Aston Villa – Liverpool: Sadio Mané Rescues The Reds (1-2)
Following an early exchange of goals, the game returned to its usual state, but Liverpool once again seemed to be removed from their offensive peak. An abject opening half hour gave way to a more controlled display, as Sadio Mané sent Liverpool level on points with Manchester City following a superbly taken header.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
Drawing against Tottenham Hotspur meant that Liverpool lost valuable ground in the title race, making every game a must win from now if they are to pressure leaders Manchester City. Of greater concern is the manner in which the Liverpool offense seems to have stalled, which is perhaps to be expected for a side that had to content with Antonio Conte’s planning for 90 minutes. It was hoped that this game would spark the team back to life, with Jürgen Klopp making a few notable changes.
Curtis Jones and Naby Keïta came in for Thiago and Jordan Henderson, while Joël Matip and Kostas Tsimikas replaced Ibrahima Konaté and Andy Robertson respectively. Another change saw Mohamed Salah drop out in favor of Diogo Jota.
Steven Gerrard has done a credible job so far at Villa Park, and the backing he has received shows that this is a long-term project. It is a positive sign then that analytical models appreciate the work that he has done, and he has usually deployed a 4-4-2 diamond this season.
I'm not saying the 538 ratings are the be all and end all, but the model loves the job Steven Gerrard is doing at Villa. Gone from the 14th best team in the league when he took over, to the 7th today.— Grace Robertson 🏳️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) May 11, 2022
That continued in this game, with Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings being flanked by fullbacks Lucas Digne and Matty Cash. Marvelous Nakamba played at the base of the diamond, with Douglas Luiz and John McGinn selected as the wide midfielders. Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings led the line, with Philippe Coutinho operating at the tip of the diamond.
Early exchange restores original game state
Of all the ways this match could unfold, even the optimistic Villa fan would not have predicted the opening sequences. With the hosts playing with energy and seeking to impose themselves on the visitors, a long ball from Mings saw Watkins receive behind the defense, cut inside and shoot. Alisson parried the shot but the ball was recovered by Douglas Luiz, and a fullback-to-fullback switch saw Digne put in a cross which pinballed around before Luiz put it in the net.
However, the hosts conceded the lead as quickly as they had received it, after Mings made a mess of a clearance from a freekick and Matip tucked the ball in from a Virgil van Dijk pass. 2-2 inside six minutes, and the game state was restored to its natural stage of parity.
Sloppy Liverpool hand Aston Villa the initiative
Against Tottenham, Liverpool had issues with lateral circulation that cut them off from their forwards. Antonio Conte’s set-up was effective at nullifying the threat through the idle while conceding the wings, which was a tactic that was deployed by Gerrard in this game.
Villa’s shape which was effective in nullifying Liverpool for the majority of the game.
Villa lined up in their 4-4-2 diamond shape, with Coutinho marking Fabinho during the visitors’ buildup. Luiz and McGinn were tasked with covering the space behind the front three and keep Keïta and Jones form dictating the game, while Nakamba operated as the screener and holding midfielder. Primarily, they applied a medium press to disrupt easy progression through the middle.
Right off the bat, what jumped was Liverpool’s sloppiness on the ball which allowed Villa ot dictate terms in the middle of the park. It was easy for the hosts to intercept simple passes and turn defense into offense in a split second. Often, Keïta operated on the same line as Fabinho, and with the two being shadowed by Villa’s wide midfielders, they weren’t an option for the defenders. The fullbacks were covered by their counterparts, which left Matip’s dribbling – following a triangular passing pattern which left him as the free man – one of the main ways of breaking down the block.
Mané and Jones often dropped off from the forward line to free themselves to aid the defenders, but like in the game against Tottenham, there was a lack of connectivity among the forwards. We saw typical rotations on the left as Jota ran to the outside to support Tsimikas on the wing while Jones was available to rotate in the halfspace, but Villa’s strategy of flattening into a 4-3-3 shape and keeping seven men behind the ball provide effective in denying these exchanges.
