Everton 2-2 Aston Villa: Agbonlahor rescues point

Starting formations and lineups, apart from Emile Heskey's early substitution for Barry Bannan and Charles N'Zogbia's subsequent move out onto the wing. Click to enlarge.

An entertaining match was played out at Goodison park between Everton and Aston Villa, with both sides claiming a point apiece. Everton began life without Mikel Arteta by adapting their formation into more of a 4-2-3-1. As mentioned here, the difference between a 4-2-3-1 and Everton’s regular 4-4-1-1 is subtle, but Leon Osman was most definitely a supporting player on the same kind of axis as Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Seamus Coleman, with Marouane Fellaini and Jack Rodwell holding behind. Tim Cahill started as a forward due to Louis Saha’s injury, whilst new forward signing Denis Stracqualursi was left on the bench. Aston Villa set out in their now-regular 4-2-3-1, though the personnel had been swapped around slightly. Charles N’Zogbia played behind Darren Bent, a position he is comfortable in, and Emile Heskey moved out to the right wing, though he lasted only 17 minutes before coming off with an injury. Barry Bannan replaced him, and N’Zogbia moved back onto the wing to accommodate the Scot. Elsewhere, Alan Hutton made his debut at right back.

Left sides prominent

A passing heatmap that illustrates how both sides favoured their left flank (both heatmaps show the teams playing from the left to right). Everton, in the topmost diagram, particularly favoured their left side, due mostly to Leighton Baines' excellent running. However, Villa too slightly favoured their left, likely a natural response to having their right overrun and Charles N'Zogbia's bad game. Courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards.

Everton started the stronger of the two sides, dominating possession and forcing Villa back. The majority of the action when they had the ball, however, was coming down their flanks, particularly the left side: 42% of their attacks came down the Everton left flank. Leighton Baines’ attacking instincts  were particularly prominent, with the England international’s surges down the left providing a constant outlet for the midfielders. With Charles N’Zogbia not particularly interested in defending, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov’s clever position dragged Alan Hutton around and made space for Baines. On more than one occasion, Hutton was pulled high up the pitch level with Stiliyan Petrov, providing plenty of space for Baines to motor into. On the other side, Villa also favoured attacks down their left early on, with 38% of their attacks coming from that side. This created a similar type of game to Villa’s earlier match against Fulham. On this occasion, Villa had a much harder time of it. Seamus Coleman, a converted full back, played on the right wing, and Tony Hibbert was preferred to Phil Neville at right back. Up against them was an on-form Gabriel Agbonlahor and the attack-minded Stephen Warnock. Hibbert isn’t known for bombing on past his winger, and thus Agbonlahor’s excellent work ethic was unnecessary.

Coleman, for his part, tracked Warnock well, and thus both Villa full backs struggled to find space to get forward. With the away side playing inside forwards and a narrow forward line, they were deprived of much of their width, allowing Everton to defend narrow and deep. Going forward, however, Everton were enterprising, and Leon Osman took advantage of Tim Cahill’s clever backheel to slot past Shay Given.

Both left backs had excellent games. Leighton Baines was excellent for Everton, stretching the play constantly and supporting Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, and later on Royston Drenthe, excellently. Stephen Warnock was less spectacular, but almost as effective, nullifying Seamus Coleman well when defending and attacking him whenever he got the opportunity, bagging himself an assist in the process. Courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards.

Petrov draws Villa level

Half time came and went with Everton in control. Their deep defensive line countered the pace of Villa’s front line effectively, and the congested centre of the pitch was being well patrolled by Fellaini and Rodwell. One knock-on effect of the deep defensive line, however, meant that there was plenty of space for Villa’s central midfielders. Despite this, Fabian Delph didn’t have a particularly good game, connecting with only 21 of his 34 attempted passes, captain Stiliyan Petrov did, dictating his side’s tempo and completing 29 out of 38 attempted passes. The major influence he had on the game, however, was his goal. With Everton’s line playing deep, a forward run from Warnock dragged Fellaini over to that side. Warnock then found an unmarked Petrov in the space vacated by Fellaini, and the Bulgarian took a touch before drilling a wonderful, curling 30 yard strike past Tim Howard.

