28 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

Scoring goals makes all the difference. Who would've guessed?

Philippe Coutinho's still shooting, probably too much. His seven shots led the team, again, as he has (at least jointly) in each match he's played this season. But he also created three chances – the same total he created in his previous five league matches combined – leading to two assists. Liverpool desperately need Coutinho to create, much more than Liverpool need Coutinho to shoot.

Daniel Sturridge had a lot to do with that. That Liverpool finally have a finisher the caliber of Daniel Sturridge has the potential to make all the difference. Each finish was delightfully spectacular in different ways: the first a volley few are capable of, the second a cool, placed, weaker-foot strike on the run.

It's no coincidence that both of Sturridge's goals came from one-two passing with one of Liverpool's more advanced midfielders, getting behind defenders and on the end of dangerous balls into the penalty box.

Via @LiverpoolGIFs: [Sturridge's first] [Sturridge's second]

None of Liverpool's strikers made these runs last season, we rarely saw this type of final third combination play last season. And without Sturridge's goals, this match probably finishes level, at best, if not a 1-2 Liverpool loss. Liverpool are still conceding goals they shouldn't concede – either Sakho or Can could have prevented the first; there was little anyone could do about the second if Amavi's perfect cross isn't blocked – but at least Liverpool are scoring more than once, for a change.

It's not as if Sturridge was the sole player to play well; he didn't even have his best game, still clearly a bit rusty and very much tiring by the time he scored his second. It's not as if Sturridge was the sole reason Liverpool won, even if he was the biggest reason. He provided the most important piece of the puzzle, the piece Liverpool had lacked during the long fall, winter, spring, and summer of our discontent.

Lucas' outstanding performance is definitely worth highlighting as well. Saturday saw the first time a Liverpool player completed 100 or more passes since the 0-1 home loss to Aston Villa almost exactly a year ago, when Henderson completed 111 of 121 and Lovren completed 100 of 118. To be fair, Gerrard completed 99 of 117 in the 0-0 at West Brom last April, but we haven't seen that arbitrary yet magical triple-digits in 41 league matches.

That Liverpool lost the last time a player completed 100 passes demonstrates it's not the be-all, end-all, obviously. You still need the players ahead to actually put the ball in the net. But it's helpful, especially when Liverpool's midfield has often resembled a smoldering tire fire over the last few months. And couple Lucas' 100 passes with 11 successful tackles – six in Villa's half – and two interceptions – both in Villa's half – and it shows a level of control in midfield that Liverpool have long lacked.

Lucas' defensive work-rate in Villa's half also demonstrates that Liverpool actually can and will press on occasion. Eight of Liverpool's 28 successful tackles, seven of 15 interceptions, and 17 of 52 ball recoveries came at that end of the pitch. Liverpool pressure was crucial in leading to the game-winning third goal: Sturridge, Coutinho, and Milner's harrying forcing Villa into a giveaway on which Sturridge and Coutinho deftly capitalized. It also led to three of Liverpool's four late chances, which Coutinho (from a direct free kick), Ings, and Sturridge failed to convert. We didn't see much pressure in the first half, when Liverpool simply monopolized the ball – 72.4% possession is the most in a half since that 0-0 at West Brom last April, only surpassed by that and the second half in that 0-1 versus Villa – but Liverpool stepped it up in the second, when Villa were tiring and when Liverpool desperately needed goals.

As more than a few people have mentioned, yes, this all happened against Aston Villa, currently 18th in the league, having won just one of their first seven league matches. I suspect you saw multiple people tweet that Liverpool's last five league wins, all of Liverpool's league wins since beating Swansea on March 16, came against sides currently 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and relegated QPR. This is obviously concerning.

I've referenced the 0-1 to Aston Villa and 0-0 at West Brom a couple of times so far, the similarities in both Liverpool's passing and possession. Both of those sides were just as bad as Villa were on Saturday. And Liverpool lost and drew those two matches, held scoreless in both.

Liverpool have found multiple innovative new ways to lose to teams worse than Aston Villa were on Saturday over the last calendar year. Clearly, Liverpool still need to prove capable of repeating it against better opposition. Liverpool at least took all three points, playing fairly well. Regardless of opposition, that hasn't happened enough since the start of last season.

The difference between yesterday and those aforementioned fixtures against Villa and West Brom? Yes, mostly Daniel Sturridge, but also better shooting in general. Balotelli led Liverpool's line in both of those matches. Coutinho took the most shots in both of those matches. Liverpool put a combined six of 40 shots on target in those two matches, with 23 of those 40 shots came from outside the box. Liverpool took better shots on Saturday, Liverpool's creators created better shots on Saturday, Liverpool put more of those shots on target.

Ings and Benteke are still better options than Liverpool had last season. I still believe that both, as they acclimatize to their teammates and Liverpool's playing style, will provide a better chance for success if – every deity forbid – Sturridge gets injured again than Balotelli, Borini, Lambert et al did last season.

Sturridge scoring, Coutinho creating, Lucas providing the platform, better balance in midfield with both Coutinho and Milner ahead of a single defensive midfielder, Ings' work-rate, Moreno's width on the left stretching Villa's defense. All of these factors played some role in Liverpool's victory. Still, Daniel Sturridge, even at, say, 80% of his best, remains the most irreplaceable.

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