Saturday's match at Anfield sees two faltering sides in a match that could be pivotal for their respective managers. Brendan Rodgers and Tim Sherwood have both heard the boos from the fans this season already. A win could help stop the rot, a loss (or even a draw for the Liverpool manager) would plunge either into a full-blown crisis before some difficult matches.
The Capital One Cup performances against Birmingham and Carlisle did little to quieten the discontent from the stands, Villa edging a 1-0 win after a dismal first-half performance which Sherwood unconvincingly described as part of his plan, However Liverpool's scraped win on penalties against League 2 strugglers Carlisle United was even worse.
- Jack Grealish is the key man
After the sales of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph lots of commentators suggested that Villa had entirely lost the spine of the team. However Grealish has continued his excellent form at the end of last season into this one and has grown fully into the role of a No. 10 and conductor of the Villa attack.
If Villa are to win at Anfield, Grealish will be the key man, and Liverpool might need to drop a defensive midfielder specifically on him rather than letting him drift into the pockets of space in front of the defence where he does his best work.
- Jordan Ayew deserves another shot
After a disastrous performance as a substitute in the collapse at Leicester and unflattering comparisons with his brother André's start at Swansea, Jordan Ayew took his first positive steps at Villa with an excellent second-half performance against Birmingham, where he dazzled the Blues defence down the right flank and was unlucky to get neither a goal nor an assist.
Now this was against a Championship side, so there´s still an air of scepticism, but there was more to his performance than just bullying a poor defence. With Villa playing a 4-3-3 most of this season, they've struggled to find a fit in the wide right attacking position. Ayew played poorly there against Bournemouth, Gabby Abgonlahor has always struggled on the wing and Carles Gil prefers to drift inside. Against Birmingham Ayew showed a real hunger to get past his man and to the byline, where he could put in really dangerous balls, exactly the kind of wide attacking play that has been lacking down that side. He deserves a chance to prove he can do it against a Premier League defence.
- Who should be the striker?
Going to an edgy Anfield, with Liverpool struggling to make chances, Sherwood and Villa would be well advised to sit back and play on the counter and let the Reds feel the pressure. That means a lone striker but who should get the role? Rudy Gestede and Gabby Agonlahor are the two very different options with Libor Kozak still banished to the netherlands.
Gestede looked poor for most of the Birmingham match, his touch and hold-up play atrocious at times. But then of course he smacked in a unstoppable header from a perfect Jordan Amavi cross and he will always have the potential to do that. On the other hand his presence tempts Villa to play the worst kind of hoofball as seen in the first-half of the Cup match. Abgonlahor offers much more in terms of pace on the counter, especially to latch onto through-balls from Grealish, but also struggles to get a hold of the ball, as was the case against West Brom. Either option makes sense, but Gestede's goal and the possible presence of Ayew tips the balance towards the big target-man, if Sherwood can get his team to work the ball out wide rather than lumping it.
- Injuries could be a blessing in disguise
While Villans sighed in relief on hearing that Christian Benteke will miss out on the match after a hamstring injury, Liverpool fans may have felt some relief. With the £32 million signing out the way, space is open for Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings to play together. Ings in particular is becoming a fan favourite, his hard work overcoming the general malaise of the Liverpool team and he may be the main threat for the Villa defence.
The other important injury is Dejan Lovren, who is out for at least two months after an awkward landing on his ankle. While no fan wants to see an injury, especially not one which looked so serious, it does open space for either Mamadou Sakho or youngster Joe Gomez to come into the central defence and try to win a regular starting place alongside Martin Skrtel, whose partnership with Lovren has been shaky so far.
- 'Tactics Brendan' still under fire
Poor Brendan Rodgers is surely the only Premier League manager mocked more for his attempts to explain his tactical approach to the game than Tim Sherwood, both victims of not knowing when it's better to maintain the mystery.
His side currently look tactically incoherent, with a surfeit of central midfielders playing in each other's space and a lack of width. The switch to 3 at the back against Carlisle did little to solve those problems and Rodgers could choose to revert to the 4-<4>-2 diamond in which Alberto Moreno starred at left-back against Norwich.
- Unrest in the Kop may force an all-out attack
Whatever Rodgers' preferences may be, his side will be roared on to the attack by a restless Anfield crowd. Against Carlisle they registered a ridiculous 47 shots, with 16 on target and 19 corners. Despite that dominance in the statistics the reality was that a huge proportion of those shots were speculative efforts from long distance rather than the product of incisive play.
So far Liverpool have only scored 4 goals in 6 games (Villa are on 6), including two ridiculous wonderstrikes by Coutinho and Benteke and a goal that should have been ruled as offside. It's not the goal factory of the Suarez/Sturridge/Sterling days and the Anfield crowd will be desperate to see goals, which could play into Villa's hands.
So how should Villa play?
Tim Sherwood should feel no compunctions about playing on the counter and taking advantage of a Liverpool side lacking creativity but desperate to score. There's no reason to ditch the basic 4-2-3-1 they've been playing in, but as against Bournemouth in the first match of the season (see my analysis here), it can flatten out to a 4-5-1 when out of possession, to constrict the space in midfield. Carlos Sanchez and Ashley Westwood should sit deep and try and frustrate Liverpool through the centre. Ciaran Clark probably has also earned a return to the starting line up ahead of Joleon Lescott.
Jordan Ayew coming in on the right, instead of Carles Gil, would help solve the problems of width that I noted in my analysis of the West Brom match - as much as I love our Spanish playmaker, Grealish has a stranglehold on the No. 10 position and Villa need more width on the counter.
Rudy Gestede can be the big target man, but Villa need to play the ball to him intelligently. Lumping it from the central defence or clipped balls from central midfield don't work for a player who seems to lack the ball control to hold it up with his back to the goal. Crosses need to come from wide where he can really attack them. Down the left, hopefully Amavi can replicate his Birmingham cross, and Scott Sinclair was much more active down that side. On the right Ayew needs to work on getting to the byline . Behind him Leandro Bacuna would be the obvious choice to put in crosses, but Alan Hutton would be a sturdier defensive option against Moreno and has impressed on his latest appearances in his desire to get forward. He should get the nod.