Being an Aston Villa supporter is a true rollercoaster ride of emotions. Saturday’s cup tie was no exception, and the victory over Sheffield United to progress into the next round of the FA Cup raised as much in the form of questions as it showed in promise. The club need to use this victory as the stepping stone towards getting the league form back on track, the spark is there but the ability to cause ourselves untold problems remains.
Villa started the game well, moved the ball quite leisurely and found their feet early on. Enter one Kyle Walker. The young full back picked the ball up on the half way line and ghosted forward with ease. With each stride we all (if we’re honest) wondered as Villa fans how this move would come un-done. But it didn’t. Walker blitzed forward and found a sea of Sheffield shirts parting as he advanced. As he reached the edge of the penalty box the shoulder coolly dropped and the ball was slotted home. Cue jubilation from the travelling fans, and a respectful muted celebration from the loanee, scoring against his former club. Big things will now be expected of Walker, I hope he’s allowed to make the odd mistake (which he did) and learn from it. He seems assured on the ball, proficient tracking back and evidently he is capable going forward. These kind of displays will be a welcome addition for the next six months at the very least.
Villa seemed relatively at ease following the goal, and whilst not setting the world on fire were content to knock the ball around. Then the typically bizarre Villa traits emerged. Dunne played a suicidal header back towards Friedel, needlessly exposing us to a potential equaliser. These are the things that drive us fans and surely Houllier insane. Poor judgement and a lack of forethought is painfully common in our play. We work tirelessly at times to retain the ball and get a lead – but how many times of late have we shot ourselves in the foot?
United came a little more into the game as the half progressed, managed some corners but were undone once again by a slick move from Villa. Ashley Young managed to stay on his feet and played a fine ball across for Albrighton to sublimely volley into the net. 2-0 and game over? The first half ended with Villa on top and with me wondering if we might declare in the second half. I really should have learnt by now.
The Blades appeared to have had the “talk” from new boss Micky Adams at half time and re-appeared with some impetus about them. Villa were weathering this when United were awarded a penalty. Carlos Cueller being the party adjudged to have brought the man down in the box – through my rose tinted glasses this appeared somewhat harsh. King Carlos appeared to play the ball in the same direction and without adding any pace with his tackle – the chap goes down and the referee, who had an indifferent match overall, gave the penalty. This was duly despatched past Friedel and that feeling of “here we go again” rolled over the Villa faithful.
Which brings me to Villa’s next hang-up – self destruct mode. This also featured in our attempted capitulation at Chelsea recently. When teams score against us we change how we play. We stop doing the things that were good and resort to a shapeless mess. Our free-flowing play disappears entirely, balls turn long and our passes become fraught and erroneous. Time and time again against Sheffield United the ball was cleared into the middle third to a red and white shirt – it’s only ever going to come straight back at us.
A popular criticism of Houllier, which I personally think is an O’Neill leftover, is that we frequently go deep and defensive when under pressure. Every single player goes deep and when an out ball presents itself, we are entrenched in our final third. In short, we invite the opposition to pick away until the inevitable happens. At times today it was only Sheffield United’s inability to make that final ball or have a clinical finish that prevented big problems for us. We get punished in the league for playing just like this, and whilst today is a massive positive for us, we have to ditch an approach like this as soon as possible.
To stem the tide we made a couple of hasty changes. The fourth official did his best to confuse everyone by cocking the numbers up – after some consultation Bannon and Pires disappeared. Bannon, whilst extremely lightweight had been tidy and creative all afternoon. Despite his physical frailties he certainly gives us something incisive, taking him off raised my eyebrow – perhaps we were protecting him for upcoming fixtures – but some game time for young Barry Bannon wouldn’t have hurt in my opinion.
Robert Pires also trudged off. Pires was a fine footballer whom I have much respect for. However he has done absolutely nothing since his arrival at Villa Park. Literally I cannot remember anything of note having occurred. He was also wearing an invisibility cloak throughout this fixture. When on the ball Pires is laboured – not in a Zidane, pondering to pick the killer pass kind of way. He is tired and statuesque in his mannerisms. Whilst I have nothing against him – for he’s done nothing wrong – it worries me that we have a dead stick on the field, he bring’s nothing to us at all.
On came Downing and Petrov. Downing bottled a one on one with the goalie and played a delicious pass that our captain should have settled the match with. We saw the good and bad of Downing, whom has struggled in recent weeks after generally impressive form earlier this season. Then came the trademark Ashley Young petulance. Young, already on a yellow card, lost out to a fair challenge and proceeded to dive in on the man. He took a little of the player but crucially was never getting any of the ball. Needless, thoughtless and the red card keeps him out of the Blues game. Ashley Young, it is fair to say, continues to frustrate.
Young’s dismissal roused The Blades, but in truth they never really threatened with clear cut opportunities. Whilst a sense of inevitability always fills your veins during times like this watching Villa, we didn’t concede an equaliser. As full time approached Walker made a bigger impression with his final contribution. Deep in our own half after sustained pressure he picked up the ball and carried. He didn’t lump it long for Agbonlahor to chase, he burst crossfield and played a straightforward ball to advance the attack. Seeing intelligent play like this will be an asset indeed. As a result of this move the ball reached Petrov, who after sidestepping the central defenders, fired home an unstoppable rifled drive to complete the victory. 3-1. Relief all round.
Our opponents Sheffield United have been on the slide this season – and the poor turnout from the locals suggested little was expected to be gained from this encounter. Aside from an increased work rate in the second half they offered very little in the way of creativity and seemed exposed whenever we attacked. A long hard season looms for them in the Championship it appears.
Villa come away from this match with much to think about. Better teams would have punished us on the day, but there are positives to be taken which I don’t for one second want to undermine. Ciaran Clark continues to look assured, Kyle Walker appears a prudent addition to the squad and Agbonlahor is looking sharper with each game he gets. Crucially we didn’t lose this fixture and a win gives us something to build upon going into the Birmingham derby, which in the light of our other upcoming fixtures is as important a game against the Blues as we’ve had in a long time. I wonder who we’ll get in the next round?