Story of a Match: Aston Villa (H)
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.
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.
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.