Rodgers dealt midfield lesson in Villa draw

Posted by Kristian Walsh

If Brendan Rodgers is still learning while sitting in the Liverpool dugout, then consider this one of his harshest yet. If Liverpool are to be successful this season, Lucas Leiva or Joe Allen must play.

This 2-2 result and performance triggered reminiscence of last season's 3-1 defeat to Southampton. The midfield were outnumbered; the wide players were isolated; the forward players were frustrated. In the first 45 minutes, Liverpool were disjointed, unrecognisable from the side that had made Anfield so fearsome over the past year or so.

• Report: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa
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Rodgers had a dilemma with Daniel Sturridge back fit. He chose to sacrifice cohesion for individuality -- something that has worked before, but not against an organised Aston Villa side with Christian Benteke leading the line. With every misplaced pass, Villa took the ball and used it well, better than Liverpool. The task was made easier by the absence of Lucas and Allen as the midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were swamped.

Liverpool are capable of outscoring most teams with individuality over cohesion. With Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Sturridge in attack, it is a fair tactic. But they still need to receive the ball; they still require service from the midfield. Henderson and Gerrard were unsure how they should play -- the captain looked to play deeper, as was his instruction, but he did not do much for his manager's desire for him to be Andrea Pirlo. But he was not helped by the way his team-mates set up, almost like a 4-4-2 to begin, with Gerrard tasked with stopping three men in Villa's midfield. How fitting, in the week the club signed a contract with Dunkin' Donuts, that Liverpool found themselves with a huge, gaping hole in the middle.

They needed Lucas to put his foot on the ball. They needed Allen to receive it and move it on quickly. They needed an extra body to offer something both defensively and offensively, somebody to relieve Gerrard of a role he is not suited to.

This was not hubris from Rodgers because this sort of football has worked before and will work again. But after watching a maniacal 5-3 win over Stoke, the decision to replace a midfield with an extra attacker was curious. Liverpool can outscore teams, but they need to be given that opportunity. By playing two midfielders and four attackers, and by not playing a player like Lucas or Allen, creating chances became harder.

Of course, it worked eventually. The total football no doubt sought by the manager came in first half stoppage time. It was for Henderson to move beyond the midfield and flick the ball, sumptuously, through to Sturridge. Sturridge, with his first chance of the game, finished. No surprise.

The second half was better and coincided with the introduction of Lucas. Suddenly, Liverpool had a starting point, a player to find when the next attack had to begin. The first goal came before his half-time intrioduction but Liverpool played their best football with Lucas on the pitch. It was not necessarily because it was the Brazilian, but because of the role he fulfilled. He allowed Henderson to push further up and for Gerrard to have more time on the ball. In the first half, Villa were happy for Gerrard to take the ball; at the start of the second half, he showed his capability. A long ball, a Suarez touch of wonder, a penalty.

There will be questions over the penalty, naturally. The diplomatic reply would be that Suarez was just getting what he didn't at Stamford Bridge. There was no doubt Suarez looked to draw Brad Guzan, but he was delighted when the American fell for it, and when he could fall over the outstretched arm. This is what good players can do: There was no reason for Guzan to go down, flail limbs and look to stop Suarez, but he did. That is because Suarez is a player of such magic; even in one of his quieter days, he made an impact. Whether he dived, stumbled or fell, he helped secure his side a point.

It could have been more. Anfield maybe deserved more. It has not danced under the floodlights with so much vigour in a while, such is the importance of every game. Lucas' injury and the arrival of Allen took a while to adjust, particularly with the Welshman not seeming fully fit, but he settled well. Villa settled for a point.

Not every game can be punctuated with Suarez; not every game can rely on the finishing of Sturridge or the running of Raheem Sterling. This was one of those games. For all the rancour that the defence and midfield will receive, the attack did not quite find synergy: Most passes were too hard, soft, long or short. Once it went to 2-2, Guzan had little to do bar a few smart saves.

A chance missed for Liverpool. After the battle at the Britannia, this was their first points dropped at home since Southampton in late September. These games and results can happen, of course -- but the balance of the side will need addressed. More than the two dropped points, the questions over how he fits everybody in sufficiently will give Rodgers trouble.


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