The 2014 calendar year has been extremely kind to Liverpool save for a handful of results, with a twelve match winning streak and a near-miss on their first title in over two decades. They headed into the international break with two wins from three, including a resounding 3-0 victory over Spurs at White Hart Lane, and looked poised for a special month of football ahead of Saturday's kickoff against Aston Villa.
Then they produced one of the more disappointing displays since the start of last season, deservedly falling to a 1-0 defeat on a ninth-minute winner by Villa's Gaby Agbonlahor. It was an atypical performance as far as the past eight months goes, something Brendan Rodgers noted in his subdued post-match comments:
"As a team we probably didn't quite have the intensity in our game and the speed in our game. When they get a goal and go 1-0 up, you've got to get around the sides and switch the play a bit quicker. We were just unable to do that. Everything was centralised when they were very compact centrally. The second half was much better in terms of domination and getting the ball into wide areas.
"They defended well; the back four and midfield five were in, and with Agbonlahor on the counter-attack they are always a threat. We just started slowly in the game and it's unlike us really because normally we start very quickly. In the two games here, we haven't quite started as fast. We have found a problem with Aston Villa in my time here. We have won away from home but again today the bit of quality in the final third let us down."
That missing bit of quality was largely the ability to break down a compact and organized Villa defense; an on-form Philippe Coutinho would have helped, as would a better rest Raheem Sterling, a match-fit Adam Lallana and up-to-speed versions of Mario Balotelli and Lazar Markovic. The absences of Daniel Sturridge and Joe Allen didn't do Rodgers any favors in his picking for the day either, as it forced him to use what's become his second- and third-choice formations rather than the diamond that's set the stage for some of Liverpool's more commanding displays in the past year.
None of which are adequate excuses for their efforts, of course, and Villa were unquestionably the better side on the day. But it was, in many ways, similar to displays in Rodgers' first year--flashes of promise with little consistency or cohesion, and ultimately not enough cutting edge to turn the match in their favor. For all the newness in the squad, Saturday was just another version of the same old Liverpool, one that all involved had hoped they left behind.