LIVERPOOL VS. ASTON VILLA
| Saturday, April 10th |
Premier League | Anfield
3PM GMT/10AM EST
As we have reported, Villa main man Jack Grealish has been ruled out for the weekend after the Villa captain suffered a setback in his recovery. This will come as welcome news for Liverpool, who are missing their own captain (as well as, you know). It has been clear that Grealish is central to Villa’s creative production for some time, and with his absence their attacking sharpness has gone down (though Dean Smith was pleased with the attacking sharpness in their final 20 minutes against Fulham last time out, where his side scored three goals to win the game 3-1).
While their attack has at times been a problem, particularly in the absence of Grealish, their defense has been strong: they’ve conceded 31 goals this season, which is third best overall after Manchester City (21) and Chelsea (30). They have also kept the most clean sheets in the league (8). This stinginess is something to worry about, as Liverpool have been finding it hard to score at home of late.
Overall Villa’s form has dipped — again likely reflecting the absence of their captain — and they have won just one game in their last five outings, though they’ve drawn two of the remaining four. Of course, Liverpool will feel they need to win, and will hope to return to the clean sheets that their new centerback pairing had been so good at collecting before the woeful outing in Madrid.
Ollie Watkins is Villa’s leading scorer this season with 13 goals in all competitions (xG 16), though he is missing the creative output of Grealish, who assisted four of his 10 non-penalty Premier League goals. Though Villa don’t have a lot of high scoring players (with Watkins the only player in double digits), Watkins is far from their only source of goals. Trézéguet managed to find the net twice after a run of 32 shots without a league goal (since July, per Opta), and Ross Barkley, who only has three goals (xG 3.9) on the season does love a good showing against the Reds. Anwar El Gazi has seven goals in all competitions, and Bertrand Traoré is on six).
Aston Villa have European aspirations, which Dean Smith himself recognizes is a surprise given that they stayed up “by the skin of their teeth” (and through a goal line technology error) last season. As much as this is a must-win game for the Reds, it’s a must-win game for Smith’s men as well.
Projected Liverpool Lineup (4-3-3)
Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Phillips, Kabak, Tsimikas; Fabinho, Thiago, Jones; Salah, Firmino, Jota
There’s a Twitter account run by a Southampton fan called “have either of the 9-0s been mentioned?” and that vibe is very much the same as the lead-up to Liverpool vs. Villa: do you remember the 7-2? The chatter will make sure you do.
The Liverpool that lost by an incredible scoreline away to Dean Smith’s Aston Villa was disjointed in defense and full of individual errors (but was a full-strength side); the present Liverpool is inconsistent in form and depleted by injuries.
Really the only connecting line between these two versions of 2020/21 Liverpool is the individual performance level of Mohamed Salah: in both the recent disappointing loss to Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League tie and in the big loss to Villa, Salah showed up and put his chances away. In a season characterized by inconsistency and unpredictability, Mo Salah remains. Hopefully the Egyptian is backed by a team in good form; we hope the Liverpool who faced Arsenal (rather than the version we saw in Madrid) show up to Anfield tomorrow.
Manager Jürgen Klopp must balance the importance of this match with that of the second leg against Madrid. The rotation we saw last Tuesday (with Naby Keïta and Diogo Jota coming into the midfield and attack) suggest both a balance in rotation for fitness reasons as well as the suggested merit-based starting roles.
I would expect Saturday’s lineup-against Villa to be similarly balanced between rest and merit: Andy Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum are in the top three of minutes played this season, and both might be rested (or expect to be subbed) tomorrow — though it does seem like Klopp never rests either of them as much as we expect it.
While Salah has played the second-most minutes, it’s rare for him to start on the bench, and his form suggests he will keep his place unless fitness requires it. If Diogo Jota comes in it’s likely to be for Sadio Mané, whose form in front of goal has dipped somewhat lately.
While the midfield three is hard to predict, it’s possible Klopp is being careful with Thiago, as his injury record is not quite blemish-free, and there might be a need to manage his minutes ahead of this final run-in. If so, we might see James Milner come in to be an adult and do logical bits.
Nobody (not one!) got injured against Real Madrid, but fitness levels are still being addressed at the time of Klopp’s press conference, a constant challenge this season given we play seemingly every day.
What the Managers Had to Say
Jurgen Klopp: “They are good, they really good ... Good setup, made some good signings – [some] long ago, we probably won’t see them anymore as ‘signings’.”
Dean Smith: “I didn’t like watching [Liverpool] against Arsenal last week because they were outstanding. They’ve got one of the top coaches in the world, they’ve got a top team and they’re still in a place where you can be fearful when you play them.”
Referee: Paul Tierney Assistants: Simon Bennett, Constantine Hatzidakis Fourth Official: Chris Kavanagh VAR: Andy Madley Assistant VAR: Adrian Holmes
Kickoff is set for 3PM GMT/10AM EST tomorrow, and television listings for the match can be found on LiveSoccerTV. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping you updated with all the buildup to the game, including team news as it’s released, our live matchday thread, and post-match recaps from The Liverpool Offside staff. If you want to join the discussion, sign up for an SB Nation account to have your say on the action as it happens.