Story of a Match: Aston Villa (H)

Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Match Analysis | 1 comment

Daniel Swift Gibbs

Amid the crazy excitement in the title race at the top of the table, Norwich hosted Aston Villa in a quiet and largely meaningless affair, but one that ended up fittingly capping off a great season for the canaries.

Turgid

Lambert lined up City in a typically unpredictable fashion by not making any changes; he kept the same eleven and formation that had excelled at Arsenal the previous week. In the away game at Villa Park back in November, we suffered from a formation switch from what was then a regular 5 man midfield, to a flatter 4-4-2 – the debate at the time all being about whether we could defensively afford to sacrifice a man in midfield to partner Holt and Morison up front, and still fit Hoolahan in to the side. Based on the last two games, it seems crazy that there were ever such doubts. This is due to a couple of reasons – thanks to the addition of a couple of players, City now look like a much better side than in November, and, due to the unfortunate loss of Petrov in the Villa side, and some questionable tactics from McLeish, Villa look a lot worse.

In the first 40 minutes, Villa produced absolutely nothing. They had one wayward shot from a mile out that went harmlessly wide. In the same time, Norwich had already created 8 decent chances and scored two goals. Villa’s only decent opportunity of the first half came courtesy of a Norwich mistake, losing possession in midfield, but, unlike similar situations against Liverpool, Villa failed to capitalise, and Ruddy made a smart save, as he continued to do all afternoon. As has now become commonplace, Ruddy put in the kind of performance that must surely pique the interest of Hodgson and the England set-up, and he deservedly got the recognition he has earned this season by taking the runner-up spot in City’s player of the season after the game, as well as winning the Players Player Award last night.

The passing map from the first half is another good example of our dominance. Completing a lot more passes than Villa and controlling possesion, we also continually threatened the Villa goal. Ruddy’s goalmouth, on the other hand, is a complete vacuum of passes. Villa were unable to get anything going in the final third, and credit is due again to both Russell Martin and Ryan Bennett, who put in good performances at centre-back once again. It’s interesting to contrast this centre-back partnership with the corresponding away fixture – in which Martin and Leon Barnett looked shaky all game. Barnett gifted Villa a goal on that day, as was typical of our defense at that time. Martin and Bennet, in contrast, despite having only started twice together, seem to have forged a real understanding. I’m not sure that they will continue to start together next season – though there are a few contract renewals for City to sort out in the close-season – but they’ve certainly done their chances no harm. For a full back, and a centre back who was still playing for Peterborough just a few weeks ago, they’ve really impressed.

It must be said though, that as good as we were defensively, at least half of the equation was down to Aston Villa’s lackluster attack. That passing map above also shows Villa’s tendency to attack down the right wing, where they came up against a competent Simon Lappin, who, for somebody who has not been near the side for most of the season, put in another solid performance, and he was helped by the cover afforded him by Bradley Johnson. But Aston Villa’s failure to use the left hand side of the pitch was the most confusing aspect of their game for me.

At Villa Park, Agbonlahor basically ripped Kyle Naughton to shreds. Time again, he beat our full back, both inside and out, and put a whole host of dangerous balls in to the box. I’ve been fairly impressed with Naughton on the whole this season, but when he’s off his game I do think he’s been one of the weaker links. He often goes missing, is found out of position, and tends to get beaten too easily, either giving the winger too much space to cut in and shoot, or not shutting down crosses when he does show them outside. For some reason, bizarrely given their success earlier in the season, Aston Villa never really attempted to do the same. Agbonlahor was switched in to a more central role, and rarely got out wide. Admittedly, Villa are currently without a Darren Bent to convert 3-yard tap-ins, but it did not make any sense to me why they completely failed to utilise his pace, which is his strongest asset, and probably our weakest defensive attribute.

These images show the occasions where Agbonlahor attempted to take-on one of our players, i.e. beat him with the ball at his feet – in the final game on the left and the game at Villa Park on the right. At Villa Park he was trying it all over the pitch, and had a lot of success, particularly in dangerous areas around the edge of our box on the left wing. On Saturday he made only a quarter of the number of attempts, and they were all on the right hand side. As it happens, I didn’t think Aston Villa were actually any good back in November. They looked completely one dimensional – their only tactic seemed to be beating our fullbacks for pace. On saturday they even worse. They were no dimensional. Fair enough, they knew they were safe from relegation and their hearts probably weren’t all in it – we suffered a dip in form ourselves once our safety was guaranteed. But from what I’ve seen of Villa this season, this wasn’t a one-off, and I genuinely feel for their fans having to watch that every week. It is no great surprise that McLeish finds himself out of a job today.

None of this should take away from City’s own performance though. The reason Villa were so abject was largely due to the fact that we effectively killed them off within 20 minutes by getting a two goal lead. Villa are statistically one of the worst teams at conceding goals from corners in the Premier League, and Johnson’s free-kick from wide on the left had Villa defending a similar situation equally ineffectively, and Holt lost his man at the far post to bundle the ball in. Simeon Jackson’s hard work in recent games was rewarded as he pounced on a loose header to hit the net at the second attempt. After this, the game settled into a steady rhythm; we kept the ball well and put together some nice passing moves, Villa continued to fail to really get going at all. Villa’s lack of performance after this certainly attributed to the way the game unfolded, but it was encouraging how comfortable we looked. Unlike some games this season, where we have become nervous while in the lead, sat back a bit too much and let other teams come on to us, on Saturday we looked in complete control all game.

