Chelsea 3-3 Aston Villa: honours even after crazy final minutes

January 2, 2011

The starting line-ups

Aston Villa stifled Chelsea for the majority of the game, but still had to snatch a last minute equaliser to leave with a point.

Chelsea were without Jon Obi Mikel again, so Michael Essien played the holding role. Jeffrey Bruma started at centre-back in the absence of Branislav Ivanovic and Alex.

Gerard Houllier used Gabriel Agbonlahor on the left, with Ashley Young playing off Emile Heskey. Ciaran Clark started at left-back, and Carlos Cuellar returned at right-back.

The first half was  scrappy affair – seven bookings, two goals (both from penalties) and very little creativity from either side.

Houllier tactics work well

That said, Villa were the better side in the opening period, and credit should go to Houllier for his starting line-up. Not only did Villa prevent Chelsea from playing, they were also positive and direct when they had the ball, and took the game to Carlo Ancelotti’s side for the majority of the half.

Houllier’s tactics worked well. He left out Marc Albrighton, a promising young player but one who remains suspect defensively (see his mistake for John Terry’s goal in the 89th minute) in order to play Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing. Downing played on the right and tracked Ashley Cole up and down the line very well (much like Kieran Richardson did when Sunderland played 3-0 at Stamford Bridge) and nullified Cole as an attacking threat.

On the other side, Agbonlahor had the beating of Paolo Ferreira for pace, although he rarely looked to take the Portuguese right-back on directly. Instead, he played quite a deep role which actually worked out quite nicely for Villa, whether through design or accident. Ferreira’s strategy when playing against wingers who can outrun him (which, frankly, is the majority of them) is to stick very tight to his man, often playing high up the pitch and exposing his centre-backs – see the game against Tottenham last season, for example. Agbonlahor’s deepish positioning meant Ferreira moved forward and opened up space for Villa in the channels – which Ashley Young (playing broadly as a “central winger”) exploited to good effect early on.

Young finds space

Young had a good game, taking advantage of the fact that Chelsea were lacking a true holding player – Essien is not at his best there – to drift across the pitch into space. The best part about a player like Young – someone fielded centrally but likely to drift from flank to flank – is that he naturally moves into very good positions to form triangles between he, the main striker (Emile Heskey) and the winger. Villa didn’t create a lot of chances, but they were always a threat.

The disadvantage of Villa playing just two central midfielders (counting Young as a forward) was that they were occasionally outnumbered in the centre. Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker took it in turns to get forward, but they sometimes both moved too high up the pitch, and left Villa with space in front of their back four. Frank Lampard was not playing well and wasn’t able to take advantage of this fully, but the numerical deficit partially contributed to Villa’s yellow card count – both central midfielders picked up their bookings after getting caught too high up the pitch.

Second half

Villa took the lead early in the second half when Downing beat Cole and stood a good cross up for Emile Heskey to nod in, but from there Villa sat back a little too much and seemed to be trying to hang on.

In fairness, they defended relatively well (although relied on a couple of Brad Friedel saves) but it was surprising that Houllier didn’t look to change things with a substitution. This was Villa’s third game within a week and tiredness clearly set in late on, and they had seven players on yellow cards. The only switch Houllier made was because of an injury to Agbonlahor, and that was after Chelsea had equalised. In the meantime, Ancelotti had made two attack-minded changes – bringing on Jose Bosingwa for Ferreira, and Saloman Kalou for Ramires.

The final ten minutes was a scrappy, entertaining spell that owed little to tactics and more much to tiredness, individual mistakes and a little bit of luck here and there. John Terry thought he’d won the game but Clark popped up to nod in after Albrighton had atoned for his mistake with an excellent cross.


A crazy game between two sides lacking in confidence. Houllier got his selection and tactics spot on but persisted with the starting XI for too long – he didn’t introduce fresh legs and didn’t respond to Ancelotti’s substitutions, which increased the pressure upon his players.

Few lessons as whole, but there were interesting factors about individuals – how Young found space, how Agbonlahor drew Ferreira out of position, how Villa’s midfielders could be caught too high up the pitch.

Chelsea still rely heavily on Drogba, and getting the best out of him remains their best chance of challenging for the title. He woke up in the final ten minutes and his side started to become a goal threat, but mistakes at the back meant Chelsea didn’t deserve three points here.

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