Liverpool remain in touch with Manchester City following a narrow win at Aston Villa, during which they showed definite signs of tiredness.
It’s been quite the week for fronting up. In politics, the Leader of the Opposition has effectively said, ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ to both the Prime Minister and the police. And then you’ve got Jurgen Klopp’s selection for Liverpool’s Premier League match at Aston Villa. On the one hand, there was something pleasingly retro about it all. He’s resting players for the FA Cup final? How very old-fashioned.
But on the other hand, everybody knows the true status of the FA Cup within football’s eco-system, and Liverpool remain locked in a battle for the Premier League title race with Manchester City, and they lost ground at the weekend. It would take a four-goal win away to Aston Villa to put them top of the table, and if they dropped points, that league title would start to slip from view. Liverpool would be two points behind City having played a game more, and with only two games left.
And it was a surprising starting XI. Joel Matip, Kostas Tsimikas, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones and Diogo Jota started, in place of Ibrahima Konate, Andy Robertson, Thiago Alcantara, Jordan Henderson and Mo Salah. Robertson didn’t even make the bench. Last season Liverpool lost 7-2 at Villa Park, with Ollie Watkins scoring a first-half hat-trick. Furthermore, the extent to which Steven Gerrard covets the Liverpool job is well-known. Neither he nor Phillipe Coutinho – who started for Villa – would have any shortage of motivation to play against Liverpool.
So this was an extraordinary time to make significant changes to the Liverpool team. The idea of the FA Cup final taking precedence over the Premier League seems so counter-intuitive in 2022 that social media chatter before the game was largely preoccupied with wondering whether Klopp might even already have conceded the Premier League title with two games to go. Concentrate on securing that treble rather than going for broke in all three and coming away with just a Carabao Cup for the season. Something like that.
The two sides of this coin were clearly visible within the first ten minutes. Within three minutes Aston Villa had the lead, and even a goal scored this early had come after a warning. Ollie Watkins’ shot was palmed away by Alisson, but Liverpool did not learn, and after Lucas Digne swung the ball back into the Liverpool penalty area, Douglas Luiz’s header was weakly saved by Alisson, and Luiz reacted the quickest of the two to scramble the rebound in. Jurgen Klopp wasn’t happy. He seemed to be claiming that Watkins had been offside in the original build-up.
But the flipside to Liverpool’s unusual team selection remains the extreme amount of sheer quality they have in their first team squad, and Villa’s lead lasted for a little less than three minutes before they failed to successfully clear a free-kick, Virgil Van Dijk’s shot was well-saved by Martinez, and Joel Matip scored from close range. It became a pattern throughout much of the first half. Sadio Mane dropped a header inches wide of the post, but within two minutes Alisson was getting the ball trapped under his feet, a manoeuvre that briefly made him look like he was at a barn dance, spinning a full 360 degrees around it before hacking it clear. A couple of minutes later, a flicked header from Danny Ings sailed narrowly over the crossbar. At the other end of the pitch one of the replacements, Naby Keita, found himself 12 yards from the Villa goal and unmarked with the ball at his feet, only to tread on it. Fabinho left the pitch just before the half-hour mark with a hamstring injury.
The changes for such an important match, the sloppiness and individual mistakes, the lapses in concentration and even the relatively early injury all pointed in one direction: fatigue. Much has been made of Liverpool having played in every match available to them this season, but there was less comment on how punishing this must have been, considering the frantic pace of the modern game and the required relentless of that famed Liverpool press. Following on from Euro 2020 and the schedule that preceded that, as football navigated its way through the pandemic and lockdowns. It looked as though it had all caught up with them at the same time.
The second half continued along a similar theme. Liverpool would power forward, all purpose and aggression until dispossessed, and then Aston Villa would break to find vast tracts of land behind the Liverpool defence. They looked dangerous every time they got the ball into the Liverpool half. But when a change was made just after the hour, it was to bring on Thiago in place of Curtis Jones, while Mo Salah continued to sit it all out on the bench, and four minutes after the substitution they proved why. It only takes a few seconds to alter the course of a match, and Liverpool’s quality found a way through within three minutes of the substitution then Diaz’s cross from the left was headed, slightly behind him and requiring him to stoop, into the corner of the goal by Sadio Mane.
With a lead established Liverpool set about trying to squeeze the life out of Aston Villa, and for much of the 20 minutes following the goal they dominated, with Mane having one chance cleared from the Villa goal-line. But for all this, Liverpool continued to look defensively brittle. Ings got through three times. The first time, with just over 20 minutes to play, Alisson blocked. The second, the flag went up for offside. The third, the goalkeeper beat his shot from an angle away and was somewhat fortunate that the ball didn’t land at the feet of the onrushing Carney Chukwuemeka.
But in the end the game rather ran out of steam, a state of affairs that suited Liverpool right down to the ground. It may have been extremely hard work, all the more than it needed to be for their own defensive sloppiness and indecision, but they got through it and, while the goal difference situation at the top of the Premier League is now against them, they are at least back level on points with Manchester City, for now. Following on from their 45-minute brain melt against Villarreal in the Champions League and an underwhelming home point against Spurs, this was a win that Liverpool needed.
But for all that, the injury to Fabinho and these signs of general fatigue are concerns, and they will have to raise their game substantially if they want to get anywhere near that quadruple. They got the win here and Jurgen Klopp’s players now have a tiny breather before their trip to Wembley to play Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Catching Manchester City remains the toughest part of completing it and victory at Villa Park does at mean that it remains on… for now. But they can’t afford any more slip-ups.