Liverpool flaws exposed to leave Martinez beaming on scouting mission
Liverpool 2 Aston Villa 2
There were smiles in Anfield's directors box, despite Liverpool's dissatisfying draw with Aston Villa.
But rather than John W Henry skipping back to Boston having enjoyed the kind of entertainment that has become a feature this season, it was Everton manager Roberto Martinez who was beaming following an encouraging scouting mission.
Everton are the next visitors to Anfield for a Merseyside derby with major consequences in the scrap for fourth. He'll have been scribbling furiously in the in the 'plus points' column after a flawed home performance, and counting the hours until Romelu Lukaku gets to take on the Liverpool defence, which Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor destroyed for 45 minutes.
Only two sides have visited Anfield this season and attacked -- Villa joining Southampton in being rewarded for ambition -- and it will worry Brendan Rodgers how fragile his defence is under strain.
Villa should have been four up before Daniel Sturridge started the salvage operation that ended with Steven Gerrard's equalising penalty.
Liverpool possess one of the most exciting attacking set-ups in the Premier League, but this has camouflaged an untrustworthy defence.
It was evident from the first 60 seconds that Rodgers picked the wrong formation to accommodate Sturridge's return, with Gerrard being asked to shield the back four as Lucas started on the bench.
The experiment was abandoned after 30 minutes, Villa unlucky to be only an Andreas Weimann goal in credit at that stage.
Liverpool ended the half with Glen Johnson a temporary centre-back, 4-4-2 becoming 3-5-2. Lucas' introduction at the start of the second half confirmed the initial error.
"For me the system is irrelevant," said Rodgers. "But we never got control of that midfield and we couldn't really build the game from behind."
Rodgers' miscalculation in trying to evolve his side is not the theory or intent, but the timing and overestimating the qualities of his defence to thrive without customary protection.
The reputations of Mamadou Sakho, Daniel Agger and youngster Jon Flanagan are enhanced every fixture they miss. This was so bad it made some pine for Jose Enrique.
On-loan Aly Cissokho is an easy scapegoat, but he is not Liverpool standard; Johnson is playing like he's sulking because his £100,000-a-week contract won't be renewed; Martin Skrtel has spent the last 18 months resembling an Eastern European bouncer who winces at the sight of a hen party; Kolo Toure's enthusiastic style currently induces a sense of anxiety rather than order.
Even goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who started the season so well, is building a portfolio of errors, although given what was immediately in front of him it's no wonder he was flapping. Mignolet's mistake enabled Benteke to double the lead on 35 minutes.
Liverpool's defenders are fortunate to be playing behind the third-best player in the world.
In previous home games, Suarez won the game before the opposition could launch an attack, but when Liverpool need to dig in they are vulnerable. Suarez earned the penalty here -- cleverly if you're a Liverpool fan and cynically if you're not -- but Villa didn't complain much. Not even Brad Guzan.
He said: "I was pretty confident in myself that I hadn't touched him, so I said to him: 'Did I touch you?' He said 'I don't know.' That's the honest truth of it. Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don't."
Villa's pace, movement and one- touch football makes it bewildering they don't win more, although Lambert believes the side is progressing quicker than many think.
"People think we are doing poor and we are sitting 10th -- it's really, really incredible, the perception," said Lambert.
Benteke repeated his performance here last season, while if Agbonlahor produced this consistently he would be earning England attention.
"It is baffling he is never mentioned," agreed Lambert, who confirmed that Matt Lowton was absent for disciplinary reasons after missing training on Friday.
Draws like this pay the mortgage for spin doctors, managers able to disguise discontent at missing three points by accentuating the positives of one.
Liverpool would have lost this fixture last year, so, although this result and performance puts fanciful title aspirations into perspective, it is a mere hitch in the hunt for a Champions League place.
If Martinez is still smiling after the next Anfield fixture, however, the re-appraisals will start. (© Daily Telegraph, London)