For the most part, it was an issue of tempo with respect to Liverpool’s circulation, as they weren’t able to create dynamic superiorities with their lateral passing. The number of loose passes in midfield spoke to the magnitude of the issue since Klopp’s team is rarely careless on the ball. Fabinho being taken off for an apparent injury after thirty minutes went some way in explaining why Liverpool had been so sloppy – it was hoped that the introduction of captain Jordan Henderson in place of the Brazilian would restore some much-needed stability.
Liverpool tighten up their execution
Without Thiago, Liverpool’s vertical passing through the block lost a lot of its sting; the next best option for the Reds was to rely on their creativity through wide areas. However, Villa did a good job of nullifying their involvement, since the defensive 4-3-3 shape covered the width well and trapped Liverpool on the sidelines. Still, Mané had a huge chance from a cross by Tsimikas during the half; however, the header went just over the crossbar.
A lot of the hosts’ effectiveness was tied to Liverpool’s slow play; once Henderson was introduced, the pace of play quickened for the visitors. With better connections in midfield, the flanks were now connected in a better way and Liverpool could manipulate Villa into overloading on the ball side before switching to the free man (usually Alexander-Arnold or Díaz). This was the first time all game that Liverpool actually exploited the wingers which Villa had to neglect as a consequence of their narrow diamond formation.
With the ball now pinging around quickly, forwards could be accessed through diagonal passes from the wings. As Liverpool kept possession and racked up touches in the final third, Mané often dropped into the midfield while the wingers fixed the defense with their goal threat. From a throw-in, there was an instinctive, flowing sequence that resulted in Díaz laying off for a Mané goal, but the Senegalese forward was clearly offside.
Liverpool takes the lead
Aston Villa showcased a bit of attacking threat in the first half, making good use of long balls, Luiz’s passes and McGinn’s carries from the wing. However, once Liverpool began clicking, any semblance of structured offense dried up. This is not to say that Villa didn’t threaten – there were at least four occasions in the second half when Ings, Watkins and Coutinho were on the end of threatening breakaways. However, in each case the Liverpool defense stood tall and denied a second goal for the hosts.
Liverpool’s midfield trio started dropping deeper in buildup, which had the twin impact of drawing Villa’s wide midfielders up the pitch and freeing their fullbacks. Once the visitors bypassed the front five, Díaz, Jota and Mané could receive in front of the defense and combine.
After establishing control, Liverpool flooded the area outside Villa’s box for the entirety of the second half. Here, Liverpool perform their typical right-sided rotation with the right back coming inside.
Once the ball was in advanced areas, the usual rotations came to the fore, with Keïta moving outside and Alexander-Arnold dominating the halfspace and center. With Liverpool having six players between and around the Villa block, it was easy for Alexander-Arnold to link up and relocate to better areas to receive the ball. This phase saw the visitors take control of the game, which they capped off with a superb Mané header to take the lead.
Klopp introduced Thiago in place of Jones to calm the game down, and while Mané’s goal followed the midfielder’s introduction, the game was effectively over by the time Mohamed Salah came on in the 72nd minute. Neither side really distinguished themselves on offense in this game – a problem that will concern Klopp more than it will trouble Gerrard.
Given the capabilities of the squad, Aston Villa can certainly post a better record against the Big Six next season. The team appears to trust Gerrard and is well balanced in terms of player profiles, and better finishing could have seen them take an upset win in this game. Still, Gerrard deserves time to properly steer the ship, and the conclusion of next season seems an appropriate time to judge the results of his work.
Liverpool’s mandate for the rest of the season is simple – win all of their games, and hope City drops points somewhere along the way. Liverpool’s own path to achieving this is tricky given that Chelsea and Southampton await them, whereas City have an easier path going forward. There is still the Champions League final to focus on for the Reds, which should make for a decent consolation prize should they fail to bring in the league title.
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