Liverpool failed to keep their winning run going on Saturday, drawing 1-1 against Aston Villa at Anfield in a match significant for the Merseysiders on several levels.
It was also a match in which the home team didn’t have their manager in the dugout, as Jurgen Klopp served his suspension for the comments he made about referee Paul Tierney after his team’s victory over Tottenham Hotspur a few weeks ago.
Jacob Ramsey broke the deadlock to give the visitors a lead in the 27th minute, and Roberto Firmino came off the bench in the second half to net an 89th-minute equalizer.
Liverpool pushed hard to score first through the opening 15 minutes, but having repelled their advances through hard work and determination, Aston Villa gradually leveled the playing field.
With just over 20 minutes gone, Ollie Watkins broke into Liverpool’s box and there he was caught by a late tackle from Ibrahima Konate. Referee John Brooks had no doubts as he blew the whistle, pointed to the spot and booked the Liverpool defender. Watkins, however, sent his low shot from 12 yards wide of the post.
Nonetheless, Liverpool’s inability to keep some control of the game eventually cost them dearly. Just five minutes later, Douglas Luiz sent a fine cross from the right to the far post and found Ramsey lurking there. The young winger kept his composure and steered the ball past Alisson Becker to silence the home crowd and pour cold water over their hopes of seeing the Reds in the Champions League next season.
Obviously shaken by the goal, Liverpool were hard pressed not to concede another, and Alisson needed to be at the top of his game to prevent it.
In the second half, the Merseysiders finally got a grip, seized possession and pushed the visitors back. Still, it wasn’t enough – there were no ideas how to break through Villa’s low block when the ball reached the barrier 25 yards from Emiliano Martinez. Mohamed Salah was pale, Luis Diaz tried hard but was constantly outnumbered. Trent Alexander-Arnold, stepping frequently into midfield, wasn’t finding the right channels to engage the players ahead of him. Cody Gakpo appeared frustrated by the fact that he wasn’t able to drag anybody from the opposition back line out of position. Villa boss Unai Emery has obviously drilled his team well.
But Liverpool gradually increased the pressure and in the 55th minute, Gakpo put the ball into the net from close range and saw it disallowed for Virgil van Dijk supposedly acting from an offside position in the buildup.
Diogo Jota came on to replace Curtis Jones just after the hour-mark, which meant Klopp’s team (commanded by assistant boss Pep Lijnders) now had four attackers on the pitch. Nine minutes later, Anfield exploded into song as Firmino stepped up to replace Diaz and James Milner came on to take the captain’s armband from Jordan Henderson.
Milner’s presence, despite his 37 years of age, was notable at once. The veteran, who played for Aston Villa too during his long career, was winning duels wherever he went, not only enabling his team to move forward and attack in waves, but boosting their confidence as well. But in the end, it was, it had to be, Roberto Firmino who saved his team from the clutches of defeat late on.
With just over a minute of the 90 left to play, Salah finally sent a useful ball towards the edge of six yards where Firmino got the better of both Tyrone Mings and Martinez and diverted its course into the net.
With plenty of stoppages, the added time at the end of the second half was 10 minutes and Villa were forced to hold on for their lives in that period, but hold on they did, and took a well-earned point back to Birmingham.
Hardly a game goes by in the Premier League without a decision (or decisions) from the officials being questioned, and the biggest problem at this point is that claims of their incompetency are, more often than not, founded in reality. But let’s take it from the top.
There were three potentially controversial calls in this match and all three went Villa’s way. One of them, however, was the right one without a doubt. The other two require a fair bit of discussing.
There’s no need to discuss the penalty – Konate was indeed late and there was definite contact which caused Watkins to lose footing and fall. Brooks got that one spot on even without the VAR. Most English referees arguably wouldn’t.
The first moment which needs some explaining happened near the end of the first half, when Tyrone Mings raised his foot very high and slammed his studs into the chest of Gakpo. Brooks, naturally, gave the foul and booked the Aston Villa defender. The VAR checked if there was cause for Mings to be sent off, and decided that there wasn’t, without the need to send Brooks to the pitch-side screen.
One can only assume that the decision was based on the fact that Mings got the ball first, and then hit Gakpo. However, it’s hard to argue against the impression that the England international, having played the ball, deliberately kept his foot up longer than necessary or natural, in order to hit the Liverpool attacker.
There will always be so-called “grey zones” with such calls and officials are usually reluctant to send players off before halftime. Was the decision right? Possibly, but possibly not. It was clearly a case for the referee to be sent to the screen and decide for himself whether the challenge warranted a red card or not.
