Birmingham 1-1 Aston Villa: a scrappy goal each
Another tight second city derby ended with a 1-1 draw after an entertaining game.
Alex McLeish used a 4-4-1-1 system, giving a debut to David Bentley on the right of midfield. Liam Ridgewell moved into the centre of defence in place of Scott Dann, so David Murphy came in at left-back. Matt Derbyshire started upfront alone.
Gerard Houllier also named a 4-4-1-1 (or 4-2-3-1) system, using Stewart Downing in the centre of the pitch behind John Carew, with Gabriel Agbonlahor on the left. Loan signing Kyle Walker started at right-back.
From the highlights this would appear a drab game – two fortunate goals in a typically shot-shy contest between these two – but in fact it was open and interesting throughout.
Villa good without ball
One of the main features of the game was how well Villa pressed, a huge improvement from their early displays under Houllier, particularly away at Liverpool when there was simply no cohesive strategy without the ball. They stopped Birmingham playing the ball through midfield, with Nigel Reo-Coker having a good game in the centre of the pitch, closing down Birmingham’s midfielders quickly.
He also doubled up well on Bentley, who showed early promise with a decent ball into the box but rarely provided a quality end product, despite looking bright for most of the game.
It was Villa who made the early running – hitting the bar twice in the first half. It was slightly difficult to see why they were creating chances, since none of the attacking band of three had particularly good games early on, but John Carew was a constant threat from crosses, and Villa were getting plenty of men into the box.
Birmingham grew into the contest. Alexander Hleb played high up the pitch with no defensive responsibilities and was generally left free by Stiliyan Petrov, meaning he roamed between the lines and had one of his better games in a Birmingham shirt. His movement was complemented by Derbyshire working the channels well, and Birmingham looked to use Derbyshire’s pace in wide areas when Villa’s full-backs moved up the pitch.
This approach worked well, though Birmingham looked to play too many high balls towards him (perhaps since they’re used to playing with Cameron Jerome upfront, who offers more of a physical threat) and Derbyshire lost all the challenges he contested.
The most interesting battle of the game was occurring when Villa’s wide men had to defend. Marc Albrighton started on the right with Agbonlahor on the left, and Agbonlahor showed admirable defensive responsibility when tracking the powerful runs of Stephen Carr, who has more pace than his 34 years would suggest. On the other flank, defending doesn’t come naturally to Albrighton, as noted in the games against Everton and Chelsea. He survived a penalty shout when he brought down Murphy in the box – and perhaps because of that, Houllier switched his two wingers.
This caused even more problems, though – the next time Carr went on a forward burst, in the 43rd minute, Albrighton didn’t even attempt to track him, and Carr’s pull-back found Hleb, who couldn’t steer his shot on target. At half-time Houllier switched Albrighton and Agbonlahor back, and the latter continued his good defensive work against Carr. Albrighton’s defensive performance can be summed up by the chalkboard below.
Roger Johnson put Birmingham in front in the 49th minute, and then both managers were guilty of leaving it too long to make substitutions. It was the 71st minute before Houllier made changes – between the goal and the changes, Villa hadn’t tested Ben Foster once. The introduction of Nathan Delfounso gave them a different threat upfront, though it was James Collins who popped up to score the goal after good work by Albrighton going forward.
It was surprising that McLeish waited until after the goal to remove Hleb, who had tired and was not much of an influence in the second half. The introduction of Nikola Zigic almost brought a goal in stoppage time with a looping header, but it was a deserved point apiece.
Birmingham still don’t look comfortable in their system, especially compared to the basic 4-4-2 they used throughout last season which brought them so many points at home. Basing a system around Hleb is risky – although he showed here that he is a tremendously talented player, his constant lack of an end product is frustrating.
Villa played reasonably well, though Downing didn’t look comfortable in the centre – yet another winger used off a main striker in a 4-2-3-1. They don’t look threatening enough in front of goal, which is probably why they are set to spend £18m on Darren Bent.Birmingham 1-1 Aston Villa: a scrappy goal each