Aston Villa frustrated by defeat at Fulham

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Steve Sidwell APSteve Sidwell slots home against his old side.

Some advice for anyone trying to find positives in Villa's 2-0 defeat to Fulham at Craven Cottage: Save yourself the time and face up to a bitter truth. There were none.

Villa were poor against a Fulham side reeling from six straight league defeats and desperately looking to stop the slide. The hosts were two goals to the good by the 30-minute mark -- echoes of Villa's dreadful first-half performance in the Midlands derby two weeks ago, but unlike that night at the Hawthorns, there was no stirring second-half comeback. Villa threatened too little to deserve anything at all from the game.

As expected, Villa were without Ron Vlaar, their best defender and captain, as well as first-choice left-back Antonio Luna, so it was always going to be a difficult afternoon in that sense. But faced with the need for a defensive reshuffle, coach Paul Lambert's selection was questionable. Inexplicably, he weakened the back four further still by giving Chris Herd his first league start -- or appearance of any kind, for the senior side -- since Jan. 1.

- Fulham forward Berbatov praised

With Herd in at centre-back, Nathan Baker was moved out to left-back. In essence, it meant Villa, already without the two best central defenders at the club, didn't even field the third- and fourth-choice centre-backs together, and splitting Ciaran Clark and Baker, which has at least been a reasonably regular pairing over the last year, was distinctly odd. Not only that, in recent weeks, while Luna has been injured, it's been Clark, not Baker, who has filled in at left-back.

Talk about making a disrupted defence even more unbalanced and vulnerable. A back four of Leandro Bacuna, Herd, Clark and Baker is one of the last combinations Villa fans could have expected to see this season, and what Matt Lowton, again relegated to the substitute's bench, thought of it all would have been revealing. If Lowton can't get a place in this defence despite a handful of injuries, it does nothing to dispel the rumours that the right-back is being left out of the side for reasons other than form.

There are some fans who like Herd, and it's not difficult to understand why. The Australian is committed and doesn't lack effort, but he's not a central defender of Premier League class. He's a defender almost by default, originally a midfield player who made the step back because of injuries last season; it's hard to overlook the fact that his run in the side came during the period Villa conceded eight at Chelsea, four and three at home to Spurs and Wigan, though the whole team shared responsibility for those defeats.

He's decent in the air but his positioning is suspect, and when he's used in the centre of defence, that's a problem. Herd's afternoon ended prematurely in substitution, not long after getting booked for a reckless tackle on Giorgos Karagounis, and complaining of a problem with his eyes; double vision, perhaps.

Fulham had a field day in the first half. It didn't require anything clever to open Villa up, just basic passes upfield. Bacuna, looking increasingly like he wants out of the right-back role as soon as possible, should have ushered Steve Sidwell to safety when the Fulham midfielder broke forward but the former Villa man did very well to scoop and lift the ball, with his wrong foot, up and over Brad Guzan.

The second goal was a penalty, awarded incorrectly by referee Mike Dean when Alexander Kacaniklic pushed against Bacuna and went down. It was a soft one -- the movement was all Kacaniklic as he made the contact while Bacuna merely stood still. Nevertheless, the manner, again, in which the Villa defence was parted was alarming. Dimitar Berbatov's flick created a huge gap that Kacaniklic exploited. It was just too easy for Fulham.

Villa's defenders shouldn't carry the weight of this loss exclusively on their shoulders, however. These are the sort of situations where a defence needs cover, especially one with an average age of 23. Fulham had a hugely experienced midfield trio of Sidwell, Karagounis and Scott Parker screening and shielding. Villa struggled to offer any protection, and there was a lack of quality in just about every area of the pitch.

Andreas Weimann was anonymous, Karim El Ahmadi ineffectual, Ashley Westwood's set-piece delivery way off the radar. Gabby Agbonlahor was full of purposeful running. Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph were involved in Villa's best moments. Benteke's drive early in the first half was well saved by Maarten Stekelenburg, and later, the Belgian combined nicely with a one-two combination to play Delph in for a low effort which whizzed past the far post.

Chances were scarce. Weimann and Westwood got in one another's way when the ball fell invitingly for either of them in the second half, and Agbonlahor should have won a late penalty when he was fouled with just under 10 minutes to go. That might have made for an exciting finish, but though Villa could complain at a penalty mistakenly awarded against, and one wrongly not given in their favour, it would take a lot to convince anyone that they deserved something from the game.

"We go again," said Lambert after the match, reprising his stock catchphrase following a defeat. Villa's next game is at home to Manchester United, a fixture not won since 1995. The manager needs to up his game before then. Fielding players in positions they specialise in would be a step in the right direction.

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