Five lessons from Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Rodgers still needs the right midfield balance
Lambert's bold formation paid off
Despite Liverpool's excellent home form this season, Paul Lambert sent out his charges in a bold-as-brass 4-3-1-2 formation that was perfectly suited to causing the home side maximum danger. With Philippe Coutinho nominally a left midfielder, and Daniel Sturridge floating in Luis Suarez's slipstream, Lambert knew Raheem Sterling would be the Reds' only wide outlet, so played a tight midfield three of Karim El Ahmadi and Ashley Westwood in front of the back four, with Fabian Delph slightly to the left.
Delph, in particular, was impressive, covering Sterling's forays down the Liverpool right as Lambert's daring was rewarded in the opening 30 minutes. Andreas Weimann played in the hole behind front two Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor, who should have scored inside a minute but flicked his shot wide of the target. So too Ashley Westwood, who combines midfield anchor duties with a viciously drilled set-piece delivery.
It took Liverpool 20 minutes to register their first meaningful effort, during which time Villa had already had five shots, including Ciaran Clark's header hitting the post.
Liverpool didn't heed the warning, as first Weimann tapped in, then Benteke added a second. They may have been counter-attacking goals, but it was Villa who made all the early running, thoroughly bossed the midfield and created all manner of problems up front.
Agbonlahor needs to keep attending the party
It seems strange to talk about the jet-heeled forward as his team's elder statesman, but the 28-year-old is undoubtedly Villa's most experienced Premier League player. The raw pace has always been there, but at Anfield there was a cuteness to the Englishman's play, highlighted by two lethal assists, if not that early missed chance.
The first was classic Agbonlahor. Receiving the ball on the inside left channel after Suarez had tried one trick too many in the Villa box, Agbonlahor drove at Kolo Toure, zipped past the Ivorian with a lightning step-over and fizzed across the six-yard box for Weimann to open the scoring. But the second was more nuanced. This time picking up the ball on the right wing, with Liverpool left-back Aly Cissokho caught upfield chasing his own long ball, Agbonlahor drew Toure and Steven Gerrard towards him and curled a pacy cross into the box. Mayhem ensued. Simon Mignolet clutched thin air, Glen Johnson was caught under the ball and Benteke couldn't help but head home.
When Agbonlahor left proceedings five minutes into the second half – unable to shake off a first-half collision with the advertising hoardings – to be replaced by debutant Grant Holt, the difference couldn't have been greater. No more pace, no more counter-attacks, no more threat. Perhaps Holt, only recently arrived from Wigan, was distracted by the pitchside adverts for Dunkin' Donuts, Liverpool's new coffee and pastry suppliers.
How do you solve a problem like Philippe?
Coutinho is many things: a fine technician, supreme lock picker and clever attacker. One thing he isn't is a left midfielder in a 4-4-2, which is how Liverpool started on Saturday.
Slightly frail of physique, the Brazilian resembled a little boy lost, unable to affect the game and without the defensive nous to protect left-back Aly Cissokho. When Brendan Rodgers changed formation to a 3-5-2 after 30 minutes, with Coutinho the most forward-thinking of his midfielders, he was much improved, but was still removed at the break for compatriot Lucas.
It's a problem Rodgers must address. Coutinho is his most natural creator, but accommodating him, Suarez and Sturridge in their natural positions without upsetting the overall team dynamic could prove difficult. A return to wing-backs appears the most likely, but with Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho both injured, the Reds are short at centre-back. Upcoming fixtures could be interesting.
Lucas is the key for Liverpool
It's nothing new to say that the self-styled 'fake Brazilian' is one of Rodgers' most trusted on-field lieutenants, but seldom has the 27-year-old's import been so obvious as his 20-minute cameo here. If what separates good players from better ones is the extra few seconds they have on the ball, then Lucas could seemingly write a symphony in the time it takes him to control the ball, look up and pass coolly to feet.
Kept somewhat surprisingly on the bench, Liverpool's first 20 minutes were their poorest this season. Usually they dominate possession - here they were dominated by Villa's excellent pressing. When Lucas came on at the start of the second half, the difference couldn't have been starker. More passes were attempted, a higher ratio completed and this time chances created and shots on goal unleashed.
As soon as Lucas departed to a knee injury on 65 minutes, the Reds were nowhere near as fluid as the game petered out into a draw. One wonders what might have been had the Brazilian not been forced off. Rodgers must be praying for good news about that troublesome knee.
We need to talk about Steven
Rodgers has spoken at length about how he sees captain Steven Gerrard's role evolving at Anfield as he approaches his autumnal years. To sum up, a deep starting position in front of the back four, from where his skipper can rake long diagonal balls, like the one that found Luis Suarez for the equalising penalty. (Was it a spot-kick? Probably not, but whenever a keeper goes down like Brad Guzan did, you're asking for trouble.)
Yet Gerrard, and Jordan Henderson, were overrun. Gerrard was rushed into two errors (and didn't complete a pass for 20 minutes, as we pointed out on Saturday) which resulted in Villa chances. For the England skipper to play this role, he needs Lucas, an extremely canny defensive operator, or Joe Allen, a 'passer' to keep possession ticking over, alongside him. For all his excellent form this campaign, Henderson doesn't offer the same assurance. Gerrard has to play because he's captain and leader, the player his team-mates look to first when the going gets tough, but his partner in this deeper role is crucial. Rodgers must find that balance.