These passing maps from the second half show a remarkable similarity to those from the the first half. City of course, continued to play to their gameplan as it was largely successful and we had a comfortable 2-0 lead. You might have expected however, for Villa to change things and try a different approach, but despite bringing on Bannan at half-time, things didn’t really change. Nobody in their midfield seemed to take charge. Stephen Ireland probably looked most likely to make something happen for Villa, but it wasn’t a standout performance.

Contrastingly, City’s midfielders all seemed capable of making things happen, and at times worked really well together as a unit. Hoolahan, especially, put in another great performance, controlling everything in the midfield.

His passing and movement were excellent (the various symbols relate to things he did on the pitch, interceptions and tackles etc – the general point being his influence on the game was massive), and his link up play with Johnny Howson is genuinely exciting. They really do look like becoming a formidable midfield duo for us. Bradley Johnson too has stepped up of late and more consistently put in the kind of performances that he seemed capable of but seldom achieved.

Conclusion

A fitting end to a great season. A goal for Holt, a clean sheet for Ruddy, and man of the match performance from Hoolahan – a nice summation of their performances over the season. Villa may have been awful, but they are an historic force in the Premier League, and to earn such a comfortable victory against a ‘bigger side’ is a great result.

1 Comment

  1. So, at the end of a first season back in it, what do we think of this Premier thingy? ‘Best league in the world’ or reality TV with us as the studio audience? Bit of both really…

    Let’s start with first impressions of the nineteen other teams in it, as seen at Norwich (I don’t have the time, money, dedication, alcohol capacity or nervous fortitude to go to away games). The top two aren’t so much in a different league as on a different planet, more representative of two types of global capitalism – petrodollar vanity project/PR stunt versus Yankee profiteering – than football or really anything much to do with Manchester.

    But Man U are really not that good any more, not too far off doing a Liverpool or even worse a Leeds. I was in Manchester the Thursday night they were run ragged by Athletic Bilbao, and they just looked old and tired. There must be a limit to what the Glazers can viably extract without tarnishing the brand, and Fergie and even more so Rooney (when Spain or City come calling) will be hard acts to follow. With Man City it always ends in tears. I used to watch them under Malcolm ‘Playboy’ Allison, and it wasn’t too different from now – world-beaters one week, naughty little boys the next. All we need is a new Middle East conflagration or Moss Side riot (both entirely feasible in the next 5 years) and it’ll all go up in smoke.

    The next four are capable of the occasional brilliant performance (the Spurs midfield at Carrow Road was one of the best I’d ever seen), but lack consistency and guts. Dependence on star performers is a risky business, as Arsenal are about to find out with RVP off on a traditional late-career treasure hunt. Norwich got points off all of them by raising their own game and exploiting fairly obvious weaknesses. In football terms, none of them are going to get any better, as those stars move, decline with age or retire, or in some cases stand exposed as the over-rated fancy-pants they always were.

    Then there’s the next eight, of which Fulham and Everton were the only teams with real sparkle and class; well-drilled teams at well-run clubs. Norwich really did not look out of place in this middle tier, and providing we can hang on to Lambert and acquire a bit more guile and pace in attack should finish several places higher next season. It is not entirely outlandish to imagine City ‘doing a Newcastle’ – a more positive version of ‘second season syndrome’ than the generally idiotic ‘pundits’ are forecasting.

    Of the bottom six, I wasn’t surprised to see Wigan survive – a bloody good team when they could be bothered, as against Norwich – but Blackburn’s demise was a genuine surprise. I thought they were really unlucky not to win here – Samba and Nzonzi were immense in ability as well as size, and the rest were pretty good too. Their relegation can only be down to their so-called fans’ capacity to poison the atmosphere of their club. Blackburn is a really mean-spirited little town, and as we sometimes see even at ‘little old Norwich’ football provides an outlet for the meanest of spirits.

    As for our most recent opponents, like many I was shocked by just how bad Villa were. Scunthorpe with Shay Given – without him it would have been the same score as a year ago. Why on earth would Paul Lambert (or any other ‘rising manager’) want to go there when Norwich’s prospects are so much brighter, and when much bigger, more stable clubs will be recruiting in the not too distant future? Villa are one of those several ‘established Premier League’ clubs whose time you feel is just about up. All they have to do now is appoint Steve Bruce…

    So what about the bigger picture across the Premier-thingy? There are clear signs of declining standards, from the number of ‘shock’ domestic defeats for the ‘big’ clubs to their (mostly) early exits from Europe. Even the almost unprecedented survival of all three promoted clubs can be seen as an indication that the rest might not be all they’re cracked up to be.

    Across Europe it’s obvious that La Liga plays far better football, while the Bundesliga is so much more competitive and forward-thinking. And that’s partly why Swancelona and Norvitz have done so well, because they are following Spanish and German models. I have my doubts about Swansea – losing Rodgers and a couple of key players could see them collapse, and Norwich home and away showed how they can be beaten – but what we have here under our very own German-Glaswegian is an English application of the kind of ‘young, hungry’ team ethos that has seen his old club Borussia Dortmund sweep aside even the mighty Bayern. High tempo, probing all across the pitch with flexible formations and personnel, collective discipline and endeavor rather than overpaid preening egos- this is ‘progressive austerity’ football, far more likely to survive the hard times ahead than all the dodgy money and media hoo-haa swilling around the Premier League these last twenty years.

    False optimism is the curse of every football fan, but I can see Norwich next season winning games they drew this year, and losing a lot less. And with Financial Fair Play and a European Super League on the horizon, which just might get the ‘global brand’ clubs out of our way and give us our domestic game back, NCFC’s almost entirely English squad may just portend the ‘post-globalisation’ revival of English football. Sooner or later it’ll all go belly-up, it always does, but not quite yet!

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