It was a very emotional afternoon at Anfield on Saturday. Steven Gerrard, the man who spent the vast majority of his playing career as the Liverpool captain and remains a club icon, returned to the place of his great achievements as the manager of the opposition, leading Aston Villa against his beloved Reds in the 16th round of the Premier League campaign.
The match was settled by Mohamed Salah’s perfect execution of a penalty which he himself had won.
During his first press conference as the Villa boss, Gerrard was expectedly asked about his affiliations with Liverpool and the prospect of sitting in the Anfield dugout one day. However, he quite understandably refused to discuss the matter, feeling that it would be disrespectful towards his new employers to do so.
On the other hand, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp spoke about Gerrard in his press conference ahead of this match, despite jokingly saying at the start that he wouldn’t answer any questions on the subject.
“Wonderful story,” he said. “Stevie will probably have no idea how it will feel when he steps into the stadium. I had it in a similar way first time back at Mainz and back at Dortmund with LFC. I’ve never heard a negative word about Steven Gerrard.”
It must have been an emotional moment for Gerrard to step out and hear “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung in that stadium ahead of a Premier League match again. Anfield certainly knew how to welcome their hero, and the Gerrard song, sung so many times between 1998 and 2015, echoed once more around the stadium.
The Villa approach
As expected, Gerrard was completely able to put his feelings towards Liverpool aside for 90+ minutes, once the opening blast of the whistle sounded. Facing one of the best teams in England, and indeed, Europe, his players knew they had a tough job to do to snatch anything from the contest. They fought hard, some more than others it, it has to be said.
John McGinn stood out with the ferocity of his duels and determination to outplay, outmuscle, or outsmart any Liverpool player that stood in his way. The same can be said about striker Ollie Watkins at one end of the pitch and centre-back Tyrone Mings at the other, even if the latter did commit the foul that led to Liverpool winning the match. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez also did very well to save several difficult shots and frustrate the home players hard.
Deserved victory for Liverpool
Nonetheless, the difference in quality between the two teams was clear for everyone to see. As Klopp himself pointed out afterwards, his team completely dominated the proceedings for around 75 minutes and created a bundle of chances which either ended with a miss of the target, a brilliant block from one of the Villa defenders, or a top-class save from Martinez.
If there was one aspect in which Villa looked better than Liverpool, it’s goalkeeping. Martinez really did very well throughout, while Alisson Becker at the other end will want to forget this match as quickly as possible. Indeed, the only situations where the visitors looked like they might score came as a result of his mistakes. Luckily for him, the Villa players involved in those moments failed to make them count.
Liverpool held the ball for 63% of the time, taking a total of 20 shots, compared to Villa’s four, none of which hit the target. With just the one goal in it, the contest could have ended differently, of course, but in the end, the result reflected the match well.
The seriously fallen standards in Premier League refereeing
As poorly as Alisson performed in this match, the worst man out there by a mile was the referee. It was a very telling sign three years ago when FIFA did not appoint a single World Cup match to an English official, and the time gone since will have done very little to improve their reputation. In this match, Stuart Atwell blended perfectly into the overall malaise apparently plaguing the Premier League.
Both sides will have had their complaints about it, not least Gerrard who was quick to note that Liverpool got ‘their penalty’ while his team did not. There actually was a moment, late in the second half, when Atwell might have taken a closer look into a clash between Alisson and former Liverpool man Danny Ings, though there really didn’t appear to have been much in it. Gerrard also called the Liverpool penalty ‘soft’, but he’s simply wrong on that one. Mings first pulled Salah back and then clipped him from behind as the Egyptian burst past him inside the box. Even the expression on Migs’ face as the whistle sounded was one of guilt and resignation to the decision being given. He knew it wasn’t going to be overturned.
No. The calls inside the two boxes were arguably given correctly, though some on Liverpool’s side will point to Sadio Mane being brought down by the already booked Marvelous Nakamba too. But like with Ings, there just didn’t seem to be too much in it. However, Atwell made a number of glaring mistakes in other areas of the pitch, continuously from the start to the finish. He also failed to impose proper control on the game an official at this level needs to be able to do his job well.
It is to be hoped that the issue of poor officiating will be tackled properly at some point, as it severely mars the overall impression of the arguably most competitive league in the world.
The race rages on
With the matches on Sunday yet to be played, this defeat has left Aston Villa in the 12th place with 19 points from 16 matches. It’s worth remembering that they recently went through a five-loss slump, which eventually led to Gerrard replacing Dean Smith in the dugout.
But since the former Liverpool captain took charge, things have improved greatly and they should sweat too much over losing at Anfield. They’ll have a good chance of improving their position in the table quite soon, facing the relegation threatened pair of Norwich City and Burnley next week.
As for Liverpool, the title race remains as fierce and tight as before. Manchester City still top the table with 38 points having beaten Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Etihad, the Reds are second with 37, while Champions League holders Chelsea remain close behind on 36 after their 3-2 triumph over Leeds United. Funnily enough, all three contenders won their respective matches thanks to goals that coming from penalty spots.