For the first time in two decades, Villa have opened a Premier League campaign with consecutive wins, keeping two clean sheets in the process. Considering it took us 8 games to reach the same points total last season, the bright start has been enough to start spreading the belief amongst the fans that we might well be in for a much more positive season.
Whilst the victories have come against a Sheffield United team who have yet to find last season’s levels and a Fulham side who already look a little hapless, especially defensively, it’s still been enjoyable watching us play with greater confidence and even a little swagger. Nevertheless, the visit of defending champions Liverpool will be the real litmus test as to just how much we’ve progressed.
Ahead of the visit of Jürgen Klopp’s Reds, we spoke to Craig from The Anfield Wrap to run the rule over the opposition and gain the Liverpool perspective on the game.
1. Last season finally brought to an end Liverpool’s 30 year wait for a top flight title, do you think you are in a good position to defend that title this season and potentially for longer? Who do you think are going to be your main rivals in these next few seasons?
We know how difficult winning two in a row is, it took us 30 years to get the one! I think Liverpool are well placed to go again though and mentality will be key. Three wins from three so far against tough opposition, a new signing in Thiago that is a player of genuine world class quality and Jota who should mean we now have a genuine option for the front three that doesn’t see a big drop off when Mané or Salah need to be rested. This is the best Liverpool side I’ve ever seen and it has depth. It will undoubtedly be difficult, it won’t be the runaway it was last season and Man City will be determined not to let that happen again.
2. Clearly, Liverpool have an excellent squad and a decent crop of youngsters such as Curtis Jones and Neco Williams beginning to make the transition into the first team. With the adage that the best teams ‘strengthen from a position of strength’, what (if any) areas do you think you need to strengthen to continue your success?
A month ago fans were worried about our activity in the market. A new left back as a back up to Robertson didn’t feel like building from a position of strength, but Liverpool have signed a player in Thiago who is a serial winner, who lifts the dressing room and who improves our first eleven. That’s not an easy thing to do for 25 million. Jota is a great signing, I’m excited about him and his debut goal will do no harm either. I think Liverpool fans can be happy with where our squad is now, and it seems Fabinho will become our 4th choice defender when needed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Curtis Jones have an impact for Liverpool beyond the cups this season, a quality young player with confidence in himself and a drive to succeed – he’s taken Steven Gerrard’s number 17 shirt!
3. At this early stage of the season, Liverpool have shown an even more aggressive version of Klopp’s ‘Gegenpressing’ philosophy, playing an even higher line in attempts to force more turnovers and create even more goalscoring opportunities. Do you think this is the natural progression the Reds needed to make, or are there any fears that it could leave you more open to counter-attacking threats?
I think since VAR we’ve seen Liverpool play an even higher line, because they can rely on the technology. What excites me about Liverpool has always been how quick they are in transition. They see defending corners as an attacking opportunity to counter and we’ll see lots of that this season. Liverpool were however far too open against Leeds, hopefully that was a lesson learnt early on.
4. Villa are in positive mood, having won their opening two fixtures, keeping 2 clean sheets in the process. Having put in 2 committed performances against you last season – in particular running you very close in this fixture – are there any aspects of Villa’s team that you have any concerns about or that could cause you problems this time around?
I’ve been impressed with Villa’s improvement over this calendar year and they’ve made a great start this season. I’m made up they stayed up – brilliant club, great ground. We obviously enjoyed it last season, as it was a big moment in the title race that showed Liverpool’s resilience and determination. But Villa made it so difficult for us. They’ve come on night and day in their standard of defending from the beginning of last season too. It won’t be a walk in the park for Liverpool by any stretch. Villa were dead organised at Anfield at the end of the season too and I expect a tight game, I expect Villa to frustrate us. We won’t be taking it lightly and you have made a great start to the season.
5. Where do you think the potential weaknesses are that Villa could or should look to attack? And what aspects or weaknesses in Villa’s team do you think you’ll seek to exploit?
It’s the first Liverpool team in my lifetime where I look around and struggle to find a particular position or player to pin point or exploit. For two seasons they’ve continually found different ways to win. Sadio Mané has been huge for us and he’s missing, Thiago too and possibly Jordan Henderson. I think if Villa can contain Liverpool, frustrate them for long enough then it will be interesting to see how Liverpool react – and going by your first two games this season set pieces could be a key opportunity. Our full backs were a huge outlet for Liverpool at Villa last season – particularly Trent – and Fabinho and Keita in midfield could be key in unlocking Villa from deep.
6. How do you see Liverpool lining up for this match?
I think Alisson, Trent, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Keita, Jota, Firmino, Salah. Excited to see Jota’s first start in particular.
7. What are your predictions for the match?
Very tight. If Liverpool can get one early then it should open up more and that will suit The Reds. I’m going 2-1 The Reds, another tight hard fought affair.
This is clearly going to be a hugely difficult fixture for Villa and a real test for our new found defensive resilience. We’ll likely be spending a lot of time out of possession and so our organisation is going to be key and we’ll likely have to be patient in finding our opportunities.
Whoever plays out wide – and it will be Grealish and either Traoré or Trézéguet – they will be required to work very hard both in supporting attacks but more crucially, given Liverpool’s very attacking wing backs, in supporting the back four as well.
In both of last season’s meetings with Liverpool, Villa played well, stayed organised and created decent chances too, but were ultimately undone by tired errors and the relentless nature of Liverpool’s play. It’ll be difficult for most teams to match Liverpool’s fitness and energy, but if we can work as hard as we’ve shown we can and utilise our counter attacking opportunities and periods in possession then we can cause Liverpool problems.
Whilst the realist in me understands that Liverpool will likely win, the improvements that Villa have shown at the back end of last season and continued to build upon this season, give me much greater optimism that we can make things hard for Liverpool. I’d love for us to gain a famous win, but I’d be very happy with just going one better than last season’s stoppage time heartbreak and gaining a 1-1 draw.
By Jamie Yapp