Same old Villa - with a new twist

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Some things change; most things don't.

Paul Lambert ditched the tracksuit for a rather smart suit at the Emirates Stadium, but pretty much everything else about Villa was reminiscent of a typical claret-and-blue performance, with the team picking up where it left off at the end of last season.

- Mangan: Arsenal reap what they sow
- Report: Villa stun 10-man Gunners

So what did we learn from watching Villa against Arsenal? Brad Guzan is on the verge of becoming an outstanding goalkeeper; Christian Benteke is close to being unplayable, on his day; Fabian Delph is slowly, steadily and stealthily graduating to a midfielder of genuine Premier League class; and Villa's defence remains very much a work in progress (with quite a lot of progress required).

Same old Villa, then, at the Emirates. Except Lambert's team, which lost a narrow encounter 2-1 last season, came away with an excellent 3-1 victory and all three points. The postmatch post mortem may pick over the bones of one or two big refereeing decisions that went Villa's way -- the award of a second penalty, the dismissal shortly afterward of Gunners defender Laurent Koscielny -- but there was more to this result than questionable officiating and Arsenal's shortcomings. Villa, demonstrating the character that typified the climb away from relegation in 2012-13, fought their way back into the game after a poor start.

Lambert had two significant decisions to make heading into this match: whom to select at centre-back, and whom to hand the third midfield place to in the absence of the injured Yacouba Sylla. His defensive choice was sound. As expected, he stuck with the partnership that saw Villa to safety a few months ago, the Ron Vlaar-Nathan Baker combo that looked reasonably impressive during the preseason.

Inside six minutes, Lambert's defensive strategy was picked apart. Vlaar's error paved the way for Theo Walcott to lay on a pass for Olivier Giroud to tuck inside Guzan's near post, and it was quickly and horribly clear this team's defensive frailties are still an issue. A minute or so later, Baker required treatment for an injury, which forced him off a short time afterward. Lambert had his two other senior central defenders on the bench and turned to Ciaran Clark instead of new signing Jores Okore -- somewhat controversial, but given Okore had missed most of the summer friendlies, a safer bet. Clark did well for the remainder of the match and will probably retain the shirt for the midweek trip to Chelsea. Okore's time will surely come.

The jitters remained. Guzan and debutant left-back Antonio Luna dithered into an almighty mess at one point in the first half, requiring Clark's intervention to deny Giroud a second, but the way Villa got back into the game owed much to the threat of the front three and the midfield matching Arsenal's. Karim El Ahmadi, the player Lambert chose ahead of Leandro Bacuna, Aleksandar Tonev and Gary Gardner to deputise for Sylla, began to have an influence, as did Ashley Westwood. Arsenal, and most notably Jack Wilshere, couldn't hide their frustrations as the balance swung Villa's way.

Then there was Delph. Superb throughout, the midfielder whose first three seasons at Villa were more or less wrecked by injury continued to showcase his development at the Emirates with an impressive performance. He was unfortunate not to score with a long-range strike in the second half that hit the inside of the post. His value to Villa grows.

The strength of Lambert's team continues to be the three forwards, led by Benteke. The Belgian's two goals were both penalties, the first of which he actually missed but had the reaction to follow up and head in the rebound. Benteke was well supported by Gabby Agbonlahor, who won both penalties, and Andreas Weimann, who should really have scored and will be cursing his wild finish with the game at 1-1. However, it was Weimann's break and pass that played in Luna for the third goal, gift-wrapping the points and crowning a dream Premier League debut for the Spanish left-back. It's been said before by this writer, but with this trio fit and in form, Villa stand a chance of winning any match.

In a nutshell, typical Villa: a fantastic goalkeeper, constantly threatening strikers, a steadily improving midfield and a vulnerable defence living on its nerves. On the opening day of the 2013-14 season, however, the difference was a positive result against one of the league's top four, something Villa came close to achieving last season but fell just short.

Maybe it was all down to Lambert's change of dress.


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