Liverpool took an hour to establish their authority but eventually overran an Aston Villa academy side in the FA Cup third round on Friday night, winning 4-1.
Aston Villa 1-4 Liverpool
FA Cup Third Round, Villa Park
January 8, 2021
Goals: Mane 4′ 62′, Wijnaldum 60′, Salah 64′; Barry 41′
The lineup, the logic and the load
Well, when the team news came out it’s fair to say there were a few surprises, the biggest of which was Fabinho starting.
With no defenders left, ‘cotton wool’ and ‘bubble wrap’ are the terms now most often associated with the Brazilian.
But it went beyond that: against a Villa U23 and U18 mix – Covid tests and a closed training ground kept the seniors unavailable – all the likes of Salah, Mane, Henderson and Wijnaldum started.
According to the boss, the lineup plan was already made a couple of days beforehand, the training load and tactical work had been done accordingly and so the XI was kept as planned.
“We didn’t change that, we trained with that, that was the lineup that we made,” he said.
“Then after training [the day before] we knew only exactly as much as Villa could tell us, so we didn’t change any more, that’s the team we would have played anyway.”
Short of any post-game injuries arising, the Reds now have nine days to rest, recuperate and put a tactical plan in place for the next crucial league game – without this runout, players would have been two weeks without action, another reason for putting more seniors on the pitch than usual.
That, along with a confidence-booster of a win and a few goals, would have been the plan – even before Villa’s kids were involved.
So…did it work?
For an hour, it’s hard to say it was a resounding success.
It’s not just that the scores were level, but that the kids weren’t bullied by the adults, the speed of play was so low they were coping easily enough and the sole chance Villa created to run in behind, they scored from.
Judging by the lack of celebrations when the second, third and fourth went in over the space of about four minutes, the Reds weren’t particularly enthralled by their own efforts in the final third, either.
In truth this was a no-win situation: beat them by eight and Liverpool would be schoolyard bullies; fail to win by a good few and it would be an embarrassment.
For rhythm, the squad won’t have taken much other than the fact they still started too slowly, and the fact that Thiago lifts everything.
For confidence in front of goal, perhaps Mane and Mo will take the positives, but not much more.
Gini should have scored before he did, a few more set-pieces should have troubled a group of inexperienced, smaller youngsters and Xherdan Shaqiri, who showed again a creative streak, probably won’t be in the team anyway.
Questions of the overlooked
Not in the lineup on a regular basis, not in the lineup here when the team has needed a rest and a few players did get changed.
What does this selection say about some of Liverpool’s fringe players?
Divock Origi might as well pack his bags, despite coming on for a bit. Shaqiri clearly has talent to offer, but if he starts half a dozen games between now and the end of the campaign it’d be a surprise, in truth.
Then there’s a few youngsters, notably Jake Cain and Leighton Clarkson, neither of whom made the bench.
Klopp’s comments about the tactical preparations are one thing, but are we to expect that if the skipper picked up a knock in the last training session before the United game nobody would be capable of stepping in to do the same job?
That’s what Clarkson and Co. are training with the seniors for, after all.
This was perhaps an opportunity for them to get a little more experience, and a few seniors will take absolutely nothing from this runout beyond the on-the-ball sharpness.
We can’t all be legends from San Pietro Vernotico
Forget the fact it’s against great opponents or yet-to-make it youngsters.
When Thiago gets on the ball, he ticks and the team clicks. Everything moves quicker, there’s more forward-thinking intent and the extra level of refinement just is.
Obvious positives aside from the former Bayern man?
Shaqiri impressed off the bench and got a couple of assists. James Milner got a full 90 minutes at left-wing, basically. Gini Wijnaldum gave a few players a rocket and was his usual unstoppable self on the ball.
But there were also a couple of less-than-stellar points to note, with Neco Williams‘ crossing, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s ongoing (expected) rustiness and the overall feeling of first-half lethargy all included here.
There’s still a distance to go to get back to top form, but a win is a win and we’re into the fourth round. And the fifth, technically, as the draw for both will be held together.
Next challenge: regain top spot?
And so, after the strangest of games in the strangest of seasons, it’s onto the biggest of all: first vs. second, one way or another, and the game against Manchester United.
The Reds are top now but United could be by kickoff at Anfield, as they face Burnley Tuesday night.
There will only be objective: win the damn match.
On this occasion, style and form, ruthlessness and resplendency won’t matter a single bit – three points against United is just as vital and satisfactory whether it’s a four-goal demolition or a late winner in off Andy Robbo’s arsecheek.
What must be taken from this game, in truth, is a feeling of reset: the game is won, the ‘rot’ is stopped, we take a break and go again – full throttle, all-in-for-the-win.
You never know, we might get a good cup draw at home, too.