Just before kick off against Wolves a banner was unveiled just above the avfc_vilr seat. The Houllier Out banner was quickly removed, and notably to quite unanimous applause. Whilst the sentiment was of debate, the timing was certainly poor before a massive game against local rivals. However, come the final whistle, the tide had turned.
And what of the game? What indeed were we thinking?
Villa have massive injury problems defensively and fielded Chris Herd and Nathan Baker at centre half and left fullback. The last time I checked Chris Herd was a midfielder and on his recent showing against Man City, very much a rookie. Both looked incredibly out of their depth and Baker was given so much of a runaround in the early stages that he was substituted on the half hour mark. Herd was out of position, but it’s hard to see quite what his attributes as a top flight footballer will be. And remember, we were playing Wolves, not Barcelona.
Villa looked incredibly disjointed, the antithesis of continuity in their play and for such an important match the tactics were abysmal. Wolves got the ball to our final third with consummate ease time and time again, frequently cutting in from the flanks – and with the freedom of Villa Park – picking their passes. Our level of ineptitude was quite staggering.
Wolves demonstrated their command of the fixture from the outset and had two easily crafted goals disallowed. Another unmarked header was buried past Friedel (offside) and Baker was beaten at the far post by a cross that was deemed to have looped out of play. The latter was particularly concerning when watching Baker give the ball up and pretty much summed up his 30 minutes. Abysmal. This was to be much of the same for Friedel, who was afforded little or not protection (bar an overrun Cueller) all afternoon. In short, things could have been a whole lot worse.
It would have been unfair on Wolves for them to have not gone in at the break ahead. And sure enough Matt Jarvis despatched a clinical driven shot in off the post at the Holte End. His finish was confident, precise, powerful and a massive nail in the Villa coffin. Villa went in at half time to a chorus of boos. And furrowed brows were a common sight across the terrace as seasoned fans wondered if this Villa team had two goals in them.
It’s now time to talk about the midfield. In January we purchased a £20 million pound striker. We have since set ourselves up to systematically starve him of goalscoring opportunities. The problem is an utterly baffling midfield formation that with our current crop of players just doesn’t work. A Manchester United can play it – we can not.
Whilst our formation reads as 4-5-1 it is in effect 4-2-3-1.
Reo-Coker and Jean Makoun sit ahead of the defence, break up play and release the ball to wide men Downing and Albrighton or keep it central to the ever frustrating Young. The problem is that in between our fullbacks and the advanced wide players there are oceans of space. Wolves exploited this to great effect all afternoon pulling Villa player after player all over the place. I remind you again, this was Wolves we were playing.
Downing and Albrighton when in rare possession looked our most likely source of creativity. Neither had had much opportunity to shine, but it was so hard to retain the ball as Wolves over-ran us in the middle third as Makoun and Coker had to effectively manage the entire width of the pitch themselves. This should have come as no surprise. 4-4-2 was the obvious, natural shape for this team, and the Holte End sang, apathetically for it to no avail.
But this would involve removing the seemingly untouchable Ashley Young. On his day he can have invention, pace and skill that warrants England call ups. The rest of the time he is a petulant and nonchalant annoyance, who has a massively inflated belief in his own ability. Yesterday was a prime example of this. Young, floating behind Bent and in between Downing and Albrighton brought nothing to the game. His touch was woeful, berating of the officials embarrassing and insistence on taking set pieces painful.
When the board went up for Albrighton to be replaced by Pires the boos pretty much summed up Young’s invincibility. In desperate need of an equaliser we remove our youthful enthusiasm, skill-full trickery and local desire in favour of paceless Pires. This was a dire tactical move, and whilst the booing from home fans was less than helpful, it wasn’t far wrong. To compound this decision, the excellent Reo-Coker was removed in favour of putting Agbonlahor out wide. Baffling.
Pires and Agbonlahor were so ineffective that I genuinely cannot recall anything of note following their inclusions into the game. The problem is that it’s not their fault, they are afterall following the instructions of one man.
Still, attacking the Holte End, Villa pressed in fits and starts. Makoun weighted a lovely ball through the heart of the resilient Wolves defence, Young ran on, and from 8 yards smashed his shot onto the underside of the bar. A split second snapshot it might have been, but chances like his should be bursting the back of the net. Not good enough from our latest “billy big time”.
Moments later following more Villa pressure the ball fell loose in the box. The goal gaped, the ball bounced and Carlos Cueller put his effort into orbit. Awful. And let’s not forget the talking point in the shape of the penalty decision. Bent, cutting inside across the Wolves centre half, easily a foot inside the box was felled. His fall landed him outside the box. The referee – who was as close as close could be – gave a free-kick. Whilst this decision should not be referenced as an excuse for the debacle witnessed yesterday, in the scheme of things, a point could be massive for Villa come May.
And then the game petered out. There was no kitchen sink job, no momentum, no real sense of urgency. Instead there were many wayward passes, an inability to cross the ball into anything other than Hennessey’s hands and absolutely zero ingenuity. This was not just a local derby, but a huge game in our bid to stay in this division and we were utterly clueless in how to go about winning it.
The formation was crippling, our endeavour seemingly absent and our managers decisions ceaselessly baffling. This Villa team now find themselves at genuine risk of the unthinkable and with more difficult fixtures than Wolves looming, one has to question what Plan B is.
Whether sacking the manager is the answer, who knows. But Lerner cannot be happy with what he is seeing. Indeed, it would be hard for the most ardent Houllier apologist to rationalise the current situation. A massive fixture at Goodison Park needs to deliver points. Those points cannot be achieved with average kids in our defence, a stifling tactical approach and a manager teetering this club on the abyss. The next few days will be telling.
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