Story of a Match: Aston Villa
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.