As the two teams filed into the tunnel at Anfield on Saturday following Aston Villa’s 3-1 defeat of Liverpool, some people might have been taken aback by a curious sight. That shade of bright red leading the home side towards the dressing room didn’t belong to any Liverpool kit. It was actually on the face of Brendan Rodgers.
Going into Saturday’s match, widely viewed as a winnable one against a Villa side with only four away goals to their name all season, Liverpool sat only four points out of fourth and the final Champions League place. Because of this, Rodgers talked up his squad’s chances to move up the table prior to the weekend and hit back at some of the critics who had seemingly already resigned the Reds to midtable obscurity even this early in the season.
After suggesting that too many media types hold his current side up against the dominant championship winning sides of the ’70s and ’80s, Rodgers then made a now regrettable assertion.
“But for a club that has been very poor and disastrous by all accounts from other people we lie four points off top four,” said the former Swansea manager. “For me the ambition is to grow higher. We are 11 points off second and that can all turn around very quickly so you need to get consistency — and that is what we have at the minute.”
The team responded to their manager’s faith by laying an egg. Though controlling the tempo for most of the match and enjoying a lion’s share of possession, the Reds’ wastefulness in the final third of the pitch and an inability to finish, coupled with some shockingly porous defending led to a frustrating defeat for the Merseysiders. Rodgers called the defeat “self-inflicted” and it’s hard to argue with that, considering that the Reds appeared to be in the Christmas spirit by gift-wrapping Villa’s markers. After the heart shown by his defence last week in a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over West Ham, the about face this weekend had to be very disconcerting for Rodgers and simply disappointing.
In taking nothing away from the impressive Christian Benteke’s industry and flair, every one of Aston Villa’s goals had an odor to it on Liverpool’s end, starting with the Benteke’s first of two coming near the half-hour.
Only a few yards outside of the area, Australian international dropped a ball off for the Belgian, who drilled a low, bouncing shot off of the near post and past a diving Pepe Reina.
Though Reina might have broken slightly too late on the shot, the goat’s horns didn’t belong to the Spaniard on the goal. Benteke had far too much space to work with, thanks in no small part to Joe Allen reacting too slowly to Holman’s pass and doing nothing to impede Benteke’s attempt, while Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel were content to stand still.
Though Luis Suarez, who was uncharacteristically misfired for much of the match, came close only minutes later, it would be Benteke — this time as architect — to double the lead for the visitors with a clever give-and-go with Andy Weimann in the 40th.
Weimann, the Austrian international fresh off a two-goal performance against Norwich City in the League Cup midweek, sent a brilliant through ball past Daniel Agger to meet Benteke’s diagonal run to the far end of the area. Benteke, shook off marking by Skrtel, and flicked back across the area for Weimann, who was left alone by an indifferent Stewart Downing (perhaps, already thinking about life back at Middlesbrough), to hammer home.
If Liverpool’s defending was listless at best on the second goal, it was simply apathetic on the third. In the 51st, Joe Allen sent a nonchalant pass to Joe Cole near midfield. Cole matched Allen’s enthusiasm by cheaply giving it away to Benteke, who ran at goal past both Allen and Skrtel to make it 3-0 and effectively put the game to bed. Steven Gerrard would add a meaningless consolation goal late, but by then, the consistency that Rodgers preached on Friday had gone by the wayside.
As angry as Rodgers might be with the egg his players left on his face, he still sees the bigger picture. Yes, Liverpool dropped three very attainable points, but the season is far from over. West Brom, Stoke and Everton all dropped points this weekend. Other teams will next week. While games might be lost, focus cannot be.
Before Saturday, Rodgers realized that his team was far from a finished product and the loss, their first to Villa in 10 matches at Anfield, confirmed this. Perhaps he shouldn’t have detailed his ambitions for a Champions League place as openly as he did, but if a coach doesn’t have conviction in his squad, how can he expect anybody else to?
Liverpool’s recent run of good form might have left them a little bit complacent, but Saturday provided a wake-up call. Nothing going forward will be guaranteed and if Rodgers’ lofty aspirations for the Reds are tangible, then the team must put in a much more determined effort than they did this weekend to match their Champions League aim.