First half 4-4-2 leaves Liverpool too stretched in midfield

Brendan Rodgers's decision to play a 4-4-2 in Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Aston Villa this afternoon was an interesting one. Rodgers would have been well aware Paul Lambert's Villa nearly always play with three in the middle of midfield so would have known his team would be outmanned in that area.

From the opening whistle Liverpool were stretched in the midfield zone. Jordan Henderson partnered Steven Gerrard at center midfield. The two tried to get forward in possession to offer support in attacking areas. However, when Liverpool lost possession, they were out of position to offer protection for the back four and Villa were able to break uncontested through the middle.

Villa set out in a 4-1-2-1-2 shape with Andy Weimann playing at the top of the diamond just behind the front two of Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Ashley Westwood sat just in front of the back four with Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph on either side of him as box to box runners. The diamond midfield meant Gerrard and Henderson were often outnumbered 2 v. 4 in the middle of the pitch. When Villa won the ball back they were able to play easy outlet passes into Weimann or Benteke dropping in off the Liverpool center backs. They would then look to play penetrating balls to Agbonlahor running in the channels in the space behind Liverpool's advanced fullbacks. For Villa's opener Benteke provided the outlet pass for Delph and found Agbonlahor racing down the left sideline. Agbonlahor found Weimann in the box with a well weighted ball in for the goal.

Starting XI's: Liverpool 4-4-2; Villa 4-1-2-1-2
Liverpool's 4-4-2 shape also wasn't offering enough going forward. Although Coutinho tried to tuck inside from a starting left position to link play with the two forwards, it was easy for Villa to defend. Delph and El Ahmadi could apply pressure to Gerrard and Henderson while Westwood sat in the space between the lines to check Coutinho's runs inside or Suarez and Sturridge dropping in off the center backs. As a result, Liverpool struggled to get into the same sort of passing high up the pitch they're used to at Anfield.

Rodgers recognized the weakness of having just two center midfielders on and made an important change at halftime by bringing on Lucas. Rather than subbing off one of his center forwards in order to add Lucas as a third midfielder, Rodgers instead took off Coutinho. Lucas sat in front of the back four, providing both protection for the back four when Villa countered and an extra passing option in midfield. Replacing a left sided attacking midfielder with a center midfielder meant Liverpool ran the risk of not having an attacker in advanced areas wide on the left. Their solution for this problem was clever. Aly Cissokho switched from a left fullback to a much more advanced left wing back. With Raheem Sterling providing natural attacking width on the right, Glen Johnson was able to sit deeper alongside Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure as part of a back three. Liverpool's shape in possession was therefore more or less a slightly titled 3-5-2. Defensively Cissokho would drop back in to form a back four.

Liverpool shape in second half when in possession
The introduction of Lucas allowed Liverpool to assert more control on the game and left them less vulnerable on the counter. The Brazilian was forced off with an injury in the 66th minute and was replaced in a like-for-like sub with Joe Allen. Allen didn't offer quite the same sturdy platform for Gerrard and Henderson to get forward that Lucas did and at times Liverpool looked uncertain at the back. The game surprisingly fizzled out a bit after Gerrard equalized from the penalty spot. Villa deserve credit for not allowing the home side to take control of the contest after that goal.