Story of a Match: Aston Villa

Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Match Analysis | 6 comments

Expectations are a funny thing. Typically, an away game at a European challenging Premier League team is, for a team like Norwich, likely to be a defeat. And it was. But there’s something about the fortunes of the teams this season, the way Villa have been turgid and uninspiring, and the way Norwich have been daring and surprising, that had expectations for this match perhaps a touch higher than Lambert would’ve liked. That’s the rod he’s made for his own back by being so good, I guess. When you leave Anfield with a point, you would hope to get the same from Villa Park. But we didn’t. So why not?


The other day I was on the Scrimmage on Radio Norfolk and among the many dumb things I said, I suggested that the pace of Agbonlahor vs Leon Barnett (as an example) scared me. Well, it terrified me for 90 minutes today and not for no reason. Everything good went through Agbonlahor for Villa. He lined up in a wide left position, generally taking on Kyle Naughton, and their play was directed to get him involved.

The heatmap of passes is overwhelmingly skewed towards the left hand side, and it bore fruit. After Norwich started brightly and tested Given, Pilkington hit the opener with a dream of a freekick. At this point, Villa woke up and Naughton was tested time and time again. It was from the left that the Villa equaliser was delivered as Gabby tore Naughton a new one and slid in an undefendable ball for Bent to tap in.

Above you can see the ‘take-ons’ that Agbonlahor won during the game. These are the times he’s gone one on one with a defender and beaten his man. He did that more times than any other player on the pitch, and this was key into undoing the Norwich defence. This threat, and his burning pace, were no doubt on Barnett’s mind when he slid back a criminally underhit pass, leaving Ruddy in no mans land and letting Agbonlahor put Villa in the lead.

Change of Tactics

Barnett was the main person to suffer in a switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2, a move seemingly made to accommodate Holt. Fox was the man to make way which left a midfield pairing of Wes and Johnson (who left in the first half, replaced by Crofts). While this kind of tactic may work more at home, on a smaller pitch, with the backing of the crowd etc. Away at Villa Park it left the back four exposed. Without the protection of Fox, sitting deep and spreading the ball to more attacking players, the back four had no immediate outlet and relied much more on longer balls or trying to involve wingers. While Pilkington responded admirably and had a great game, Bennett was again very quiet, barely registering in an attack.

While Barnett’s limitations can be hidden when he doesn’t have to pass the ball further than 10 yards, today showed the two sides of him. One side is the rock solid defender who reads the game well, gets his body in the way of shots and crosses and clears the line. In this, he had a good game, being successful in 9 of 10 tackles (all aerial duels), the most of any player (joint with Heskey). The other side is what he does with the ball. Last week I pointed out that he has his quick and easy outlets – Martin and Fox. Today, with one of them removed, his distribution was all over the place, playing more passes to the opposition than to a Norwich shirt.

This exposure of his limited passing ability, and the problem of Agbonlahors pace, left Barnett having probably the toughest game of the season. For me, he’s still our number one centre back as he’s had an oustanding season, but you only get the most out of him by putting players around him to cover up for the gaps in his game. As a newly promoted team, we aren’t blessed with loads of fully rounded, complete players, and Barnett is an example of this. For Villa’s third, Barnett was the man marking Bent before he ran onto the end of Agbonlahors cross. It’s times like this that its easy to see who was supposed to have their man and blame, but I don’t see Leon as responsible. Good strikers make dangerous runs and the £24m Bent is as good as he is because he makes far better defenders than Leon lose their man. Sometimes you just have to accept you’re up against a better side.

With a midfield 4 having little luck, Fox was introduced and the general flow of the Norwich attacks was more steady and defensively we were more composed. While Fox was fine in doing his normal job – finding players and keeping the team ticking over, his delivery into the danger area was notably poor.

Above you can see the number of passes, crosses or corners that went astray when aimed towards the box. It’s unforgivable to consistently fail to beat the first man at a corner, and while (in my eyes) he’s been fine at this so far this season, today he was below par. But his introduction helped steady an uneasy ship and provided a bit of balance to the team that we were missing with a flat 4-4-2.


Holty got his first start in a few weeks and justified his place. Not his best game but far from his worst. He won the freekick for the first, crossed in a superb ball for the second and generally was a hassle for the Villa defence all game. He linked well with Morison and they made a good partnership. At this point, however, it seems that someone is going to have to drop to the bench to provide a more balanced lineup. Luckily Lambert has an extended break to consider this, with Holt, Fox and Bennett all candidates for it. In my eyes, Bennett has showed flashes of pace and crossing to indicate why he was bought but has contributed less than others going forward. His defensive game, helping out Naughton, has been valuable, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sacrificed.

