Villa take a step backwards

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Progression, regression. Villa's 2-1 defeat at Everton was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but after witnessing some exciting attacking football in recent weeks, the performance was a step backwards.

- Report: Everton 2-1 Aston Villa

A fortnight ago, against Liverpool, Villa were positive in pushing forward from kick-off; taking the initiative, pressing the opposition and establishing a 2-0 lead which then enabled them to claim a point in spite of the Reds' second half comeback. Back on Merseyside again on Saturday, that Villa side did not turn up. In its place, Villa's alter ego: Cautious, defensive, and with little attacking ambition.

The game plan could have worked. It nearly did, but for Everton's late rally, and that Villa pushed Roberto Martinez's side close and made them work hard for the victory is perhaps what Paul Lambert will console himself with.

He should reconsider. This is a strategy Villa have deployed on several occasions this season, with mediocre results, more often than not. Sometimes it has paid off: winning 3-2 at Southampton early in December would be the prime example, but that victory owed more to the hosts spurning chances as much as anything else. Villa got away with it that time, but should have come away having learnt some permanent lessons -- luck can't be ridden every week.

Villa's players are simply not experienced, composed, or organised enough to play this way successfully. Their strengths lie elsewhere: putting teams under pressure, creating opportunities for Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann, Gabby Agbonlahor (when he does play), utilising the pace in the forward line, moving the ball quickly and directly.

Taking four points from the previous two matches suggested Lambert had realised that, and that Villa had turned a corner as a result -- turned a corner into another dead end, maybe.

It wasn't so much the formation, as the tactics behind it. Villa have found some spark with a 4-4-2 diamond of late, but Lambert changed it at Goodison Park. Possibly stung by the team's awful start against West Brom in midweek, maybe conscious of weary midfield legs -- Karim El Ahmadi dropped out -- and a less-than-100% fit Ron Vlaar, Lambert set up with three central defenders, five players across the middle of the field and with Grant Holt making his first Villa start alongside Benteke.

In theory, it was all fine, though it was well-publicised that Everton would be without Romelu Lukaku and any recognised centre-forward, so fielding three centre-backs was slightly bemusing. Still, had Villa sought to go on the offensive against the Toffeemen, to play them in their own half, the outcome could have been different. As it was, Villa settled back, allowed Everton to control the ball and conceded any sense of influencing the game.

Villa have been damned by statistics throughout the season, and the match yielded more depressing numbers. Everton had 71% of possession, but worst still, surely, was Villa's pass completion -- an incompetent 56%. Little over half of Villa's attempted passes were successful. If a team is going to execute a defensive/counter-attacking masterplan, the ball has to be used efficiently and accurately. Technically, Villa's players are way off in this respect.

Villa's goal was well worked, scored by the team's best player of the afternoon, Leandro Bacuna, who reacted quickly to Fabian Delph's tackle on Ross Barkley to move forward from right wing-back, play a return pass with Benteke, and finish neatly past Tim Howard. It was Villa's only shot on target.

The pattern of the second half was predictable. Everton might have been below strength, but no matter who is in their team, they only know one way to play, and that's with the ball. And with Barkley, actually fairly subdued and eventually substituted, Kevin Mirallas, Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, Everton have an abundance of quality in the midfield and final third areas. Keep allowing players of this quality to have the ball, and the end result is that they are able to unlock a defence and win a game which is hardly surprising.

As well as carelessness with the ball, Villa's other major weakness -- in playing on the back foot -- is seeing a game out defensively. Lambert's team cannot shut the opposition out. His defence is not strong enough to do that. Even playing relatively better since the turn of the year, Villa have conceded nine goals in their last five league games, just under two a match. Everton's first goal came when Steven Naismith ambled his way right through the middle of Villa's defence.

The second was a brilliantly executed free-kick from Mirallas, a goal Brad Guzan could do nothing to stop. Again, though, the free-kick was conceded after a clumsy and needless challenge by Ciaran Clark, as Everton, allowed to dominate with the ball, pressed for the winner. With the pressure on, Villa's defenders are too often found wanting. By that stage, Vlaar had left the field, troubled by a hamstring injury -- a cause for concern ahead of next Saturday's clash with West Ham.

Chelsea have been to Goodison Park and left defeated, and losing by a single goal to a club with aspirations of a top four finish is no embarrassment. But the frustration lies in the fact Villa didn't, in the oft-used words of their manager, "give it a right good go", in the same way they gave Liverpool a huge scare recently.

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