In what's been a familiar scene over the past week a poor start from Aston Villa saw them down a goal early, but in contrast to their previous two outings they were unable to fight their way back level. Villa's first half performance was probably the worst they've looked for any extended stretch this season, but aside from one moment of brilliance from Daniel Sturridge Liverpool weren't able to make Villa pay. With the window still open in the second half Villa managed to make things interesting, but a lack of creativity and a monstrous save from Simon Mignolet thwarted any hope of a comeback.
Aston Villa started the first two games of the season in a Christmas-tree-esque 4-5-1, switching to 4-3-3 when falling behind. Today the shape started out as a weirdly unbalanced 4-4-2, and it was clear pretty early on that it wasn't going to work. Villa's midfield was being overrun, unable to strong two passes together and chasing shadows. Given the number of minutes played this week this was a recipe for disaster; the goal was pretty clearly to wear Villa out, and for the majority of the first half it appeared as though it was going to work. Luckily Paul Lambert noticed and adjusted, shifting back to the 4-3-3 shape not long before half time. The difference was noticeable, not quite delivering immediate danger but at least allowing Villa to keep the ball a bit and set the table for further adjustments at half time.
The first half plan (or at least execution) seemed to favor crowding the middle and staying narrow in attack, while in the second half Villa seemed willing to risk giving Liverpool space in the center in order to introduce more width into the attack. It was a decent move; Gabby Agbonlahor was significantly more involved after the break, and though Benteke is generally the focal point of Villa's attack it's often Gabby that makes it tick. And on a day where Kolo Toure largely kept Benteke in his back pocket, having another threat in attack was desperately needed. Much in the way the first half belonged to Liverpool the second half belonged to Villa; most of the possession, almost all of the chances, but without the payoff the Reds enjoyed thanks to Sturridge's brilliant individual effort. The home side would come close on a few occasions-most notably a volleyed effort from Benteke that forced a tremendous save from Mignolet-but Villa was never especially convincing in the final third.
A 1-0 loss to Liverpool isn't an especially bad result, especially considering the larger context of Villa's opening week. There were positive signs; save for one miscued header towards the end, Jores Okore had a tremendous home debut. Paul Lambert might have gotten the tactics wrong early, but that he was able to recognize the issues and adjust accordingly before too much damage was done is certainly encouraging. Perhaps most of all, the fact that Villa didn't collapse in spite of a Demanding week and a horrible start is yet another sign of this side's maturity.
But on the balance, this was a disappointing performance. Bouncing back from poor starts is nice, but eventually Villa is going to have to come out of the gates strong. In all three of their games they very easily could have been behind by two or more before turning things around. Andreas Weimann and Matthew Lowton-both bright spots last season and players on which Villa are depending in order to make significant progress this season-have been poor at best so far. Perhaps more than anything, it's the lack of creativity in attack that is worrisome. Villa's 17-5 edge in shots today might look like evidence of a dominant and unlucky attacking performance, but in reality it was largely due to Liverpool being content to allow low-percentage efforts with a belief that Villa wouldn't be able to break them down. This team is deadly when given the opportunity to counter-attack and they have several special players capable of creating their own chances. But whether that's going to be sufficient over the course of a full season remains to be seen, especially against teams that aren't going to see themselves as heavy favorites.
These are all concerns that aren't limited to today's game, though they were arguably more clearly on display than in Villa's first two outings. There's still every reason to look back on this week and feel very positive about things. Three points and an even goal difference in what will likely be three of the ten toughest games of the season isn't bad at all, and at no point has Villa looked fully outclassed. It's perfectly reasonable to be disappointed with today's showing and still view it in a larger, positive context. And even though it wasn't to the standard you'd hope to see consistently, it certainly wasn't bad by any stretch.
But still, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity. This is a very good Liverpool side that just didn't really have things clicking today, and with slightly better play Villa easily could have had a point. This team grew up a lot last season, but it still has some maturing to do. Thankfully, there's every reason to believe that they're going to. The Newcastle game can't get here soon enough.