You couldn't have asked for a better encapsulation of this season.
Liverpool started slowly, second best against a side you'd expect them to take the game to. Liverpool, debilitated by injuries, were nowhere near their strongest XI, not that we've much clue what that strongest XI is. Liverpool couldn't settle on a formation, going from 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 over the course of the match. Liverpool's summer signings, at least those available (Emre Can excluded), were some of Liverpool's most noticeable scapegoats. Liverpool accommodated Gerrard to the detriment of everyone else in the side.
Liverpool somewhat surprisingly provided a ray of hope after 30 minutes, thanks to good work from Sterling and Coutinho and just a little bit of that elusive luck, but that ray was quickly extinguished by the seemingly omnipresent storm clouds. Liverpool tried hard, I guess, to get back into the game after going behind, but it was sound and fury signifying nothing as Liverpool couldn't put enough shots on-target and Liverpool didn't have anywhere near enough firepower in reserve.
Disappointing individual performances, baffling tactical choices, and an inability to change the game from the bench.
And in the end, Liverpool simply weren't good enough.
With Skrtel available, Liverpool reverted to the 3-4-2-1, but with Sterling back as the lone striker rather than Coutinho as a false nine, and with Gerrard shoehorned into the front three. And Liverpool started second best, Aston Villa's pressing disjointing Liverpool's play, Aston Villa controlling possession, the same way that too many sides have troubled Liverpool this season. Liverpool were unable to get the ball forward to the attackers, Liverpool were limited to speculative shots from distance and lucky to keep Aston Villa at bay.
Two changes happened just after the 20th minute: Nathan Baker's injury forced Okore to come on, and Liverpool switched to 4-2-3-1 – a formation we haven't seen since December 9 against Basel – with Can at right back and Gerrard behind Sterling, another example of Rodgers trying to figure where Gerrard would be the most effective. Or do the least damage.
And those changes resulted in the two goals that followed. With more bodies forward, Liverpool finally bundled a way through Villa's defense, preventing Okore from fully clearing, quick passes between Allen, Sterling, and Coutinho, Coutinho's shot fortunately deflecting off Okore's knee.
But Villa responded, five minutes of pressure before Emre Can was caught upfield, Grealish and Delph stormed down the Liverpool's inside right channel into space that'd be covered by a third center-back, Liverpool's two center-backs dropping off and Liverpool's midfielders failing to track the runners, finishing with Benteke perfectly placed for the cutback at the top of the box, which he struck perfectly.
Liverpool had two less-than-half chances in the ten minutes before the break, through a counter and a corner, but Villa finished the half the better side, Liverpool happier to get into the locker room level.
Halftime changes were clearly necessary. But I have no idea why Rodgers thought the best alternative was to bring on Balotelli for Markovic, shifting to 4-3-3. A center-back pairing with Skrtel and Lovren. Gerrard as the deepest midfielder. A lone striker who requires a strike partner to be anywhere near effective. These are the exact tactics which led to Liverpool's worst start in 50 years, which is why it's baffling that Rodgers thought it to be the answer in the match needed to save Liverpool's season after that horrific start. These three formation diagrams are like watching Liverpool go back in time through this dismal year.
So it was little surprise to see Villa take the lead after less than ten minutes: N'Zogbia winning his aerial duel with Gerrard in the middle of the pitch, Benteke exploiting the inside channel that'd be covered by a third center back, getting in behind the defense, Skrtel and Lovren all sorts of pulled out of position as Grealish found Delph running into the box, Delph easily stepping around Lovren to slot past Mignolet.
And then came the empty sound and fury: Villa soaking up Liverpool pressure, Liverpool unable to convert set piece opportunities, Balotelli caught offsides more often than he was able to take a shot (although, admittedly, it's maybe very different had the linesman correctly ruled him onside in the 88th, a move which ended with the ball in Villa's net).
Liverpool's last two changes were Johnson for Allen (shifting Can into midfield) in the 78th and Lambert for Moreno in added time, substitutions seemingly designed to highlight Liverpool's lack of depth rather than proactively alter proceedings. Liverpool's last shot in anger was Lovren nearly booting the ball out of the stadium from more than 35 yards with eight Liverpool's players ahead of him.
More microcosms of this malignant campaign.
So Liverpool were eliminated in the semifinals of both domestic cups. Liverpool were eliminated at the first stage of asking in both European competitions. Liverpool will probably finish fifth, possibly sixth, a place and/or a couple of points outside of the money-spinning Champions League places.
The nearly men. A lot like last year, but a different kind of depressing.
And now, Liverpool have a month of going through the motions before a summer where the players, the manager, and the owners will have a lot of questions to answer and a lot of problems to solve.