The VAR, however, had no problems with sending Brooks to the screen to review Gakpo’s 55th-minute goal for alleged offside, which wasn’t spotted by either the referee or the linesman. A long ball from the right flank towards the far post, played by Alexander-Arnold, was headed backwards by Diaz. It hit Ezri Konsa and rebounded towards Van Dijk, who was indeed closer to Martinez’s goal than any Villa player. But it came to the Dutchman off a Villa player, so what’s the issue? Where’s the offside?
The laws of the game state that such situations are still deemed offside if the defender did not mean to play the ball. So the big question was, had Konsa meant to play the ball? This time the VAR chose not to make the call but to have Brooks see it for himself. And again, it came down to a “grey zone” moment.
Having seen the footage, Brooks decided Konsa did NOT mean to play the ball, which meant Van Dijk was, in his opinion, offside.
Looking at the situation from several angles, it’s hard to agree with Brooks there. Konsa’s left leg didn’t look like it was in a natural position when the contact with the ball came. It looked like he fully meant to do what he did – stretching the leg sideways to stop Diaz’s header from finding another red shirt at six yards from Martinez’s goal.
Again, it’s a situation that could only be resolved through subjective judgement, and Brooks can’t be blamed for seeing it his way. That’s what he’s there for.
The four farewells
This match was to be the last ever at Anfield for the four Liverpool players whose departures from the club at the end of the season have been confirmed. As expected, only two of them actually played in it, and both from the bench.
The whole day was surely an emotional experience for Milner and Firmino. Both joined Liverpool in 2015, Milner as a free agent from Manchester City, and Firmino from Hoffenheim as an in-demand player linked with several other top clubs.
These two players have played huge roles in everything Liverpool have done under Klopp’s guidance. Milner has played in at least six positions for Liverpool, doing his impressive best in each of them, doing whatever the manager requested in the way he was instructed to, always reliable, whether as a stand-in captain or a penalty taker, or a tough fighter on the pitch, or even a goal-line clearance maker. The 37-year-old has reportedly agreed to join Brighton and Hove Albion for 2023/24.
Many agree that the heights reached by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (now a Bayern Munich player) wouldn’t be possible without the selflessness of Firmino. The Brazilian was the link between the two wingers for a very long time, and always worked tirelessly to create space for them to attack. He was, for a while the synonym of the “false nine role”.
Further more, both Firmino and Milner have been adored by the Anfield faithful. For the fans, they are heroes, and their names are etched in club’s history forever.
The 2019 Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, the 2019/20 Premier League title, the 2021/22 Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, these are the trophies that Firmino and Milner won together at Liverpool. There were a couple of close calls too – the 2016 Europa League, the 2018 and 2022 Champions League, the 2018/19 and 2021/22 Premier League – these were all campaigns that their team ended as runners-up.
Both Milner and Firmino are still likely to play one more game in the red of Liverpool – against the already relegated Southampton at St. Mary’s next week, the final matchday of the Premier League season.
Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also leave the club. Mainly due to their horrible injury records, it can’t be said that they were involved in Liverpool’s successes nearly as much as Milner or Firmino. Oxlade-Chamberlain had a fine first season at the club, stepping nicely into the breach when Philippe Coutinho left to join Barcelona in January 2018, but it ended in agony as he suffered a long-term knee injury in the Champions League semifinal against AS Roma that year. He has never been the same since.
As for Keita, his injuries have been so frequent and usually followed by long spells of poor form that Klopp’s team won’t feel his departure too keenly, at least not in football terms.
All four players will leave Anfield as free agents, and while Milner’s destination is believed to be known, it’s not the case for Firmino, Oxlade-Chamberlain or Keita.
With the point taken from Anfield, Aston Villa are seventh with a tally of 58 at the moment, one more than Tottenham Hotspur in eighth and two more than Brentford in ninth. A win in the last round would obviously ensure a season in Europe for Emery’s team. The only problem is, the opponent in that last round is Brighton, who have three points more and a game in hand, and also want the points for themselves. It’ll be a tough contest for both sides, with plenty to be won.
As for Liverpool, the top-four race is all but over. Manchester United and Newcastle need a point apiece to put it mathematically beyond the reach of the Merseysiders, and they both have a game in hand. The Magpies face Leicester City at home on Monday evening and the Red Devils host Chelsea on Wednesday – it’s very likely to end there. If it’s any consolation for Liverpool after their underwhelming season, at least their place in the Europa League can’t be lost, and that’s probably all they have deserved.
A summer of rebuild is due at Anfield, and it remains to be seen in which direction it takes them.