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Liverpool 0 Villa 1 - "Three thoughts" by Paul Natton

    After an abject performance such as this one, it's tempting to make a list as long as your arm about what went wrong and why. However, here are the three main observations from my perspective on Liverpool 0 Aston Villa 1:

1. We're useless without two up front and the diamond in midfield

 

At various points during his tenure, Brendan has tried to revert back to his favoured (pre-Liverpool, at least) 433 formation playing a lone front man with wide players either side of him. And it's almost never worked.

 

This season, we've: stuttered against Southampton with only Sturridge up front before getting the winner within three minutes of adding a partner for him in Rickie Lambert; dominated in the first half against City without being able to really do much in the final third to capitalise, only reacting to change things after the match was already lost; and started with two up front against Spurs, winning comfortably.

 

Our brilliance last season was based on many things, but a major factor in our ridiculous goal tally was the relentless pressure opposing defences came under from our attack. Even allowing for the fact that Luis Suarez is like a one man team and he's no longer here, we have to give opposing centre halves more to do than double up on a lone man up front.

 

Mario Balotelli barely touched the ball yesterday, never mind have a decent chance on goal and that's because he was isolated for much of his time on the pitch. If we're going to play one up, at least pick the one player whose game seems even vaguely suited to it: Lambert could play the attacking fulcrum role that Peter Crouch performed for us in his first season and the myriad of fast, buzzing, tricky forwards we have could play off him, feeding on his ability to hold it up and lay it off with precision and nous. Not that I'm advocating one up, mind; I just think that's a version that could work.

 

That this team needs two forwards is self-evident to my mind so why Brendan resisted starting with two up and sticking to the tried and trusted diamond is beyond me. When you're making so many changes to the personnel (and it was as good as a brand new side yesterday: six players all on three appearances or less for Liverpool), don't change the shape too.

 

Going forward, we looked like what we are for much of the match yesterday: a collection of strangers. Everything was played in front of the Villa back line with no-one getting in behind them and the starting point for our attack was disjointed as well with Stevie's controlling role compromised by the position the manager was asking Jordan Henderson to take up on the pitch next to him in a deeper two. No, the whole shape of the team was confused and we didn't even push the full backs on consistently in order to stretch Villa with width either.

 

In summary, get the diamond back and make sure we've got two up front on Tuesday night Brendan.

 

2. Intensity is fundamental to our game

 

Luis Suarez was always going to be missed. Thirty plus league goals in one season is ridiculous and, regardless of how many everyone else chipped in with (and it was loads), you can't lose a player who is so prolific and expect not to miss him. However, more than his goals, it's his ability to harry and intimidate opposing defences, to set the tone for the team with his ridiculous work ethic and to create space for team mates to exploit that we're missing right now. I've mentioned the problems our shape gave us yesterday already, but equally problematic was the lack of intensity in almost everything we did.

 

At our best, we are team that is relentless in our movement, pressing and use of the ball, but everything was just too laboured against Villa with a lack of tempo glaring. A lot of that will stem from new men being confused about their roles and unfamiliar with their new team mates, but I'm not certain it will return as quickly as we'd like.

 

Last season, we had the luxury of a full week between matches, providing ample opportunity for Brendan to coach the team in things he'd spotted in the previous match or anticipated ahead of the next one. This season, before Christmas at least, there simply won't be the time for that to the same degree. With games every three or four days and rest days built into the schedule too, it will be tougher to correct problems and that's a concern with so many new faces still getting used to how we play.

 

In the absence of Luis Suarez, it will fall to the other old hands from last season to set the tempo, but in a line up with Jordan Henderson shackled by a deeper position and Joe Allen injured, that didn't happen last night. It needs to on Tuesday though.

 

3. We look light up front

 

I am now officially concerned about our options up front. The fact of the matter is that we only have one prolific striker at the club and he is, to be blunt, injury prone. To be fair to Daniel Sturridge, he couldn't have done more than tell the England management that he doesn't do high intensity work on the training pitch on day two after a match. That they went ahead and pushed him anyway is entirely on them and the fact that I'd now be telling him to throw a fit if they ever try to pull that nonsense again doesn't change the fact that we currently don't have a clinical marksman available.

 

For all the Mario Balotelli shirts on view at Anfield yesterday, he still has it all to prove at Liverpool. In terms of impact on the pitch, his signing was a big gamble and we certainly shouldn't be relying on him to single-handedly replace the best forward line in European football from last season. As a partner for Sturridge or even Rickie Lambert, I certainly see his worth. However, this is not a lad who will consistently terrorise opponents on his own; his game blows too hot and cold for that.

 

That said, I do expect us to progress over the coming weeks and months as this collection of talented individuals settles into a team, but the inability to sign either Sanchez or Falcao, regardless of the valid reasons for those failures, looks like it will badly hurt us as far as our title aspirations go.

 

We need to get another clinical front man in at the first opportunity and I would hope that we're now in the process of identifying a Suarez-like January signing as a matter of the utmost urgency. Football has always moved forward at a relentless pace and if you pause, you're left behind. We cannot afford to pause.

 

After last season, another serious title challenge has to be our aim, although in the context of losing Luis and gaining virtually a brand a new eleven, stumbles would not be unexpected or unacceptable. A lack of response to those stumbles in the transfer market would be though. If I were to distill Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool into one element, it would be goals and this team hasn't got enough of them for me.

 

Let's get the side fine-tuned over the next three months and then add a clinical scorer in January to fire us to the title because a failure to do so, could well see us turn a stumble into a collapse that drops us back out of the Champions League after working so hard to get in there in the first place.

 

That could be characterised as a melodramatic assessment of where we're at, but I don't see this league getting any less competitive and six points dropped after four matches is concerning no matter what the context. Goals cover a multitude of sins for any team and right now, we're sinning all over the pitch.

 

Paul Natton


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