Aston Villa 1-1 Wigan Athletic – Match Report
Wigan Athletic had a fantastic record against Aston Villa at Villa Park, and so it proved once more as they held an flat and disjointed Villa to a draw. The home side set up in their regular recent formation, a 4-4-2 with inverted wingers and buccaneering fullbacks counteracted by a conservative central midfield pair. Wigan set up in a counterattacking 4-2-3-1, with Charles N’Zogbia playing as a central winger.
High tempo start
Both the home side and (predictably, seeing as a win would likely see them move out of the relegation zone) Wigan started enterprisingly. Villa looked to get the ball quickly out to their wide players in order to negate the numerical disadvantage in the centre, and Wigan unsurprisingly looked play it through the centre and use their man advantage. This paid off; within the first ten minutes Villa were behind, with an excellent run by Victor Moses on the counterattack resulted in him teeing up N’Zogbia. Walker, who has been prominent in the opening stages in support of Downing, could be said to have been at fault for the goal. He was caught high up the pitch after joining an attack, and with the Wigan midfield recycling the ball quickly it found Moses, who parted the Villa defence (the pun was there for the taking) and slipped the ball to N’Zogbia, who made the goalscoring run from the vacated right back position. Walker’s runs are extremely important to Aston Villa in an attacking sense (as we shall see later), but he has received criticism from some quarters because of his lack of defensive awareness. He is young, of course, and will improve, but until then he remains a weak link defensively. That said, he is playing alongside a defence which is incredibly disorganised and sub-standard, both individually and as a team, hardly an environment for a young player to make mistakes in relative safety.
Six minutes later, however, the parity was restored. Ashley Young won and took a free kick about 25 yards out, placing it beyond the reach of Ali Al-Habsi. Young has been much maligned by Villa fans for his free kicks recently, and rightly too, but when taking free kicks indirectly (as in laid off to him by another player, in this case Stiliyan Petrov) he has looked much more dangerous. This was a well struck effort with plenty of bend, and although Al-Habsi could have done better the ball squirmed out of his reach and into the corner of the net.
Fouls and second half
The game began to break up slightly, with Heskey having a technically brilliant juggle followed by a left-footed volley excellently saved from close range by Al-Habsi. Moments later, Gary Caldwell fouled Heskey and the former England frontman’s temper flared, talking himself into a silly yellow card. The game got more and more bad tempered, with Villa Park roaring as Wigan broke up play with fouls. Ashley Young went down under a challenge from an increasingly erratic Caldwell in the box, but it was not a foul and to his credit the England international did not appeal for a penalty. Eventually, Wigan won a string of corners, something that Villa are particularly vulnerable to, and this susceptibility continued as a goalmouth scramble resulted in Wigan getting numerous half-chances before the home side were able to clear. A tense, tight and breathless first half came to a close after Alcaraz wasted a good crossing opportunity.
The second half began with Aston Villa making a change: the normally mild-mannered Emile Heskey, who had spent the latter part of the first half being restrained by teammates (even on one occasion by Brad Friedel) went off and Marc Albrighton, the right-wing wonderkid, came on. This required a change in formation, with Villa changing to the 4-2-3-1 they played earlier in the season, and Ashley Young moving back into the hole and Stewart Downing taking his place on the left.
This formation change altered the dynamic of the match: without their numerical advantage in the centre of midfield and Petrov moving deeper, level with Reo-Coker, Villa’s defence was shored up against the runs through the centre of Wigan’s midfielders. With the game being played at a ferocious, end-to-end pace both sides became more and more stretched. As Wigan moved the ball wider to get round the ‘square’ formed between the Villa centre-backs and their defensive midfielders, both sides were directing play down the flanks, and all four sets of full-backs got forward well to aid their wingers. Although both Villa’s wingers, in particular Stewart Downing, were better at helping out their defence, this was in evidence in part because of Wigan’s increasing dominance in the first half. When Villa did get the ball, they looked devoid of ideas; although Downing has been exceptional in creating for his side this season, he is the only one in Villa’s first team that offers that spark in a mostly functional midfield.
Wigan, on the other hand, constantly provided multiple routes of attack. For a team who are considered a ‘lower-half’ side in the Premiership, their passing and movement is excellent, and the runs of creatively sound players such as N’Zogbia, Moses and Tom Cleverley caused the shaky Villa defence constant problems. Despite this, the packed midfield and good defensive work by both side’s wingers meant that the game began to get less open. Apart from Rodallega shooting past the post and Darren Bent missing a glorious one-on-one opportunity, there were few clear-cut scoring chances. With the dearth of chances, the game petered out to a draw which suited neither side, though on balance was probably fair.
Analysis Point: Villa’s imbalanced wings
As per usual this season, Aston Villa’s thrust was mainly provided down the right by the excellent understanding between Stewart Downing and Kyle Walker. As Downing moved inside to create on his favoured left foot, Walker used his extraordinary athletic ability, pace and dribbling ability to overlap beyond him and provide an overload. Although chalkboards wouldn’t be too effective in the case of Downing due to his change of flanks halfway through the match thanks to the addition of Albrighton, Walker’s chalkboard to the right shows how attack-minded he is. Taking advantage of Cleverley’s reluctance to get back and defend, Walker exploited the space well as he has done in recent weeks – Villa’s goal the week before last came after Walker got forward into space to deliver the cross. This is a marked departure for Villa, who previously used to play up the left hand side to utilise the mercurial talents of Ashley Young to its full. 38% of Villa’s attacks have come down the right hand flank, compared with 35% last season, a telling change.
Downing is pivotal to Aston Villa’s balance. With the midfield two being unambitious, solid passers (though Petrov was more adventurous today), the onus is on the other four attacking players to create. Neither Bent nor Agbonlahor/Heskey/Delfouneso (admittedly the latter is better) create much if at all, and Ashley Young, whilst an excellent dribbler, a good crosser and penetrative runner, doesn’t possess the creative finesse nor the vision needed to properly dictate play. Quite beside that, the wing isn’t the best place to spray passes around from, but when moved into the centre late in the game he didn’t fare much better at all. As such, Downing’s excellent passing and eye for splitting the defence has been invaluable for Villa this season.
That said, it is rather obvious that investment is needed in this area. Fabian Delph would be a useful stop-gap, being an offensive-minded player with an eye for a pass, and Barry Bannan would arguably fit the role even better. Morgan Amalfitano, the Lorient playmaker, is apparently being tracked by Villa, but either way a central creative midfielder would take much of the burden off Downing and allow Villa more than one route of attack. As I mentioned earlier, much can be learnt from Wigan in this regard; with the likes of Cleverley, Moses and particularly N’Zogbia all intelligent movers and passers, the already weak Villa defence was saved only by the tireless work of Nigel Reo-Coker, who once more had an exceptional game. Steps must be taken to retain his services at all costs.