Aston Villa 1-0 Everton: Villa strike early, then hold on
A bizarre game that Everton dominated from start to finish, and yet still managed to lose.
Stephen Ireland suffered an injury in the warm up, so Nigel Reo-Coker replaced him in the centre of midfield. James Collins returned at the back, and Gabriel Agbonlahor wasn’t fit enough to start, so John Carew continued upfront.
David Moyes elected to play a 4-2-3-1ish system that often became 4-1-4-1 when Mikel Arteta pushed forward. Jermaine Beckford was again upfront, and Jack Rodwell got his first start of the season in an unfamiliar right wing position.
Everton had started the brighter, and even the 9th minute goal from Luke Young was probably against the run of play. It was a superb move and a wonderful finish, however, with Young combining with his namesake Ashley, before running onto the ball having escaped Steven Pienaar’s poor marking, and curling the ball into the top corner.
That goal was untypical of the game as a whole, but it stemmed from the area of the pitch that saw the game’s key battle take place. Young and Mark Albrighton were up against Leighton Baines and Steven Pieenar, and it was a fascinating contest going in both directions.
First, Baines was a prominent attacking threat throughout the game, constantly getting himself into wide positions in the final third of the pitch, and swinging a couple of dangerous balls into the box. The Pienaar-Baines combination worked well – Pieenar kept drifting into the centre of the pitch, and Luke Young marshalled him very closely, to the point where sometimes Young ended up marking Pieenar between his own centre-backs. This created space in Villa’s right-back zone for Baines to exploit, and Albrighton had a difficult time with his defensive responsibilities, switching off a couple of times. See below – Pienaar made diagonal runs into the centre, Baines bombed forward on the outside.
The final point about the battle on that side concerns the goal itself – it’s hard to imagine Villa would have scored that goal under Martin O’Neill last season, for he insisted on playing centre-back Carlos Cuellar in that position. Young started just nine games there, whereas Cuellar started 24 and generally offered nothing creatively when in possession.
The game was less exciting on the other side of the pitch – Rodwell looked out of place on the right, and always wanted to play the ball back into the centre of the pitch, rather than stretching the play or getting to the byline. Elsewhere, another notable factor was Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka’s tendency to step up briefly into midfield to distribute the ball, leaving the other 1 v 1 against John Carew at the back.
Carew had a poor game, struggling to hold the ball up for the onrushing midfield players. He only completed one pass in the 68 minutes he spent on the pitch, and his inability to keep hold of the ball meant Everton could launch attacks again and again. At the other end, Jermaine Beckford was also disappointing – his all-round game is not as bad as some critics have made out, but he is still short of the ability required for a top-half Premiership striker.
Everton’s sheer dominance meant the game was hinging around whether they could turn their possession into goals. Villa’s clean sheet was more about last-ditch blocks and tackles and some great saves from Brad Friedel than an organised positional masterclass, but then they fact that defended very narrow meant they were more likely to be in positions to get blocks in.
Moyes’ substitutions were slightly surprising – Louis Saha on for Beckford made sense, but when Rodwell got injured, Moyes used Seamus Coleman in the right-wing position, and later withdrew Tony Hibbert for Johnny Heintinga. Coleman had a good impact – getting to the byline once and delivering a decent near post ball in, but with the Everton full-backs camped in the final third, it would have been nice to see Coleman deployed at right-back, with a more attacking player ahead of him.
Bringing on Heitinga was presumably in order to push Fellaini forward into a striking role, but Moyes surely could have done that anyway, leaving Distin and Jagielka at the back, and Arteta slightly deeper, with time on the ball to create. Certainly, it’s easy to be wise after the event, but introducing a right-back and a centre-back when 1-0 down and dominating possession was a strange decision, especially when Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Leon Osman were unused substitutes.
Villa occasionally threatened on the break – Everton’s high line was fine against Carew but less wise when Agbonlahor came on – but it was basically about last-ditch tackles, great saves, and a little bit of luck. It’s hard to attribute the victory to tactics, but it was a superb game.
Some interesting points tactically – the use of a proper right-back, the use of one inverted winger with a full-back overlapping, and a couple of glimpses of centre-backs stepping out from defence. None of this explains the scoreline, which even Villa fans must be slightly amazed at, but adds some interesting side notes to an entertaining contest.
The injury to Ireland may have served Villa quite well considering most of (his replacement) Nigel Reo-Coker’s work was in his own third of the pitch, but the use of John Carew as a lone striker didn’t work particularly well. Whoever becomes the permanent Villa boss still has a job trying to fit their midfielders and attackers into a cohesive shape.
This defeat will be the most frustrating of Everton’s season – but then look at the first XI, and it’s not packed with goals. Beckford has no Premiership experience, Rodwell is not a winger, and Pieenar averages three goals a season. Only Cahill bucks the trend, but he had a quiet game after being excellent at Wolves last week. A fit Louis Saha will make a big difference.Aston Villa 1-0 Everton: Villa strike early, then hold on