With both sides now looking for another goal, the game opened up, suiting the pace and directness of the Villa front three. Barry Bannan, on for Emile Heskey and fresh off his man of the match performance for Scotland against Lithuania, was spraying balls across the pitch and linking well with Petrov. Darren Bent had a quiet game and looked unfit after being withdrawn from international duty due to injury, but Gabriel Agbonlahor was Villa’s standout attacker, moving into central positions and testing both Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin for pace. The Everton defenders were equal to it, however, and with Baines still tirelessly running from deep and Osman having an excellent game, both sides possessed a threat on the counter.

It was from a set-piece that Everton scored, however indirectly: a corner was looped in by Baines, and Shay Given pulled off a wonderful reflex stop from a Fellaini header that rebounded high into the air. Fabian Delph then went on to ruin Given’s excellent stop by climbing all over Jagielka as the ball fell towards them. Baines took the subsequent penalty coolly, and Everton were once more ahead.

Agbonlahor equalises in dying minutes

Both sides made their changes: jet-heeled new loan signing Royston Drenthe looked sharp as he came on for Bilyaletdinov and caused Alan Hutton all sorts of problems, and Marc Albrighton replaced a less than impressed but wholly ineffectual N’Zogbia. Soon after that, even more fresh legs were brought on by both sides, with Ross Barkly replacing a fading Coleman and Stephen Ireland coming on for Delph. It was a combination of the subs for both sides and Villa’s pace on the counter that eventually told for the equalising goal.

As Villa came forward on the counter, Gabriel Agbonlahor knocked a ball left for Marc Albrighton. Albrighton, playing on the left as an inside forward (an unusual position for him, seeing as he is a winger in the classical sense) escaped the attentions of Tony Hibbert long enough to curl a trademark cross back into the area. Interestingly, Hibbert was too narrow, as if he was expecting to be up against Agbonlahor (now playing on the right) as opposed to Albrighton, who naturally plays wider. The result of this was that Albrighton had enough time to pick out Agbonlahor with his cross, and the Villa striker headered in to claim his second goal in as many games.

Everton weren’t done yet, and the introduction of rangy Greek striker Apostolos Vellios for Tim Cahill nearly paid dividends as he and Ross Barkley combined, threatening the Villa goal with direct running. The new injection of energy also helped, with Vellios putting a shot inches wide after pressurising a tiring Hutton and forcing Given to come scrambling off his line, but Villa held on for a scarcely deserved point.

Conclusion

The home side will be disappointed with a point after dominating for large swathes of the match, but can come away heartened that their side, shorn of the heartbeat of Mikel Arteta, can continue to compete at a high level. Leighton Baines, as ever, was brilliant, and Leon Osman looks like he can plug the creative void that Arteta has left. With Tim Cahill impressive as a striker, it is possible he might yet play there more permanently this year, though Louis Saha has yet to return and Denis Stracqualursi looks a promising talent. Speaking of talent, the Everton production line of excellent young players continues to roll, with Ross Barkley and Apostolos Vellios the latest two to break through. Whilst Barkley has already impressed when starting against QPR and Blackburn, Vellios has yet to earn himself a starting place. That will come in time, however, especially if he continues putting in cameo performances of this quality.

It was a bit of an up and down match from a Villa perspectives. A good point  is Barry Bannan, who seems to have stepped up hugely this season, as well as the continued good form of Petrov, Dunne and Given. On the other hand Alan Hutton had rather an unconvincing debut, and Charles N’Zogbia has been mostly ineffective apart from a few bright spots in his Villa career so far. Results so far have mostly been encouraging, however, and it is great to see Gabriel Agbonlahor fit and firing after an injury-hit 2010/11 season. Last season he looked heavy, a result of the intense physical training Martin O’Neill had been putting him through in order to make him into a target man striker, with the result that his greatest weapon, his explosive pace, had been blunted. There is a fine line between bulking up and losing pace, and Agbonlahor had crossed it. Now he looks much fitter and leaner, and is now the perfect blend of pace and power. With his finishing improving, his work rate exemplary, and his determination to get into the team in whatever position, he is a wonderful role model for the crop of precocious youngsters Villa are cultivating.

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