In these disorientating times, it can feel as if all reference points are scrambled. Aston Villa, for instance, are not supposed to destroy Liverpool, the remorseless Premier League 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 – sadly silent Villa Park – that is precisely what happened.
Ollie Watkins, the £28m arrival from Brentford, had a hat-trick by half-time and Jack Grealish, the game’s outstanding performer, scored twice 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 those were merely the headline details. The story was about how Villa asserted themselves from the first whistle, reducing Virgil van Dijk and co to rubble and making one of the loudest statements of their recent history.
Villa’s previous conquests had been Sheffield United and Fulham – the clubs at the bottom of the table. As Dean Smith, the Villa 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 Alisson who had damaged his shoulder in training, but that only went a small way to explaining the shambles in front of his replacement in goal, Adrián. At the end, Liverpool were so bedraggled that they looked like champions in name only. Manchester United’s 6-2 capitulation to Tottenham earlier in the day had been shocking but they are a team in dismal form with multiple problems. This upset was on the next level.
Villa pressed hard onto the front foot from the outset, their confidence epitomised by Grealish and his knack of ghosting away from opponents, seemingly without much effort, but mirrored by plenty of others in claret and blue.
Grealish will go down as the provider for the opening goal but really it was laid on by Adrián, who was guilty of a shockingly loose pass from his own line out towards Joe Gomez. It went straight to Grealish who played it back inside for the unmarked Watkins and he finished from close range.
It was the prompt for an extraordinary first half. Smith’s team finished it 4-1 up, Watkins helping himself to his hat-trick and Grealish being close to unplayable. Each time Villa went forward, the alarm bells rang in the Liverpool defence. It has been a long time since they looked so uncomfortable, their defensive structure in tatters more often than not.
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 lineup for his debut, was particularly aggrieved to have dragged wide on eight minutes from Grealish’s lovely 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 Gomez up 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 break came when Mohamed Salah lashed home for 2-1 after a Naby Keïta shot had been blocked but Roberto Firmino twice extended Emi Martínez while the Villa goalkeeper had to be alert to tip over from a Diogo Jota chip and also save from Andy Robertson. Martínez got away with a poor clearance, too, with Firmino delaying before Keïta 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?
Barkley deserved a goal. His hard running was a feature of the Villa performance, he drove his new colleagues on, and he got it early in the second half. He took a Grealish pass on the edge of the area, looked up and tried to catch Adrián off his line. The 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 Villa 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 spurning a one-on-one with Adrián and hitting the crossbar. Villa had seven but the astonishing truth was it should have been double figures.