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Focus: Liverpool's 3-5-2 can help save Rodgers as Villa loom

Predicting the tactical patterns that will unfold in this match – between Tim Sherwood’s eclectic Aston Villa and a Liverpool side who, increasingly desperate, are incessantly tweaking their formation – is not easy. But among the oppressive clouds that hang over both Villa Park and Anfield, the first signs of order are emerging from the chaos.

Against Norwich, Brendan Rodgers reverted to a 3-5-2 formation that offered a glimmer of optimism despite the disappointing result. More balanced in a system that offers greater short passing options in midfield, Liverpool recorded their highest possession figure (59%) and most passes (579) of the season. Considering their approach thus far has seen the Rodgerian philosophy dismantle spectacularly, this slight progression is encouraging: Liverpool recorded 23 shots on goal, up from a season average of 12.

However, the main flaw with the Reds' 3-5-2 is lightness in central midfield, with James Milner and Lucas potentially left exposed when Philippe Coutinho floats closely behind the strikers. It's here where Villa, through Jack Grealish, could be most dangerous.

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Grealish confirmed his significance to Aston Villa on Tuesday with another good performance against Birmingham City. Floating menacingly in between the lines, the youngster's ghosting runs and intelligent passing could unpick a Liverpool midfield still adjusting to the system.

However, Sherwood has made some spectacular tactical errors in recent weeks. When leading 1-0 at Palace, he inexplicably substituted Carlos Sanchez and asked Grealish to drop deeper into midfield. Unable to cope, Grealish didn't manage a single tackle and Alan Pardew’s team tore through the middle to victory. Villa were 2-0 up at Leicester when Sherwood substituted Carles Gil for Jordan Ayew (apparently through injury), and again asked Grealish to perform a more defensive role. What came next surprised no one. 

Two teams in transition and two managers already under pressure will produce an uneasy and unpredictable game of football. But considering Rodgers’ greater tactical experience and his players’ controlling aesthetic in a 3-5-2 system, Villa’s only hope is that Grealish can, once again, lift his side out of trouble.

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