Aston Villa 1-1 Stoke – Match Report
2. L Young
6. Downing (Albrighton 67)
18. Heskey (Agbonlahor 79)
24. Delap (Fuller 75)
26. Etherington (Whitehead 73)
9. Jones (Diao 88)
As the match kicked off at Villa Park, the home side lined up in an interesting take on their customary home formation of a 4-4-2. The two central midfielders played quite deep, acting almost as a double pivot, whilst the wingers played high up the pitch in support of the two strikers. Darren Bent played just off Emile Heskey, and the resulting formation looked like more of a 4-2-2-2 than a 4-4-2. The away team lined up with a customary 4-4-2 formation, with Jonathan Walters playing around the burly Kenwyne Jones. Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant played as old-fashioned up and down wingers on either side of a traditional midfield duo of Rory Delap and Glenn Whelan.
Both sides started the game well, though the home side were marginally on top in the opening minutes. As the match made it past the opening ten minutes, it became obvious that Villa were relying on their strengths of width and pace on the counter and intricate passing when it was played through the middle. Stoke, on the other hand, threatened through their strengths; a series of set-pieces, particularly corners, with Friedel pulling off a good save from Huth’s left footed volley from the edge of the area, and then an even better reflex stop to deny Jones from a corner. Stoke forced a string of five corners and later throw-ins, with the pressure eventually paying off as Kenwyne Jones towered high above Richard Dunne to head in from a Delap long throw.
As Villa tried to settle the game down and bring their dangerman wingers into play, Stoke began defending excellently from the front. Walters, in particular, looked to buzz around the pitch and close down defenders, making it hard for Villa to settle into a rhythm and play out from the back. Stiliyan Petrov eventually dropped deep, almost level with his centre-backs, and provided an extra man so that the back line could pass their way around the Stoke front two and bring it out of defence. As Villa eased themselves into the game and began to threaten again, Stoke dropped deeper to the edge of their box and began defending exceptionally well. The Villa midfield probed and passed outside the area, but solid defending from Shawcross and Huth meant that they rarely got inside the opposition area. One reason for this was the relatively functional central midfielders Villa used. Neither Nigel Reo-Coker nor Petrov are expansive or creative passers (rather midfield battlers) and as a result the creative burden fell more or less completely to the two wingers, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young. Unfortunately, though both tried to create, their drifts into the centre (a product of them being played ‘wrong footed’ as inverted wingers) just lead them into a congested centre of the pitch as Stoke played narrow and denied Villa space between the lines. On top of that, Jones always provided a useful focal point for relieving pressure.
The pivotal moment in the first half came when stand-in Villa manager Gary McAllister ordered the full-backs forward more. Luke Young on the left and in particular Kyle Walker on the right began to push their markers, Pennant and Etherington, back into deeper areas. This reduced Stoke’s options of an out-ball, forcing them to go long to Jones every time. As the midfield was sitting deep and the wingers tied up marking Villa’s full-backs, he had no support and, outnumbered, lost the ball. As well as that, the attacking full-backs provided the width lost by playing the wingers inverted, and the Stoke defence had to widen to deal with the new threat. After a sustained period of pressure with crosses in to the Stoke box, the ball was played across the field and fell to Kyle Walker on the right. He played in a low, whipped cross for Bent to claim his second headed goal in as many games with a pinpoint effort low past Begovic into the bottom right hand corner. This showed the effect Villa’s full-backs had on the game; as soon as Walker and L.Young started getting forward regularly, the Stoke defence was stretched and troubled, as evidenced by his assist.
As the second half began, Aston Villa took control and began stroking the ball around with ease, though with more urgency than in the first half. On a couple of occasions Villa were a Ryan Shawcross block away from having Bent clean through on goal, and Young and Downing were combining well with their fullbacks, with Walker continuing his fine recent form. Luke Young played a more reserved role behind his namesake Ashley on the left flank, though that can be partially attributable to Young’s freer role than Downing. He often popped up on the right flank and the centre, the former to attempt to overload the carded Wilson and the latter to try and find some space behind Glenn Whelan. The game continued in this vein for a while, and Stoke must be applauded for both defending well – they kept their shape and tackled solidly – and also maintaining at least a modicum of attacking threat. As the hour mark approached, Stoke began to look happy to settle for a draw, with Whelan being booked for time-wasting. The long-ball tactics for which Stoke are so often derided began become much more prevalent for the away side. After being so surprisingly short and attractive with their passes in their Cup semi-final win against Bolton, the passes Stoke played became more and more direct in this game, though as Jones was having an excellent game it can hardly be criticised.
As Downing came off and young winger Marc Albrighton came on for Villa, Stoke made a similar change, with Matthew Etherington off for Dean Whitehead, with Ricardo Fuller coming on for Rory Delap a few minutes later. As Walters moved to the right and Fuller went up front, Stoke then had two mobile target men to play off and hold up the ball to relieve pressure. As the game moved into its later stages, both Walters and Fuller had goals correctly ruled out for offside, and Villa brought on a velocista in the form of Gabby Agbonlahor to try and test the Stoke defenders’ tired legs. The Stoke defence dropped deeper to combat the threat of the pace of Bent and Agbonlahor, and in turn the Villa defence moved higher due to Fuller and Jones’ lack of mobility and speed. However, in the end both teams looked happy to settle for the draw, and the match petered out.
Analysis: Difference in styles
It is often said that Stoke play an ugly, long-ball style of football, and so it proved today. Whilst Villa continued their newly developed short passing style (third least long balls per game in the Premiership) and offered various points of attack, Stoke seemed to have one distinct attacking move in a long ball to Jones who held it up for the wingers and Walters. As such, the midfield was almost completely bypassed by Stoke, who attempted 330 passes to Villa’s 462 (201 and 329 completed respectively). That said, it was an extremely effective move, as Jones consistently had the beating in the air of Villa’s centre-back pairing of Richard Dunne and James Collins. As a result, Stoke constantly had an option to either start attacks or relieve pressure on their defence with a hoof upfield.
Another feature was the difference in mentality between the Stoke and Villa full-backs. The Stoke full-backs, as a rule, are comfortable at both centre- and full-back, and generally stay back and cover for their aggressive man-marking centre-backs.
Villa’s full-backs on the other hand have been a problem position over recent times, but are known to get forward often. The incumbent right-back, Kyle Walker, is particularly prone to darts upfield. With his extraordinary levels of physical fitness and pace, he combines well with Stewart Downing on the right, moving into space left behind by Downing’s inwards drifts.
Darren Bent has often been pigeonholed as a goalscorer and nothing else, a ‘poacher’ in the purest sense. However, recently his game has been diversifying, and he has been dropping deep and wide as well as holding the ball up well. Today, he was playing off a big, strong striker in Emile Heskey. Heskey generally stayed central and relatively immobile, using his strength and power to collect high balls and lay them off to players in close proximity such as Bent and Young. Bent on the other hand used his excellent off the ball movement to drag around the Stoke defenders and leave space for the likes of Downing to exploit. That said, the Stoke defenders were intelligent in marking him, passing him on to the midfielder in closest proximity as soon as possible. Bent’s goal was masterful: losing his marker for long enough to guide an excellent header past the helpless Begovic.
Bent’s role was mirrored by Jonathan Walters for the away side. Walters played behind and around Jones, playing a rather more physical and rugged style in keeping with his team. Walters’ movement was also excellent, and but for the close attentions of Nigel Reo-Coker is particular (who had a good game, again possibly enhancing his international credentials) he would have caused many more problems to a shaky Villa defence.