An intriguing clash between a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 summed up the differences between two of England's most exciting managers
The 2011/12 season was the making of both Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert. The former's focus on the monopolisation on possession won both him and Swansea many admirers, while the primary feature of Norwich City's play was their astute formation changes, giving Lambert a justified reputation as a clever tinkerman.
The previous clash between these two managers -- Norwich versus Swansea in February -- resulted in a fine tactical battle won by an shrewd tactical switch by Lambert. Although both were now in charge of different sides, Aston Villa's 3-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield followed a similar pattern.
The away side started with the youngest starting eleven in Premier League but showed maturity beyond their age with an assured defensive performance, built on the foundation of an unorthodox 3-5-2 formation. With Brett Holman operating just ahead of a pivot of Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannan, Villa were evenly matched up against Liverpool's 4-3-3 in the centre, but where the Reds triumvirate was focused on keeping the ball, their opponents were content to sit back and protect the back three.
Instead, the difference between the formations came out wide, where Liverpool had natural width high up the pitch in Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey. By contrast, Eric Lichaj and Matthew Lowton were marshalling the left and right flank on their own. The natural effect of this was to allow Liverpool's fullbacks, Glen Johnson and Stewart Downing, high up the pitch, and it was no surprise that both finished as the game's highest passers.
Only Sterling completed more passes in the attacking third, which summed up how much room the wide defenders had.
But Lambert took advantage of the space that opened up in behind them, with his strike partnership Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann drifting out to the sides to find space on either side of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel.
By keeping the front two high up the pitch when out of possession, Villa had an obvious out-ball at transitions, and with Holman sporadically bursting past Lucas Leiva to provide more support, Villa were simply counter-attacking with three against two, mainly through long, direct passes. The second goal was a fine illustration of this trend -- Holman started the move after receiving a lay-off from Benteke, before the Belgian executed a superb backheel inside the channel for Weimann to sweep home.
Aston Villa's highest pass combination was between Brad Guzan and Benteke, and the whole side completed just 55 passes in the attacking third, nearly a quarter of Liverpool's tally. This was a classic counter-attacking v possession battle, as we've come to expect from these two managers.
Yet this wasn't the obvious approach that Lambert would take -- in fact, in that aforementioned fixture between Norwich and Swansea, the Canaries played high up the pitch to limit Swansea's possession. Here, Villa were more passive, happy to drop off near the halfway line, meaning Liverpool were the only side actively trying to win the ball back quickly. Their intent to do so resulted in some good chances, particularly when Gerrard was frustratingly undersold by a poor pass from Suarez midway through the first half.
Liverpool also looked promising when the midfielders made runs in behind Suarez, the false nine, and Gerrard caused Westwood problems when he burst in beyond the defensive line. The standard flaw with a back three is that can become a spare part up against a lone centre-forward, but Liverpool were effectively playing with none. Yet the Villa centre-backs handled Suarez's dynamic movement by quickly stepping out to intercept the ball, safe in the security of two extra centre-backs.
Rodgers attempts to salvage a point included inverting his wingers and introducing Joe Cole for Shelvey, but his biggest problem was converting possession into goals. Aston Villa rode their luck but Rodgers will acknowledge that as it were back in February, he was again undone by Lambert's tactical tweaking.