time either.
A uncoordinated Liverpool, from back to front? Check, just as in the last two meetings at Anfield. An unfamiliar formation, including both Henderson and Gerrard sitting in midfield? Check, same as last season's 2-2 draw. A preventable early goal conceded after Villa surprisingly dominated possession from the start? Check, just as in the last two meetings at Anfield.
Once again, Villa were the more energetic side to start the match, despite being the away side, despite being involved in the relegation battle in each of the last three seasons, despite bringing in just Aly Cissokho and Tom Cleverley this summer, players who seem to be permanent punchlines. Liverpool are supposed to be the team that blitzes its opponent from the opening whistle, not Aston Villa.
And once again, Liverpool conceded the first goal, with multiple chances to stop it from happening. Sakho should have cleared the ball rather than trying to play his way out, allowing Agbonlahor to win the debatable corner. Liverpool could have cleared the first or second ball from the corner; Senderos won his header, hitting Manquillo, with the ball falling perfectly for Agbonlahor, all while Mignolet sat static on his line. Literally, perfectly; Agbonlahor could not have asked for it in a better position, and subsequently jammed the rebound home. Because those are the things that happen in this fixture.
Villa could have easily gone two-up soon after, which would have made today even more like the 1-3 loss almost two years ago, but Senderos missed a completely free header, from yet another set play. After that, Villa were happy to sit back, keep Liverpool at bay, maybe even counter-attack every now and then. There wasn't much counter-attacking (thankfully, I guess), but the defense certainly did its job.
It probably wasn't a good idea to start with three attackers bought this summer: one starting his second match, one making his first full start after two sub appearances, and one making his actual debut. And, unsurprisingly, Balotelli, Lallana, and Markovic played as if they'd never met. Time and time again, each wandered into where the other wanted to play. There was no fluency to their passing, no understanding of each other's movement, no runners beyond when Balotelli came deep, and no link with midfield because Henderson surprisingly sat deeper in a two-man pairing with Gerrard. It's a bad day when you make Philippe Senderos look like an immovable man-mountain.
Absences assuredly hurt, and I'm more than willing to blame the international break for some of Liverpool's problems, but these things happen. That's what a deeper squad was supposed to protect against. Any of Sturridge, Allen, Can, or even Skrtel would have made Liverpool better today. Liverpool missed each and every one of them. As would using Sterling from the start rather than a 61st-minute substitute, even though resting him made a certain amount of sense after playing 180 minutes of internationals and with Ludogorets to come on Tuesday.
Some credit's obviously due to the way Aston Villa defended. Paul Lambert's pretty good at taking points off of the top sides: not just Liverpool but beating Arsenal away, and Chelsea and City at home last season. It's the other matches, where Villa actually has to play some football, where he gets in trouble. Villa's game plan of kicking Mario Balotelli into irrelevancy also worked fairly well (thanks, Lee Mason). Still, Liverpool made it easy for them, whether in committing stupid mistakes, relying on crosses to no one, or attempting incredibly unlikely shots from distance.
Liverpool's switch to the more-familiar 4-3-3 at halftime made the midfield marginally more cohesive, but did nothing to improve the final third play. Until the 81st minute, after Liverpool had again changed formations and brought on Borini and Lambert for Markovic and Balotelli, the best chances remained marginal headers, each one off-target except for Sakho's soft header at Guzan in the 11th minute.
That's really, really, really bad. I've-been-doing-this-for-a-long-time-and-I've-never-seen-such-terrible-shot-accuracy bad.
Last season, set plays were often Liverpool's savior in these situations. That never looked like happening today.
But in the 81st minute, Coutinho was a foot away from providing the get-out-of-jail card, hitting the post with one of his trademark shots from distance – he usually gets one of four or so on-target – with Sterling hitting Henderson with the rebound (it was probably off-target anyway). And then Liverpool resumed its frustrated, Sisyphean struggle, thrashing around unsuccessfully for the final ten minutes, summed up nicely by Lambert trying to break away in injury time, then having to stop when he realized no teammate was anywhere near him. Everyone was a stranger today. It is the fourth match of the season, after all, after an international break no less.
All that complaining aside – and believe me, I could complain a lot more – we knew there would be growing pains and we knew Liverpool could struggle with the aforementioned key players absent. It's small consolation, but Liverpool are still two points better than in the same fixtures last season.
If it's just a one-time occurrence, just Aston Villa voodoo, it's a lot easier to stomach. But I'm still afraid there's more too often. We've already said, already knew that Liverpool will need to be better against the bus parkers. And we're still saying it.