Steven Gerrard’s return to Anfield was the headline pre-match, but it was Mo Salah, the new King of the Kop, who settled a close encounter.
Liverpool 1-0 Aston Villa
Premier League (16), Anfield
December 11, 2021
Goals: Salah (pen) 67′
1. The Apprentice is Mastered – just
No matter how you look at this, this was a huge game in the football career of a bonafide Liverpool legend. For the first time in his entire career, attempting to get one over on his beloved Reds.
It seems the game plan was one of disruption and it paid dividends in a scrappy first half littered with stoppages. Villa kept Salah quiet, with Liverpool getting space down their left instead.
But Villa couldn’t keep it up, and although Gerrard used all of his local knowledge in how to disrupt the Liverpool flow, it wasn’t quite enough.
He’ll be happy with his team’s commitment and showing, but he walks away from Anfield as an opposition manager for the first time with a defeat.
“Liverpool were better in general play,” he acknowledged post-match. “There was a level between the two teams from penalty box to penalty box.”
2. Jurgen’s best XI?
With the exception of Diogo Jota who apparently had a knock, it was the same players featuring once more as started vs. Wolves a week ago – and it’s looking more and more like this is Jurgen Klopp’s most fearsome and trusted starting eleven.
This balanced eleven is scoring goals and/or creating chances at a rate never before experienced in Liverpool’s entire existence, and even though it was just the one goal on this occasion, the creativity was there for all to see.
With the settled midfield of Thiago, Henderson and Fabinho, it means that we’re now a genuine threat through the middle of the park as well as the usual outlets of Trent and Andy Robertson on the wings.
3. The front three misfire… until
It has become fairly apparent that the front three remains at its dynamic best as long as any three of Salah, Jota, Mane and Firmino are involved. Any disruption and the level visibly drops.
The same was true today with Ox trying his best, but not offering us the usual fluidity. It was no surprise to see Jota replace him before the hour mark.
Jota’s impact was immediate with his movement in the box and the overall cleverness to his game. Suddenly, Mo Salah became more involved as more space opened up and Mane was a threat throughout the second half. They were guilty of passing up quite a few very presentable opportunities, with Mo Salah maybe being guilty of not being greedy enough.
But once again, the Egyptian King was the difference, winning and converting the vital penalty.
4. Physical and mental strength
This was a brawl in the first half, Villa’s dirty tricks aided and abetted by a referee struggling to maintain control.
It felt at times we were guilty of being dragged down to Villa’s level and with the Kop howling their disapproval of the opposition tactics throughout. It took half time to reset the mindset and the lads came out blazing for the second half.
As is becoming a recurring theme, the opposition can stay with us for the first hour, but then can’t maintain the pace. Mings’ challenge on Salah that decided the game was a result of fatigue.
And unlike teams of the past, where frustration crept in when things weren’t going to plan, not so with this team. Yes, it was a real battle, and yes, we made hard work of it at times, but the mental and physical conditioning of this team saw us through – just like last week at Wolves.
5. James Milner the closer
It seems our elder statesman has a new role of helping Liverpool see out testing games in difficult circumstances. What an option, and a servant to the club, he is. A thunderous challenge got the crowd’s fire going again, changing the energy from one of nerves to one of excitement with his first challenge.
This was a battle royale towards the end, we had so many chances to grab a second, but thankfully, Mo Salah’s 14th of the season was enough.