Aston Villa's manager and the man of the match thought alike. Teams can be dismissed far too swiftly; a substandard performance is not calamitous.
Benitez has to find his answers within
Aston Villa's manager and the man of the match thought alike. Teams can be dismissed far too swiftly; a substandard performance is not calamitous. "It's staggering the number of prophecies made after one or two games," said Martin O'Neill. Brad Friedel added: "When you write off athletes in any sport, top-performing athletes will usually come good."
Under other circumstances, such words would apply to Liverpool. In fact, after Monday night's 3-1 defeat at Anfield, a harsher verdict had already been delivered, and by a man not noted for over-reacting to his team's results. Rafa Benitez spoke of mistakes, of the need for senior players to take responsibility. Testy on the touchline during the game, he refused to blame the referee, Martin Atkinson, and while Liverpool drew a series of saves from the outstanding Friedel, he said his side need to create more chances.
Beaten twice in 38 Premier League games last season and twice in three matches this season, Liverpool need to find the answers within; within the squad and, in particular, within the team, because the squad players provide few solutions. The sight of Andriy Voronin warming up was more likely to reassure Villa supporters than encourage their Liverpool counterparts. Hence the reliance upon those senior figures. A line can be traced through the spine of the side, from Jamie Carragher to Javier Mascherano and on to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Perhaps only the sharp Spaniard - scorer of Liverpool's consolation goal - performed.
The captain conceded the penalty Ashley Young converted for Villa's third goal and while Gerrard's herculean efforts over the past decade should not exonerate him from blame, it is rare that Benitez singles him out. It certainly marked a change of approach. Changing results is a priority, changing the personnel not advisable. Whereas Sir Alex Ferguson reacted to Manchester United's defeat at Burnley last week by omitting seven of that side at Wigan, Benitez is unlikely to make more than one alteration at Bolton on Saturday.
A glance at the bench indicates as much. The departed duo of Jermaine Pennant and Robbie Keane have not been replaced. Now they surely will not be. The returning Albert Riera offers an option, but few others do. As the transfer window entered its final week, Benitez has a profit in 2009, to his evident dissatisfaction. His biggest summer signing, Alberto Aquilani, is not fit, his most profitable sale, Xabi Alonso, greatly missed. His policy of fielding dual anchormen in midfield was criticised last season, but Alonso lent a creativity that Lucas does not. The Brazilian endured an evening when little went right, gifting Villa with the opening goal with a misdirected header.
Another of Benitez's peccadilloes was highlighted for the second, when Curtis Davies headed in Nicky Shorey's corner. Zonal marking, despite the suspicion of the pundits who played in an era when it was rarity, has often proved an effective tactic for Liverpool, but not on this occasion. Benitez's favoured 4-2-3-1 formation brought further comment, with suggestions opponents have worked out his side. Tactically organised, Villa found a method of countering it although, as ever with Liverpool, it was a question of if it was systematic failure or subduing of the pivotal individuals.
Whichever, men such as Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker and James Milner merited praise for their performances. It offered some encouragement to Liverpool's Glen Johnson, who said: "I definitely believe that teams like Aston Villa and Tottenham and Man City will take points off the so-called Big Four this season. That is a good thing about the Premier League, anybody can beat everybody." That is certainly Liverpool's experience. Now they must hope their title rivals discover as much.