I met a friend at a local pub on Sunday afternoon to chat about the previous day's football matches. He's a Fulham supporter and thought his side were worth at least a point against Arsenal. I agreed. He also mentioned that Aston Villa were the most difficult side in the Premier League to get a sense of. I agreed with that as well.
Villa didn't turn in a stinker at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, where they lost 2-1 to a late David Dunn penalty. By and large, the match was watchable, with good attempts being made at either end. And as the visiting team, Villa played a mostly decent away game, and might have deserved a share of the points from their efforts.
But at the final whistle, it was hard dispute the result. Two things struck me about the contest, and Blackburn dominated in both categories.
Quality of possession: For large swaths of the 90 minutes, the hosts retained control of the ball and launched attack after attack at Brad Friedel. Dunn was a constant menace, and Vincenzo Grella and Steven Nzonzi were solid in the centre of the park.
Villa, on the other hand, were ineffective with the ball unless bursting out of their own end on the counter-attack. This is too often the story with Martin O'Neill's men. Although Fabian Delph looked to be finally settling in alongside Stiliyan Petrov, he gave the ball away far too much and didn't seem capable of distributing good passes to Ashley Young and James Milner. Neither did Petrov.
In the centre of midfield, Villa were completely outclassed. That's why O'Neill often names three central midfielders in his starting-11. Since they don't have the playmaking quality to put their opponents on the back-foot, they have to rely on over-crowding the middle third. But due to the Steve Sidwell injury and the feud between O'Neill and Nigel Reo-Coker, they left themselves vulnerable at the position and paid the price.
Two: Blackburn wanted it more. Much more. Even when they were reduced to 10 men with more than 20 minutes remaining, you never got the sense that Rovers were going to concede all three points. Dunn was simply tenacious, and Brett Emerton was similarly effective after replacing Morten Gamst Pedersen.
When making his substitutions, Sam Allardyce was able to call on players with a reasonable measure of skill, but a double dose of emotion and enterprise. And O'Neill? He removed Delph just prior to the hour-mark and deployed Emile Heskey. Enough said.
When it came time to turn it up a notch, Blackburn were more than willing to get stuck in, while Villa were found wanting.
So what's my sense of this team? This team that has beaten Liverpool away and lost to Wigan at home? When I looked at the standings this morning, Villa were seventh. That seemed about right.
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