In these disorientating times it can feel as if all reference points have been scrambled. Aston Villa are not supposed to destroy Liverpool, the remorseless title-winning force shaped by Jürgen Klopp, making their star-studded back four look like rabbits in front of floodlights. But on an extraordinary night at Villa Park – a sadly silent Villa Park – that is precisely what happened.
Ollie Watkins, the £28m arrival from Brentford, helped himself to a hat-trick before half-time while Jack Grealish, the game’s outstanding performer, scored two and contributed three assists. Villa have now won three out of three at the start of a top-flight season for the first time since 1962.
But they are merely the headline details. The story was about how Villa asserted themselves from the first whistle, tearing Liverpool’s high defensive line to pieces and making one of the loudest statements of their recent history.
Villa’s previous conquests had been Sheffield United and Fulham – teams at the foot of the table. As Dean Smith, the manager, had noted, Liverpool would be a “great marker to see how far we have moved on”.
This was a performance and result to send expectations into orbit.
What on earth happened to Liverpool? They badly missed the presence of the goalkeeper, Alisson, who enables them to play their high line. He damaged a shoulder in training and is out for four-to-six weeks but that only goes some way towards explaining the shambles on display.
The tone was set by Villa’s opening goal and it was a personal disaster for Adrián, Alisson’s deputy. He was guilty of playing a loose pass from his own line straight to Grealish, who worked it back inside for the unmarked Watkins to finish. Bad concessions can happen but what was unacceptable, to paraphrase Klopp – and so unusual – was Liverpool’s lack of a response, the lack of aggression. Villa were 4-1 up at half-time, with Grealish close to unplayable.
His ability to drift away from opponents, to find spaces when it looked overcrowded, was an outstanding feature of the game. Each time his team went forward in the first half, the alarms bells rang in the Liverpool defence. It has been a long time since they looked so uncomfortable. Their structure was in tatters.
The crazy thing was that Villa ought to have had more before the interval, with Ross Barkley blowing two gilt-edged chances. The loan signing from Chelsea, who went straight into the line-up for a debut, was particularly aggrieved to have dragged wide on eight minutes from Grealish’s pass.
At the time it was easy to think that Villa would regret that moment. Instead, they set about creating more and scoring more. Watkins’s second was a beauty, beginning with how Grealish sent him clear of Virgil van Dijk on the left. Watkins cut inside back inside the Liverpool captain before picking out the far, top corner.
It was not as if Liverpool did not have their openings in the first-half. Even without Sadio Mané, who has tested positive for coronavirus, they brought menace. Their only reward before the interval came when Mohamed Salah lashed home for 2-1 after a Naby Keita shot had been blocked but Roberto Firmino twice extended Emiliano Martínez while the Villa goalkeeper had to be alert to tip over a Diogo Jota chip and also save from Andy Robertson. Martínez got away with a poor clearance, too, with Firmino delaying before Keita had his shot blocked.
Villa turned the screw. John McGinn’s goal for 3-1 contained a slice of luck, his shot from a half-cleared corner deflecting heavily off Van Dijk to beat Adrián, and the fourth came when Trezeguet got around the back to return Barkley’s deep free-kick for Watkins to head home. Liverpool’s defenders seemed to watch it happen in slow motion. What was going on?
Smith said it was surreal in the dressing-room at half-time but he wanted to remain on the front foot and things would get even better. Barkley drove his team with the ball at feet and he got the goal he deserved when he took a Grealish pass on the edge of the area, looked up and tried to catch Adrián off his line. His shot flicked up off Trent Alexander-Arnold and sailed into the far corner.
Grealish deserved a goal, too, and, after Salah had pulled one back following a Firmino pass, the Villa captain got it. It came via another deflection – Villa’s third – this one off Fabinho but they did not care. They had got into the positions. They had made their own luck.
Grealish got his second with a dinked finish and the closing stages were also notable for Watkins one-on-one against Adrián and hitting the crossbar. Villa had seven but the astonishing truth was that it should have been double figures.