Premier League 2020/21: Aston Villa vs Liverpool – tactical analysis
The 2020/21 Premier League season had got off to an interesting start and heading into game week four; it was already a season full of goals galore. The first few fixtures of the game week proved no different, with West Ham and Newcastle putting three past Leicester and Sheffield United respectively before Spurs thumped Manchester United six goals to one. Leeds United had held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw as well, and as Liverpool travelled to Villa Park, Aston Villa were hoping that they could also produce an incredible result against the champions. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of both Liverpool and Aston Villa from their enthralling fixture.
In the first part of the analysis, we shall look at how the sides lined up.
Sadio Mané and Allison missed out for the visitors due to illness and injury respectively and summer signing Diogo Jota along with deputy goalkeeper Adrián made their way to the starting lineup. Georginio Wijnaldum had looked to be on his way to Barcelona with the side bringing in Thiago as well, but the Dutch midfielder was almost certain to stay on for the season. Apart from this, Jürgen Klopp’s side lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation.
Aston Villa made just one change to their squad the previous week, with new loan signing Ross Barkley coming in for Conor Hourihane. Villa had an excellent transfer window, signing Championship player of the season Ollie Watkins, Arsenal’s impressive goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, promising right-back Matthew Cash and had tied club captain Jack Grealish to a long term deal on top of the Barkley signing. After narrowly escaping relegation last season, Dean Smith’s side had three wins from three and looked much improved this season. They lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation for this fixture.
The Barkley effect
Although Aston Villa started with the 4-2-3-1 formation, this often switched to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2, with Barkley playing as the auxiliary striker. His addition to the side had such a positive impact on Villa both in and out of possession, and this saw the hosts dominate the proceedings early on. Barkley’s ability to drift into spaces between the defence and midfield meant that Liverpool’s centre-backs needed the support of their full-backs and this pushed the Reds to adopt a narrow structure at the back.
The eagerness of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to provide width is well known, but this was not possible early on with the midfielders unable to trackback to manage the threat posed by Barkley. This also meant that Trézéguet and Grealish had more space on the wings and the likes of Matt Target and Cash could overlap the wingers as well.
As mentioned earlier, the Englishman was crucial out of possession as well in Villa’s press. His presence and positioning higher up the pitch enabled Aston Villa to cut off the passing lanes, and for Liverpool, this made life very difficult. Klopp’s side always look to push out through the wings before some quick passing through the centre, and Barkley’s presence meant that Villa could suffocate the full-backs down the wings and prevent them from pushing forward. His importance in the press can be seen in the build-up to Aston Villa’s first goal.
Trézéguet presses Robertson with Watkins covering Virgil van Dijk, and without Barkley, Liverpool could have easily escaped the press by playing the ball to Keita and moving out. However, Barkley’s presence means that Robertson is forced to play the ball back to the goalkeeper and once again with Watkins moving to press the keeper, Barkley moves forward to cut off the passing option to van Dijk. This eventually causes Adrián to play a strayed pass to Joe Gomez which was picked up by Grealish who could set up Watkins for the opening goal.
Barkley’s role as the auxiliary striker also meant that Watkins could drag the centre-backs out of position and thereby create space for the former to run into in and around the box. As mentioned earlier, Liverpool had to push their full-backs narrower due to this, and hence, the wingers could easily attack the defence as well, making the front four of Aston Villa very dangerous.
The Englishman looked a major threat throughout the game, and the Liverpool defence had no answer to these tactics. The midfielders were easily bypassed, and the only way to manage the situation was to play deeper, something that Liverpool were not very familiar with. Barkley looked to be in sublime form much like his Everton days, and his impact was crucial to Aston Villa taking control of the game.
No Mané, no problem?
Without their talismanic left-winger, Liverpool had to make up for the lack of threat down the left flank. Jota had looked good on his debut against Arsenal but is no match compared to Mané, and hence Klopp had to look to change his tactics. This saw Jota play a more central role, looking to attack the half-spaces as opposed to providing width down the wings. Klopp wanted Jota to have a run at the centre-back and in doing so, open up spaces for Robertson to attack.
Majority of the Liverpool attack stemmed from the left side and mainly from Robertson, but unfortunately, this was not very effective for the Reds. Where Mané and Robertson would look to overlap and underlap down the wing, Jota’s central positioning meant that Robertson was largely alone on the left-wing. The fact that Roberto Firmino often plays as a false nine and drops back to help with the build-up also meant that Liverpool were outnumbered in the box and crosses were not as effective anymore. Jota lacked the skill and threat of Mané to receive the ball and take on the defenders, and this negatively impacted the Liverpool attack.
Alternatively, the Reds looked to push Salah central with Jota staying down the wing. Firmino would look to carry the ball forward and link up the attacking play while Naby Keïta or Wijnaldum would push forward as well. However, Liverpool were not committing enough players in front, and Aston Villa were able to have a numerical advantage over their counterparts. This also enabled them to tackle the pace of Jota and Salah, and the champions looked well off their game. They were nowhere near as convincing in attack as they had come to be known and this was clearly playing into the hands of Aston Villa, with the hosts controlling the game from the offset.
