Midfield momentum the key to Villa revival

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Christopher Lee/Getty ImagesBarry Bannan, right, re-emerged in Villa's lineup last Saturday and played a key role in the victory at Reading.

Paul Lambert likes to keep everyone guessing with his team selections, it is fair to say. Last Saturday's tactical curveball was his decision to start with Barry Bannan against Reading -- Bannan, who hadn't kicked a ball since the home defeat to Newcastle at the end of January; Bannan, who hadn't even made the matchday 18 for recent matches against Arsenal and Manchester City.

Definitely a surprise, then, even if the suspension of Fabian Delph and injury to Karim El Ahmadi left the door open for a midfield replacement. That place was taken, as expected, by new signing Yacouba Sylla, with Bannan coming into the starting lineup as a third midfielder, tightening up an area that has been accused of being a weak spot all season.

For one of Villa's most crucial matches of the season, Lambert shuffled his pack, and got it right. The new midfield combination of Bannan, recalled from nowhere, Sylla, making his first Premier League start, and Ashley Westwood, perhaps the most consistent Villa player in his position this season, worked.

At Reading, Villa sacrificed the enigmatic Charles N'Zogbia for Bannan, and held a measure of control on the game. By the time Bannan was replaced by N'Zogbia, on 71 minutes, the little Scot had had a marked influence, contributing to Villa's 2-1 lead.

The excellent statistical website WhoScored.com, rated Bannan's pass accuracy as 84 percent, with the 23-year-old having 58 touches, making two tackles, and contributing three shots. One of those was key -- a left-foot flick which hit the post and fell nicely for Gabby Agbonlahor to effectively win the game at the end of the first half.

Bannan's fellow midfielders also made their mark. Sylla had a solid debut - a pass accuracy of 82 percent, also two tackles, and two shots on goal; 66 touches in total and, perhaps significantly, the Frenchman won 66 percent of his aerial challenges. That hints at a physical presence in the middle of the park that Villa have lacked all season.

Not to be outdone, Westwood won the day for pass accuracy, with an outstanding 90 percent. No real surprise, given he is a more conservative player than Bannan, and more assured than a 22-year-old making his first Premier League start since arriving from the French Second Division. Zero shots on goal from Westwood, but 82 touches in all show his all-round involvement.

The combined contribution from these three midfielders - 23 (Bannan), 22 (Sylla) and 22 (Westwood) was reflected in Villa's overall stats: a team pass success of 80 percent, compared to Reading's 64, and overall possession of 59 percent to Reading's 41. Villa were also productive with the ball, managing 19 shots to Reading's nine (two of Villa's hit the woodwork). The effort was also there -- Villa won twice as many tackles as the hosts, 18-9.

Some perspective, of course -- Villa's opponents were a place below them in the table and not exactly filled with top-class players in their own midfield. Reading, in fact, were there to be exploited in central areas as the Royals went with a standard 4-4-2, going with two wide players and leaving Mikele Leigertwood and the 21-year-old Hope Akpan, signed from Crawley in January, to cope with Villa's three.

The question is: who will Lambert choose to use against Saturday against QPR? The immediate pressure on the Villa manager may have been relieved slightly because of the win over Reading, but he will be aware that three points against QPR would represent a sizable step to safety. Victory would increase the gap between Villa and Rangers, and also push the club to the 30-point mark with eight games remaining. That would be a terrific psychological boost.

QPR have won their last two on the spin, and the victory last weekend, against Sunderland, came courtesy of a couple of superb long-range strikes from Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas. Rangers boss Harry Redknapp also likes a 4-4-2, and went at Sunderland with two up front in Bobby Zamora and Loic Remy, and the cut-and-thrust of Junior Hoilett, and Townsend, on the flanks.

Rangers and Redknapp may be more circumspect at Villa Park -- the week before, in winning at Southampton, QPR used an extra midfielder, Esteban Granero, but gave the ball away repeatedly. A neat and patient possession game does not sit easily with QPR, however, and they are more likely to play to their strengths.

Energy, tempo, and direct attacking play, whether that be wide through Hoilett, Townsend or Shaun Wright-Phillips, or through the middle with Remy and Zamora, or, indeed Jay Bothroyd or Adel Taarabt. It will be another testing afternoon for Villa's often jittery defence.

But Villa, and Lambert, will do well to remember the lessons of winning at Reading. Control the ball, and control midfield, and you may well control the game. Delph is definitely absent again, serving the second of his two-match suspension, so there's no strong cause for Lambert to break up the midfield trio which functioned so promisingly at the Madjeski.

Consistency and continuity has been sorely lacking in Villa's performances this season -- perhaps Lambert should resist the temptation to tweak the team for Saturday.

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