The stage is set for Aston Villa to pull off a major upset on Sunday afternoon, with victory over Liverpool in front of the Holte End likely to galvanise the players for an implausible battle against relegation.
Villa have earned eight points from their last five games and look increasingly solid defensively under Remi Garde, whilst Liverpool’s wobbles will surely continue given that their next four games – two legs against Augsburg, the Merseyside derby and the League Cup final – will be on their minds. Any complacency on Sunday and Villa could win.
The 2-0 win over Norwich saw Garde switch to a narrow 'Christmas tree' 4-3-2-1 formation, which allowed Villa to significantly narrow the pitch and thus stunt Steven Naismith’s influence on the game.
In fact, Villa have squeezed inwards increasingly over the last month; Carles Gil and Jordan Ayew (suspended currently) may often be listed as wingers in a 4-3-3, but both players drift into the middle of the pitch at every opportunity.
This narrowness partially explains why they have only conceded three goals in their last five games, but a far bigger reason has been a shake-up at the back.
Micah Richards has played right-back for the past three matches, allowing Jores Okore to partner Joleon Lescott for the first time. This partnership synchronises nicely - whilst Lescott has the strength and experience to organise, Okore is quick and excels in a sweeper role. Expect Lescott to sit on top of Roberto Firmino as he drops off and Okore to track Adam Lallana’s attempts to move in behind.
Furthermore, Richards offers a more robust defensive option on the right flank, which could stunt Philippe Coutinho’s influence. Richards has made zero key passes, zero crosses, and just two take-ons in his three games at right-back, reflecting his propensity to stick to defensive duties. Coutinho will have a difficult time against the Englishman’s dominant physical presence.
At the other end, Carles Gil has benefited from Villa’s switch to a more direct approach. In their last five games Villa have attempted 76.8 long balls per match (up from a season average of 68.4), with many of these aimed at releasing Gil, Ayew and Gabby Agbonlahor on the counter.
Liverpool make more defensive errors (24, seven leading to goals) than any other team and are the most dispossessed team (15.5 times per match). Thus Villa’s direct football (11.2 take-ons per match, fourth most) could catch Liverpool out. It's easy to imagine Gil getting the better of Joe Allen, and Villa pulling off a plucky win.
Aston Villa vs Liverpool LIVE ANALYSIS with Stats Zone
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.