All in all, we were one individual mistake from an away draw at an established premier league team. There’s no doubt that Villa were the better side and good value for their win, but the infuriating thing for Norwich fans is giving teams a helping hand. We did that vs Chelsea, Stoke and West Brom and it’s tougher to take. You expect to lose to good sides. You don’t need to help them on the way. There were positives and negatives to take from the game and I’ve no doubt we’ll be good enough to beat them in May, but if anything, it showed for now that 4-4-2 is not the way to go.


  1. Good analysis as ever, thought 4-4-2 was wrong today to, but could understand why Fox got dropped, thought he was poor against Blackburn in terms of strength and distribution, the latter has been superb up until now, but was poor again today. Spot on with Barnett, positioning worries me too, being honest, but he is still young, we have too many young defenders imo. Thought we sorely missed Johnson once he went off.

  2. You have made a very good point about not having a team full of well rounded players – as you pointed out last week with Fox and Johnson, and now Barnett. There are certain players who seem to be like cogs in the machine – Fox is one, Hoolahan another. We seem to suffer more when they are dropped than whatever we gain from dropping them!

  3. Before the Blackburn game I said I thought we were starting to look a bit more solid defensively. Clearly I tempted fate. 6 goals in two games is really not great. It’s especially unfortunate given that we’ve been fairly impressive at the other end – in two games, you would expect 5 goals would leave you with more than just the 1 point. But there you go.

    Your analysis on Barnett’s distribution out of defence is spot on. I think it’s interesting to note the difference between his passing success throughout the game with the three different deep midfielders we played – Johnson, Crofts and then Fox.

    I’m not sure if this embed will work:

     by Guardian Chalkboards

    The top chalkboard shows Barnett’s distribution between the 35th and 63rd minutes, when Crofts was the holding midfielder, and the bottom board shows the 64th to 90th minute period, after Fox came on and we switched to more of a diamond formation. I think it’s clear that he was overwhelmingly more comfortable with Fox on the pitch. Fox had a poor game last week, and it was perhaps not a huge surprise to see him be the one sacrificed to make room for Holty’s deserved return. It was also unfortunate that Johnson had to go off early, and we’ll never know how that might have played out. But of the 4 games Fox has not started, we have lost 3. 12 of our 13 points this season have come with Fox in the starting XI. Even though playing for only 25 minutes, he completed 29 passes, just a handfull shy of our top passers Hoolahan (35) and Crofts (32) who played for 60 and 70 odd minutes. As you also point out, Fox’s delivery from set pieces was excruciating, but I believe we are so much better with him playing, both defensively and going forward.

    It will be very interesting to see how Lambert chooses to line up the team in the next game. Not least because it’s a nothing-to-lose game against an Arsenal side that could possibly obliterate us, but might just contrive to trip themselves up. I personally think Holt and Morison both should start, along with Fox as a deep midfielder, so perhaps it could be a 4-1-3-2 with a midfield 3 of Hoolahan, Johnson and Pilkington, playing a little narrower than we have been recently, allowing the fullbacks to overlap and Holt/Morison to drift wide.

    • Great comment and great chalkboard to boot.

  4. I was at the game on Sat and think that maybe it’s time to give naughton a break(he was beaten by Hoilett for the Blackburn opener and had a torrid time against Agbonlahor), move R Martin to his normal RB position (he’s brilliant going forward anyway) and either bring in De Laet, or hopefully Zak will be fit by then.
    Agree that Bennett isn’t ‘delivering’ as well as I expected him to, whereas Pilkington has been a revelation and his opening goal on Sat was superb – hope we can hold on to him for a few seasons at least!!!).
    Also feel that Fox, Hoolahan and Pilkington should start in midfield, with both Holt and Morison up front – that just leaves PL to decide which defenensive line-up he wants to pick.

  5. Having conceded 3 at home to Blackburn, I was not surprised to see Lambert mix things up a bit and go more attacking. I have felt that whilst Martin and Barnett have done reasonably well for a spell as a pair the cracks were beginning to appear. I think Barnett is only one more mistake away from the axe.
    It would be wrong to criticize either too much, they are just trying to adjust to a different and higher level. Suarez had a field day, 10 chances, but you can’t look at Barnett in that game and say he was poor.
    I think Naughton has been increasingly tested in the last few weeks defensively too, and wouldn’t be surprised to see Martin switched to full back to help Barnett and another centre back (depending on fitness) brought in. I can definitely see Lambert trying to strengthen there in the transfer window. Our limitations (you put it much kinder) in that position affect the whole set up of the team, meaning for security we need two holding players.
    We started well and it is refreshing to go there and try and win the game, and I believe everyone will be disappointed that we didn’t get something out of it, which is so much better than the surrender we have been subjected to in previous years.

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