Liverpool look to break the Aston Villa structure
Aston Villa looked to settle into a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 formation in defence with Barkley and Watkins free to press the defenders. The two blocks of four maintained a solid structure, and they were clearly prepared to deal with Liverpool’s tactics. Knowing fully well that Firmino would drop deep to engage the midfield, the centre-backs focussed on helping the full-backs deal with Jota and Salah while the midfielders of Douglas Luiz and John McGinn dealing with the forward. Trézéguet and Grealish could then watch the runs of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to prevent them progressing too high up the pitch, and this meant that Liverpool could not play the way they had previously.
As a result, Robertson was pushed much higher up the pitch with Klopp trying to maintain the same central role of Jota to attack the half-spaces. This, however, was more effective higher up the pitch as Liverpool looked to bypass the Aston Villa midfield and target the defensive line. Attacking the half-spaces became much more effective as Firmino or Jota could engage the centre-back and Robertson could also make dangerous overlapping runs.
Liverpool also looked to crowd the box more with Keïta, Wijnaldum and even Fabinho pushing up with Firmino to occupy central areas in the box. Jota and Robertson looked to create two vs one situations against the centre-backs, and this meant that Luiz and McGinn had to drop back in support. It was arguably Liverpool’s best period of the game, and they looked to get a goal back which they eventually did after Salah found himself at the end of a deflected cross and fired home.
The champions looked a shadow of their former self in attack, and their sheer persistence appeared to get them back into the game after a sustained period of attack. However, they struggled to keep up the intensity and were well off their game, and Aston Villa managed to thwart their attacking threat as well. Smith’s side were able to restructure, and Luiz played a deeper role in order to bolster the defence. Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings could also deal with the pace coming at them and slowly, the hosts regained the upper hand.
With Liverpool looking to stage some sort of fightback, they pushed forward and played a high line in defence. However, in doing so, Alexander-Arnold had to stay closer to the centre-backs to provide cover for Robertson who would push higher up the pitch. This gradually saw wide spaces open up down the left-wing for Aston Villa, even during set-pieces.
The tardiness of Liverpool in defending their wing consistently opened up opportunities for Aston Villa to attack them from there. The Reds do not look to cover the runs down the wing, and as seen above, even during set-pieces they leave the wings unguarded. Such mistakes in defence were unbecoming for the champions and on another day they may have got away with them, but Aston Villa were ruthless in their exploits.
It was only a matter of time before a player of Grealish’s calibre exploited the gaps in the defence and the Aston Villa captain led from the front. With his three assists earlier on, the Englishman looked hungry to get himself on the scoresheet and realised his opportunity down the left-wing. As mentioned earlier, with Alexander-Arnold looking to provide support for the centre-backs, there was a massive gap down Liverpool’s right side. Salah would stay up in order to hit on the counter, and Liverpool’s midfielders could not sort themselves out. They struggled to support the defenders as well as push forward in search of a way to get themselves back into the game.
Grealish ensured that he was positioned not too far behind the forward line so that he could always attack the space that he was afforded without having to worry about being closed down. He could also engage the defenders and take them on with the skill that he possesses. Where Alexander-Arnold should have been wider and covering the threat of Grealish, he was caught out on multiple occasions and enabled Grealish to play freely down the left-wing.
Once again, we can see Grealish’s positioning and intent to get forward, and the Englishman is ready to hit on the counter. Liverpool looked to get bodies up front and appeared to panic as the game progressed and this played right into Aston Villa’s hands. A single-pass sets Grealish free and he finds himself having the entire left-flank to run into. Smith’s side consistently outsmarted Liverpool, and by keeping their heads and going about the game systematically, they completely demolished a side that had dominated the world.
Having been one of the best defences in Europe over the past few years, Liverpool clearly were not the same at the back. They had a scare earlier in their opening game where they let in three against Leeds, but this result was simply unexpected. A shocking performance at the back where they did not seem to get anything right meant that they conceded seven for the first time since 1963. The side was not convincing in attack either, and although Salah grabbed himself a brace, they did not look like they could trouble the Aston Villa defence for long. Klopp would surely want to get back on track as soon as possible, and the international break could not come at a better time as he would look to put this past the side by the time they face Everton in the Merseyside derby.
As for Aston Villa, they showed why they deserve to be a Premier League side. Outclassing the champions for 90 minutes is no small feat, and to do so with such aplomb is truly the mark of an excellent team. They maintained their perfect start in some style, and their summer signings were surely repaying the club with impressive performances. Watkins’ hat trick would surely leave him relieved after failing to score in the first three games, and overall, Aston Villa looked a side on the up. Smith had been able to outplay one of the best sides in Europe, and although they were missing two crucial players, the level of dominance throughout the game was impressive. It will be interesting to see if Aston Villa can push on and maintain this form throughout the season and if they do manage to do so, they could be in for a splendid campaign.