Saturday, August 24, 2013

Liverpool grind out 1-0 win at Villa Park

After dominating the early proceedings at Villa Park, Liverpool managed to hang on to a 1-0 win over Aston Villa despite finding themselves under heavy pressure from the home side throughout the second half. Villa out-shot Liverpool 17 to 5 in the match and 11 to 1 in the second half yet were denied an equalizer thanks to some resolute defending from Liverpool and fine goalkeeping from Simon Mignolet. The Belgian keeper twice produced world class saves to deny his countryman Christian Benteke his fourth goal of the young season. Although Liverpool produced little going forward after the break it was the type of game they'd have failed to take maximum points from last season so you'd expect Brendan Rodgers to be pleased with his side's ability to grind out a result.

Liverpool bossed possession and controlled the territory in the opening half hour. They pressed high up the pitch when they lost possession and forced Villa to launch hopeful balls towards Benteke. These long balls rarely fell to their intended target and when they did the striker was too isolated to do anything with them. After 30 minutes Liverpool had outpassed Villa 269 to 97 and 59 to 14 in the attacking third. You can see below Villa completed just 50% of their passes into the final third in the opening half hour. The bulk of the failed attempts were hopeful longballs forced by Liverpool's pressing.

However, for all their attractive possession, they failed to create many genuine scoring opportunities. A critique against Brendan Rodgers is that his teams offer plenty of attractive passing and attacking movement without finding that penetrating ball to open up defenses. In his final season at Swansea, Rodgers' team finished with the third highest average possession total in the league (behind Arsenal and Manchester City) yet only five teams scored fewer goals in the campaign. Daniel Sturridge produced a fantastic solo effort in the 21st minute but it ended up being Liverpool's only shot on target in the game. Rodgers will be desperate to convert that ball domination into more scoring opportunities. Luis Suarez has that ability to create opportunities on his own out of nothing and if he stays at Anfield he'll certainly help the cause after serving out his suspension.

After taking the lead Liverpool stopped pressing and began to defend deeper in banks of four. This allowed Villa more time on the ball in their own defensive half. They were able to knock some passes around which seemed to help them grow in confidence and they finally threatened the Liverpool goal late in the half with Benteke turning in the books and producing a curling effort to Mignolet's back post. The Belgian keeper did excellent to stretch to his left and parry the ball away for a corner.

There was a bit of a role reversal in the second half. Liverpool continued to sit deeper in banks of four and looked to soak up pressure. Villa became a bit more direct knocking long balls directly into Benteke and getting into the channels for crosses. After struggling to advance the ball into Liverpool's defensive half in the opening 45 minutes, Villa managed 50 passes in the final third to Liverpool's 28 in the second half. They took 11 shots to Liverpool's 1. However, Liverpool deserve credit for dealing with the pressure defensively. In Benteke, Agbonlahor, Weimann, and Delph Villa have genuine attacking quality. Both Chelsea and Arsenal were unable to keep them off the board at home. For Liverpool to do so at Villa Park is a fine achievement and says a lot about the Agger-Toure center back partnership thus far.

Despite struggling to get a foothold in the second half, Liverpool have proven they can win difficult games away from home. In Villa they've beaten a team that beat Arsenal at the Emirates and deserved a point against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The win today means they have 6 points as of August 24. It took them until October 20 to get up over the 5 point total last season. That in itself is reason for cautious optimism at Liverpool.

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