In a routine afternoon of football, Liverpool beat Aston Villa 2-0 at Anfield.
The Reds were nowhere near their fluid best but Aston Villa couldn’t muster enough power to knock them out and eventually fell to the Premier League champions superior quality. What did we learn?
1. The Man
Every side has a clutch goalscorer, usually it’s a striker or the club’s best player. Leo Messi is Barcelona’s Mr. Clutch whilst Sergio Aguero fills that role for Manchester City. But Liverpool’s best player is Mohamed Salah or Virgil van Dijk, and Liverpool’s striker is Roberto Firmino, yet at Anfield there’s only one person who you could call The Man and that’s Sadio Mané.
Mané has 16 goals so far this season and 8 of them have opened the scoring in games. So often when the Reds have needed someone to pop up with a goal, it’s been Mané. He doesn’t have the majestic skill of Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino but he has a staggering game intelligence that nearly always sees him in the right place at the right time to take chances.
Against Manchester City, Liverpool only had two good chances and unsurprisingly they both fell to Mané. Shockingly he failed to take either one and as a result Liverpool lost. Today he was more focused and when Naby Keita’s pass fell to him he made no mistake and rattled the ball in off the bar with his weak foot to ensure that Liverpool’s homecoming as Premier League champions ended with a win.
Sadio Mané is The Man.
2. Aston Villa just don’t have it
Villa put up a good fight at Anfield. They were constantly competitive and gave Liverpool a run for their money before narrowly losing to a goal from one of the Reds’ fabulous front three. No shame in that, right?
Well, except this game was being played after Liverpool had been confirmed as Champions and the Reds lacked much of the intensity and focus that they had before they were official crowned as winners. This was Diet Liverpool, and whilst no one expected Villa to dice them up like Manchester City did at the Etihad, this match was there for the winning and Villa didn’t even come close.
A better side, a more potent side, would at least have taken the lead. Perhaps that would have stirred Liverpool into action and they would have lost anyway, but they would have shown some kind of fight, a sign that perhaps against weaker opponents they would have enough to pick up the wins that would keep them safe. But no, Aston Villa just don’t have what it takes and their only saving grace is that both Watford and Bournemouth are just as bad as them so there’s a chance they may fluke survival.
3. Curtis Jones makes a statement
Jurgen Klopp has said that he won’t hand Premier League appearances out to young players just because, insisting that all players had to earn their way into his team. Curtis Jones is one player who has consistently managed to edge his way into the side. Scoring those goals in the FA Cup probably helped convince Klopp he was worth the time.
So when he came on today against Aston Villa, it wasn’t a surprise. And equally when he scored to double Liverpool’s lead, a lovely strike from a Mohamed Salah knockdown, it wasn’t a surprise. With the departure of Adam Lallana, Liverpool will be in need of a midfielder with the knack of getting forward and scoring goals and it’s looking increasingly like the teenaged Jones will fill that role.
4. Captain Jack will shine elsewhere
Aston Villa are struggling because of a lack of quality, but that doesn’t extend to their captain Jack Grealish. The Englishman is a sensational talent and even in defeat at Anfield, in the kind of game where playmakers often struggle, this was obvious.
Villa’s “give it to Jack and pray” strategy has meant that Grealish is the most-fouled player in the Premier League. Grealish has won 151 fouls which is nearly half a century more than second-place Wilf Zaha. He’s also created more chances (82) than anyone but Kevin de Bruyne, yet only 6 of these were considered “big” chances thanks to Villa’s lack of quality elsewhere.
Wherever he goes in the summer (and a move to Manchester United has been mooted) he will surely find many more attacking options for him to make use of and display the true extent of his immense talent.
5. Thiago Alcantara could change the game (again)
After missing out on Timo Werner, Liverpool are heavily linked with a move for Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara. This is an interesting move because Thiago has a profile unlike any other Liverpool player, in fact he is a Pep Guardiola-style midfielder (Guardiola gave him his debut at Barcelona and then signed him for Bayern Munich).
But whilst there are obvious drawbacks to signing a 29-year-old who has a history of injuries and will demand huge wages, the potential upside here for Liverpool is colossal. Currently they have no midfielder capable of orchestrating the tempo of a game and helping the Reds kill teams through possession.
Now, they’ve adjusted for that by unleashing their full-backs as creators and making the midfield an engine of work rather than creativity (though it obviously still can create). But you must always evolve if you want to stay on top and so the acquisition of Thiago is a clear sign that once again, Klopp wants to change the game and evolve the way Liverpool play. To add another string to his side’s bow.
And today’s game at Anfield showed where such a player could come in handy. With someone like Thiago in the team then games like this, where the team isn’t quite at it, can become low-risk thanks to a more effective and considered use of possession. With Thiago to find angles and passes no one else can. In the end it was a clever ball from Trent Alexander-Arnold that split Villa open to create Mané’s goal: with Thiago on the field those kind of passes would happen more frequently.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool with an elite playmaker in the side is frankly quite terrifying.