When the Villans played Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, they managed to limit a high-scoring Spurs side with a masterclass in defence. However, the 1-1 draw seems to have benefitted Harry Redknapp’s side as they find themselves in third place in the Premier League as opposed to Martin O’Neill’s side in sixth place. Despite ending all square, Spurs looked like the team more likely to contend for a Champions League spot.
In the first half, the Villans looked dangerous from set-pieces and, having scored half of their goals already this season from these, they were able to threaten the Spurs defence very early on in the game. On 10 minutes, after Spurs failed to clear a corner, Gabriel Agbonlahor managed to bundle in the loose ball to give Villa the lead. With a goal to the good, the Villans began to sit back and defend just as they have been doing all season. They managed to successfully close down Tottenham’s wingers, preventing Aaron Lennon and Niko Kranjcar from supplying Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe. Villa’s shot stopper, Brad Friedel, was on hand to maintain Villa’s lead in the first half.
However, in the second half, the Villa midfield began to drop deeper and deeper with the two wingers, Ashley Young and James Milner, almost playing as additional full-backs. Tom Huddlestone and Wilson Palacios were winning the midfield battle as Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker were forced to defend closer and closer to their back line. As a result the Villans were resolute in defence, and despite being under immense pressure from Redknapp’s Spurs, they managed to prevent an equaliser for 77 minutes. Sooner or later Tottenham were bound to equalise, and on 77 minutes Michael Dawson’s deserved goal brought the game level again.
What is frustrating for the fans is that Villa do not make sufficient use of their attacking pace and they spend the majority of the game playing on the counter attack, even at home. As a consequence of this, they allow the opposition to play football and invite them to attack. Perhaps O’Neill prefers to have all 10 players behind the ball, but this does not stop the Villans from looking uncertain on the ball, lacking the self-confidence to impose their authority on the game. Whilst Tottenham showed desire to get back into the game, the Villans were happy to try and grind out a result through rugged defending.
However, playing with two defensive midfielders was always going to mean that Villa would have a defensive mindset throughout the match. Nevertheless, the game on Saturday highlighted Villa’s need for a playmaker in central midfield to open the game up and provide service for the strikers down the middle. O’Neill could do with a player similar to Stephen Ireland, Andrei Arshavin and Mikel Arteta, who would be a constant thorn to the opposition defence with forward runs in order to create space for the strikers. If Villa are still failing to perform then a purchase in this area may be necessary.
O’Neill was pleased with the point but he did identify Villa’s weaknesses: “When we were clearing it, we couldn’t get out quickly enough. We lost rhythm and momentum and got a bit tired. Tottenham deserved the equaliser.” Perhaps O’Neill was not being as critical in front of the camera, however he will know that there are still problems with Villa’s mentality and he will be constantly trying to work on them.
On Tuesday, the Villans face Portsmouth in the quarter final of the Carling Cup, and despite the fact that Pompey are bottom of the Premier League, their determination to progress in the competition will definitely make the encounter difficult for Villa. O’Neill is likely to field the makeshift back four he played against Spurs as Stephen Warnock and James Collins look unlikely to start. The Villans will want to progress into the semi-finals of the competition and then they might have a realistic chance of picking up silverware this season.
From Saturday’s result, it became obvious Villa are lacking a creative presence in midfield as they look second best to Tottenham in breaking into the top four. The busy Christmas period will determine whether Villa can achieve consistency or whether hopes of a Champions League place is merely a delusion.