Aston Villa 1-0 Man City: Bent strikes on debut
Manchester City dominated the game but somehow managed to come away with nothing.
Gerard Houllier named a very attack-minded side – Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Marc Albrighton and Gabriel Agbonlahor all played behind Darren Bent, who made his first start for the club. Carlos Cuellar returned at right-back.
Roberto Mancini brought David Silva back into the side on the right, and Jerome Boateng replaced Pablo Zabaleta at right-back. Edin Dzeko started his second game for City.
Villa started well here. As in the derby against Birmingham last week, it was clear that pressing has become part of their game – they pressured City from the front and even forced Joe Hart into hurried clearances, rather than sitting back in their own half as they had done at the start of Houllier’s reign.
The home side were set out in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Stiliyan Petrov playing as the holding man ahead of the defence. Young played very deep – rather than staying up as a link between the midfield and Bent, he dropped alongside Downing and spent much of the game inside his own half.
The problem with Villa playing this system was that they were up against a City side who kept their holding midfielders in position, and pushed their full-backs forward ahead of them. This meant that when Villa’s midfield responded and naturally tracked the full-backs, the Villa wingers became deeper than the central midfielders, and they lost the intended shape. Villa usually use their wingers to support the main striker, but here they became pushed so far into their own half that Bent became completely isolated and barely had any support. Still, he managed to tap home a rebound to put Villa 1-0 up, and from there the home side concentrated on protecting the lead.
City’s shape was a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 hybrid – though they were so rarely defending it was difficult to see what their true formation was when they didn’t have the ball. Sometimes David Silva was on the right and Gareth Barry the left, with Carlos Tevez off Edin Dzeko, but sometimes Barry was more narrow with Silva looking like he was part of a front three, with Tevez coming left. Either way, it offered no real link between the midfield and the attack – a surprising problem considering Villa were hardly packing their side with holding players – and Dzeko had little service in the first half.
City’s only bright spark was Aleksander Kolarov, who put in some excellent corners and also stormed forward in open play, often unmarked. This was a result of the confusion about City’s shape – sometimes Albrighton would find himself tracking Barry when the former Villa man came out to that flank, and Cuellar kept an eye on Tevez – leaving Kolarov to get forward without any attention. He was far more attack-minded than Jerome Boateng on the other side.
Mancini moved some players around for the second half. First, Yaya Toure played much higher up the pitch – he was far too conservative in the first half and offered little going forward. Also, Tevez and Dzeko switched, with Tevez happier coming short to meet the ball in a ‘false nine’ role, illustrating why City seemed to lack a link player in the first half – he is usually that link player, as well as the main goalscorer.
City passed the ball much more quickly and seemed more dangerous, though they still had one too many players sitting back rather than testing the Villa defence. Therefore, Mancini removed Barry and brought on Adam Johnson, pushing Toure slightly deeper again and going 4-2-3-1 with Silva in the centre – though it was really a 4-1-1-3-1, with de Jong much deeper than Toure.
Villa changed nothing in the second period (until the very late change of Nigel Reo-Coker for Petrov), though Downing dropped slightly deeper, and the wingers played so deep than the 4-5-1 sometimes looked like a 6-3-1, especially as the defence was playing so narrow.
This narrowness worked very nicely – City were so reluctant to go wide and put the ball into the box, always looking to try and play through the centre. Even Johnson, who provided initial width by staying near the touchline, wanted to come inside onto his stronger foot. Villa’s use of four centre-backs helped, and their second half performance essentially consisted of getting blocks in around the edge of the penalty area.
Mancini’s options from the bench were minimal but he could have changed things further – Boateng offered little drive from full-back and could have been replaced with Milner, who has played at full-back before (and for the final 10-15 minutes would have spent the game in the opposition half anyway) to provide some natural width and perhaps some crosses. Despite their dominance and insistence on playing short passes through the centre, City barely ever successfully played the ball into the box in open play.
A resilient defensive performance from Villa. The addition of Bent made them no more attack-minded, but they have lacked a poacher this season, and probably wouldn’t have recorded this victory without him.
City looked slightly lost in the final third. Their dilemma is how to use their attacking players – more specifically, how to accommodate Dzeko without moving Tevez away from the zone he’s played so well in over the past year.Aston Villa 1-0 Man City: Bent strikes on debut