I’m not typically a big believer in time-of-possession statistics. I just don’t think they divulge all that much. On Saturday, however, they revealed plenty. Villa controlled the ball 46 per cent of the time against the Latics, and that might be putting it generously. Even when they had the ball, they seemed to be on the backfoot. Here’s why.
Michael Brown and Hendry Thomas absolutely neutered Stiliyan Petrov and Fabian Delph in midfield. I don’t want to be hard on Delph: he showed some promise and even a bit of flash at times. But he was clearly out of his depth. So was Petrov. At 30-years of age, the Bulgarian’s pace has abandoned him, and his contribution to Villa’s quick start last term was vastly overstated. It was his performance in the second half of the campaign that I found to be a fair representation of his capabilities. That seems to have carried over.
None of that, however, should take away from the performances of Brown and Hendry. Brown is a pit-bull, and Thomas is just the latest Central American to come through the Wigan pipeline in recent seasons. Tall, athletic and a good distributor of the ball, he earned an assist in his first appearance in English football. Wigan got him on a song from Honduran giants Olimpia. He’s a player Villa might have done well to pursue themselves.
Instead, Stiliyan Petrov plodded along in midfield and Nicky Shorey made a costly blunder that allowed Hugo Rodallega to put the guests in front after 31 minutes. It was the least they deserved. And while Ashley Young made several admirable attempts to pull his side back into it, he was Martin O’Neill’s only reliable source of offense on the night. James Milner showed some early pace on the ball, but he was mostly neutralized by Ball and Maynor Figueroa as the match progressed.
The manager, however, preferred to avoid a knee-jerk analysis in his post-match remarks.
“You can analyze everything, but at the end of it all I thought we looked tired, which was a wee bit of a surprise considering we’ve had a pretty decent pre-season,” he said. “We’ve been beaten when we should have been ready to go, and it was very disappointing indeed.”
Villa had better get ready to go by Thursday, when they’ll travel to Austria to face Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. A trip to Liverpool will follow four days later. Never an easy assignment. O’Neill’s first move will probably be to remove Fabian Delph in favor of Steve Sidwell. If he’s persistent in playing Petrov, he needs a player to cover for the Bulgarian’s incompetence. Either way, he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Same old story.