Fulham 0-0 Aston Villa – Match Report
Craven Cottage played host to a rather dour game as Fulham drew 0-0 with Aston Villa. The home side played a regular 4-4-2, with Andy Johnson playing slightly off Bobby Zamora and new signing John Arne Riise providing a more thrust down the left than his right-back counterpart Aaron Hughes. Villa, on the other hand, played a curious formation: most like a 4-4-1-1, it could also be described as a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1. Emile Heskey dropped deep to hassle the passing of the Fulham midfielders and attempt to win aerial duels, with Gabriel Agbonlahor playing narrow on the left and recent arrival Charles N’Zogbia wider on the right.
From the off, the pivotal areas of the pitch were in both side’s left-back position. With Fulham playing Clint Dempsey in a tucked-in right midfield position and Aaron Hughes showing little attacking intent (unsurprisingly, considering he is a natural centre-back), Stephen Warnock was given the freedom of the Fulham right flank to make raids up the field in support of Gabriel Agbonlahor. Arguably part of the reason Warnock was frozen out under Gerard Houllier was because of his shaky defending – not relevant here is the more major reason, that of his poor attitude – but without a direct opponent there was nobody to threaten him.
His opposite number, John Arne Riise, had an excellent game too, though his task was harder than Warnock’s. Firstly, he had a direct opponent, Charles N’Zogbia, one of the trickiest players in the Premiership and one of Villa’s main attacking threats. Secondly, he had much less space to work in: on Warnock’s side of the pitch had the two wingers, Agbonlahor and Dempsey, tucked in, whereas Damien Duff and Charles N’Zogbia were far more willing to stay wide on the Fulham left flank. Lastly, Riise had the combined efforts of the natural (as opposed to fill-in, like Aaron Hughes) full-back Luke Young and a defensively diligent N’Zogbia trying to prevent him from getting forward. Nevertheless, the Norwegian set about his task with energy and no little quality, pushing N’Zogbia back and restricting the influence he had on the game. With Damien Duff occupying Young, Riise broke free of N’Zogbia’s marking to threaten the goal early on, his trademark powerful drive drifting over the bar. Warnock, on the other hand, sometimes failed to make the time and space he was afforded count, though his undoubted quality will be welcome to a defence that was forced to play central defender Ciaran Clark at left-back for much of last season.
Space left unexploited
With both sides playing a 4-4-2 (ish, in the case of Villa), and neither playing a pure destroyer – Dickson Etuhu was the closest fit, but he’s a much more complete player than that – there was plenty of space in front of the defences of each team to be exploited. Neither side took advantage of this space, however. In the home side’s case, neither Bobby Zamora nor Andy Johnson are particularly adept at dropping deep and exploiting space to create, with both being more comfortable as prima puntas. On top of that, the midfield duo of Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu were too static to exploit the space between the Villa defence and midfield. The introduction of Moussa Dembele could have remedied this problem, but the Belgian had a poor game.
Villa, on the other hand, were far more naturally suited to exploit that space. With Heskey sitting deep, he was in plenty of space to create. Unfortunately, he is Emile Heskey, and as a result failed utterly to create much for Darren Bent. That’s not to say he was completely useless, of course – he made himself a nuisance and won around half of his aerial duels against the tall and powerful duo of Philippe Senderos and Brede Hangeland, for example – but he wasn’t what Villa needed in this situation.
Game fizzles out
Therefore, both Villa and Fulham found it difficult to create. With both defences in fine fettle, and Shay Given pulling off some excellent reflex stops, the match was hardly ever in danger of igniting. Both teams seemed happy to play for the draw, but with little creativity coming from the centre (Delph and Murphy, each side’s creators, had good but tidy rather than impressive games) and the one tactical advantage Villa had, that of Warnock’s ability to get forward, was negated by Warnock’s lack of a consistent end product, the two teams fought each other to a standstill. Each side departs with a point they should be rather happy with: both are solid top-half sides, and neither wanted to start their campaign with a loss under new managers. Martin Jol has made some good purchases, with John Arne Riise extremely impressive on debut, and will look to address any deficiencies with tactical flexibility rather than huge buys. Alex McLeish, too, seems to have invested his money well. Shay Given exuded the kind of confidence that only a keeper of his considerable skill and experience can bring, and whilst Charles N’Zogbia was marshalled well by Riise he can take solace in the fact that there will be days where his side of the pitch is far less congested. Like Jol, McLeish also seems to have made his summer purchases and will now find a system to fit, and his use of at least three distinct formations so far in his Villa career seems to promise at least a small amount of flexibility.