As always for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.
(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)
Klopp: "We have to play brave football. We are now in the semi-finals. We got there because we deserved it." #LFC— Viktor Fagerström (@ViktorFagerLFC) April 27, 2016
This is the danger of playing for 0-0. Until injury time, 0-0 looked the most likely score. Liverpool had mainly stopped Villarreal from its game, preventing counter-attacks, limiting set plays, limiting mistakes. Both sides had a couple of chances – just a couple – and an equal amount of "reasonable to almost good" ones despite Liverpool's total shot advantage.
Villarreal had a spell of pressure in the 21st leading to Pina shots saved and blocked, Bakumbu's set play header hit the post just after halftime, and Mignolet's excellent save on Bakumbu in the 87th. Allen spurned an excellent opporunity in the 5th, when a deflected cross found him in space on the penalty shot, but he shot straight at the keeper. Firmino had a Danger Zone shot saved onto the post in the 65th. Moreno tore down the length of the pitch after a Villarreal corner in the 88th but wildly missed at the near post.
For the most part, it was a damp squib of a match. Which isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world in a first leg away European match. But one mistake and you're doomed, and that's exactly what happened in injury time. Bruno dispossessed Lallana in Villarreal's defensive third with pretty much every Liverpool player caught up the pitch. Lallana failed in his press, Milner failed in his press, Moreno failed in his press, and then Lucas failed in his press. With Moreno out of position, Denis Suarez was one-on-one with Toure, able to out-pace the veteran for Bruno's ball over the top, Toure choosing to stay with the attacker rather than play for offside. Moreno, now somehow in the middle of pitch, couldn't keep up with Adrian, tap in. Credit where due: it was a really good move, especially between Suarez, Bruno, and Adrian to break through midfield. Still, Liverpool didn't need to make it easier for them. Game over, plan ruined.
I rarely criticize Jürgen Klopp's decisions. Every day I wake up amazed and pleased that he's somehow Liverpool's manager. And he's rarely given me moments to criticize. Liverpool were missing key players, Liverpool had defended well, Liverpool were away in a first-leg European semi-final. But I do not understand yesterday's mid-game management.
The starting XI was understandable, even if it's not what I would've chosen. A more defensive side, a side better suited to pressing, a three-man midfield to better able to prevent Villarreal's quick transition attacks. All perfectly valid choices, and the first half, the first 60 minutes, even the first 90 minutes until added time bore them out.
Klopp didn't miss Allen's 5th-minute chance or Moreno's 88th-minute chance. Klopp wasn't one of five or so players caught out of position on Villarreal's winner. But I'm a little annoyed at Liverpool's passivity in the starting XI and exceptionally annoyed at the substitutions, or lack thereof, in the final 30 or minutes. And I can't help but think back to Liverpool's last loss, at Southampton, where Klopp seemingly sat on his hands in the final 30 minutes rather than making changes to – in that case – solidify the midfield or defense, and Liverpool ended up conceding two late goals.
This time, it was Liverpool's attack which needed the boost, and it was only one late goal, but it's still a loss and still a massive regret. It doesn't happen often – those are the only two matches where I remember getting mad at the manager's in-game choices, and Liverpool have seen a lot of goals and better play from substitutes this season, much more than from the previous manager – but the losses always stick in the memory longer than the wins.
Most notably, you leave out Daniel Sturridge in the biggest game of the season, and you deliver that attacking performance. Preferring Origi is one thing, as both legs against Dortmund demonstrated. Preferring a struggling Roberto Firmino is another. In the two months between Arsenal at home in January and United away in the Europe League in March, Firmino scored eight and assisted on four. 14 matches, 1233 minutes, 12 combined goals and assists; an average of 0.88 goals+assists per 90 minutes. Since returning from injury three weeks ago, he's got one tap-in rebound goal and no assists in 459 over seven matches. Aside from his work-rate, he's not been good.
And it's especially galling when, as predicted, the vast majority of Liverpool's attacks came from the flanks because that's where Villarreal's exceptionally well-organized two banks of four forced you to go. Liverpool's attacks seemed to go something like Moreno cross, Milner's cross, Clyne's cross, Lallana's cross, Toure's punt from defense, Milner's cross. And Firmino probably isn't heading them in. Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, and Allen almost certainly aren't heading them in. Firmino's 5'11", Milner's 5'9", Lallana's 5'8", Coutinho's 5'7", and Allen's 5'6". Those was Liverpool's five players yesterday. Sturridge at least gives you a chance at those, with headed goals against Villa, Stoke, and Bournemouth this season. He's 6'2". And his hold-up play from hoofed balls out of defense, which Liverpool played an awful lot of, is vastly better than Firmino's as well. Is Firmino's pressing really more valuable than that?
Sure, I guess, if you really are insistent on a) keeping it 0-0 and b) maybe scoring from pressing or quick passing moves on the break. At least for the first hour. And that it was Ibe first off the bench wasn't that surprising either. He was replacing the ill Coutinho, it'd only been 45 minutes, and – in theory if not practice – his pace may be able to stretch Villarreal on counter-attacks or when Liverpool hoof the ball out from the back.
But to not bring Sturridge on at all? Really? With Benteke for Firmino in the 90th minute as they only other substitution, supposedly as extra protection on any set plays? It's another thing if Benteke's brought on earlier; I'd heavily disagree, because he's often bad at the football, but at least he's an actual target-man. But for extra defensive protection in the final minute, with Sturridge still sat in his warm-up clothes? That's almost insulting.
This is going to sound much ruder than I mean, but that's brave football? You've got to dance with what brung you.
That Villarreal got the narrow win is marginally deserved. Neither side attacked well, but Villarreal attacked better and smarter. Liverpool took 15 shots, but eight of them came from outside the box, with all eight from outside the box either off-target or blocked. Villarreal took nine shots, and six of the nine came from inside the box, with two of the three from outside the box on target. Only nine of Liverpool's shots came from key passes; eight of Villarreal's nine came from key passes. One attack was less frequent, but more coherent, and that's the side that scored and that's the side that won.
To be slightly fairer to Liverpool, overturning a 0-1 deficit at Anfield in a week's time is doable. One Liverpool goal means extra time and two mean a win, as long as Liverpool keep Villarreal – a dangerous counter-attacking side if given space, as we saw in the 92nd minute – from scoring. If Villarreal score, Liverpool will need at least three, but this is a Liverpool side that's scored 14 goals in its last four home matches.
Of course, Villarreal aren't Stoke or Everton or Newcastle. And they're certainly not Dortmund, which was a performance and result we'll rarely see in our lifetimes. Next Thursday, there will be 11 Villarreal players in their own half for 90 minutes at Anfield, determined to defend, defend, and defend some more, and then counter-attack when Liverpool push too far forward too quickly. Which is exactly what Liverpool's struggled against multiple times this season, especially at home. And which is exactly how Villarreal scored, and won, yesterday's game.
Play for the 0-0, and get burned. Make one mistake (or, more accurately, multiple little mistakes on one sequence), and get burned. Stop getting burned, Liverpool. Stop burning yourself, Liverpool.