Aston Villa 1-0 Reading: Benteke settles tight game
Christian Benteke justified his selection over Darren Bent with a crucial goal to help Villa out of the relegation zone.
The home side were without captain Ron Vlaar, and so Ciaran Clark shifted over to the right side of the centre-back partnership to accommodate Nathan Baker. Last week’s experiment with regista Karim El Ahmadi being played as an attacking midfielder was shelved in favour of Andreas Weimann being moved into the centre, where he buzzed around the main striker. Brett Holman took his place on the right as Paul Lambert chose a 4-2-3-1.
Reading manager Brian McDermott shuffled his pack at the back, dropping Chris Gunter and Kaspars Gorkss in favour of Shaun Cummings and Adrian Mariappa. Elsewhere, the side was the same 4-4-2 as the one which lost 3-2 at Wigan, with Jason Roberts and Adam Le Fondre a hard working partnership up front.
A key feature of the game was the Villa right flank – and Reading’s left – and the huge amount of play that went through that third of the field. Nearly 50% of both sides’ play went down that side of the pitch, and so it was critical for both sides to control it.
Villa’s wingers occasionally swapped wings, but the man who most often ended up on that side of the pitch was Brett Holman. The Australian arrived on a free transfer over the summer, and has made his mark with high-energy performances. Here, he played an interesting shuttling role; with Weimann linking play through energy and verticality rather than passing quality, Holman had to give Villa a creative outlet higher up the pitch as well as protect his full-back Matthew Lowton. He performed admirably, playing three key passes – the second most on either side – as well as making two tackles and the same number of interceptions.
Holman’s energy helped contain former Villan Nicky Shorey – though he isn’t a particularly attacking, dynamic player anyway – but the real star in that area of the pitch was Matt Lowton. He dominated his direct opponent Hal Robson-Kanu, making a huge 12 tackles and interceptions, and pushing the Welshman back into his own half. Thanks to Villa’s players beating their opponents in one-on-one duels, their team took control of the most vital area on the pitch and never surrendered it.
Villa narrowness vs Reading width
The Villa front four were particularly interesting. With all three players behind Benteke able to play anywhere in attack, their switched and interchanged between positions fluidly. Benteke himself often dropped deep to link play and win headers, but the end result was that Villa often ended up quite narrow high up the pitch in attack. This had both positive and negative results, with sheer weight of numbers in the centre often overloading the Reading defence and allowing Barry Bannan to drift wide to deliver crosses, but Villa often became too stolid and predictable in their play.
Reading, on the other hand, played wider and broke through the flanks on the counter. Jason Roberts’ hold up play encouraged other Reading players to get forward and his aerial presence was invaluable up against Villa’s inexperienced centre-back pairing. Roberts gave the away side an easy out-ball to relieve pressure and a good target for crosses; Reading played a higher percentage of crosses and long passes than Villa, which was telling given that Villa’s primary method of attack was the long ball to Benteke.
In the centre of the pitch, there was a running battle between the two midfield duos. With the two second strikers Weimann and Le Fondre too high up to influence it, it was left to the duos of Bannan and Westwood and Jay Tabb and Mikele Leigertwood to battle for possession.
Again, Villa displayed a clear superiority. Tabb and Leigertwood played roughly the same traditional English box-to-box role, but both the Villa midfielders were comfortable on the ball. Bannan, a versatile player but who has made the regista position his own this season, was tasked with spreading play and linking defence to attack, whilst Westwood – who compares himself to Michael Carrick, and indeed plays like a more defensive version of the United midfielder – plays a calmer, more reserved shielding role.
The Villa duo’s jobs were clear: protect the defence and link defence and attack. By comparison, the Reading midfielders had to try and offer at both ends of the pitch, as their 4-4-2 demanded central midfield support. This would normally not be such a problem, but with Villa flooding the centre of the pitch, they had to rein in their bursts forward, isolating their strikers, who often ended up with four or five Villa players surrounding them.
Villa took three vital points, and were good value for their win. Benteke continues to impress, and critics who say that Darren Bent needs to be included discount the extra dimensions Benteke brings with his aerial strength, hold up play and technical ability. Moreover, with Andy Weimann a more rounded, harder working and in-form version of Bent and Agbonlahor able to contribute in multiple ways apart from his sheer pace, Lambert is right to disregard the doubters. The rest of the team looks promising, with a particularly interesting central midfield duo comprised of two registas with differing styles. That said, Weimann looks uncomfortable as a trequartista, and Stephen Ireland remains an underrated and vital cog at the tip of the Villa midfield.
For Reading, the going was tough, and perhaps their 4-4-2 needs another dimension. One must also question Pavel Pogrebnyak being left on the bench in favour of Jason Roberts, no matter the latter’s decent showing in this game. The midfield two in particular look like they need a rejig, with Tabb and Leigertwood being asked to do everything and often ending up doing nothing as a result.