Aston Villa 1 Norwich 1 : Story Of A Match
Norwich secured an away draw with a late goal on Saturday. Today on the blog Matt Wallace from Holtamania breaks down the match with his unique analysis.
Whether they want to admit it or not, this was the game the vast majority of Norwich fans looked for when the fixture list came out in the summer – and I am one of them. After masterminding three glorious seasons, the departure of Paul Lambert to Aston Villa left fans with confused feelings. Gratitude mixed with a little bitterness, multiplied by the fear of life without him… and this season has started tough for the Canaries.
Yet it has also started tough, possibly tougher than anticipated, for Villa, as Lambert seeks to undo the damage wrought by McLeish and build something new in the midlands. It was to be an interesting clash, one with plenty of needle, but featuring two teams coming to terms with entirely new managers and philosophies.
Norwich, as expected, stuck with the same side that beat Arsenal a week earlier, while Villa shuffled the pack a bit with a few problems in defence, while Agbonlahor joined Benteke up front – again leaving Bent on the side. Much has been said of Bent’s absence under Lambert, but as someone who saw the man work for three years, it doesn’t surprise me. But I’ll get onto that later.
The match itself was bitty, low on quality, a bit undisciplined and unpleasant for the neutral to watch. Villa still have the look of a side getting to know each other while Norwich are only just beginning to find their feet, so there was a lot of untidy play, stray passes hopeful punts – especially from the home side.
In fact, given the reputation Lambert built up in playing attractive football, and the desire to move on from the ugly style of McLeish, it was surprising to see Villa play quite so direct.
But indeed they were, punting the ball long time after time, bypassing a midfield which featured (or didn’t, as it proved) the composed passing of El Ahmadi. Benteke was the ideal recipient of these long balls, winning a number of aerial duels against the Norwich centre backs, controlling the ball and laying it off to one of his teammates.
At the other end of the pitch, Norwich were more probing and patient in their approach, trying to pass it down the flanks and whip in balls for Holt to attack. This is usually a sound tactic, with Bennett and Pilkington providing excellent service all last season. On Saturday, however, the quality of delivery was abysmal.
The amount of times a player reached the byline, or had a clear freekick, or simply overhit a ball, was criminal, and for us fans it felt like the inevitable sign of a long day of honest endeavour but incompetent finishing.
This has been the story of Norwich’s season so far; plenty of pretty passing but dire in the final third. Aston Villa have the worst chance conversion rate in the league, and Norwich the 2nd. That this game featured such poor final third play was no surprise.
The man pulling the strings for Norwich was the magnificent Wes Hoolahan, and Villa knew what was coming. Wes frequently found himself marked by two Claret shirts at any given time, constantly pressing him for space and making him cough up possession. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn’t, and Wes was able to orchestrate this Norwich side in the same way he did vs Arsenal, and it was a joy to behold. In a game so scrappy, so bitty and so poor, here was an actual footballer being encouraged to play it properly.
It’s tough to encapsulate this type of play in one chalkboard but above you can see a selection of his attacking highlights. For the times he was fouled and gained a freekick, see the white triangles, For the passes into the attacking third, the blue arrows. The assist for the goal, the yellow arrow, The times he took on an opposing player and burst past them with the ball, the yellow dots.
He was the man through which Norwich’s attacking endeavour flowed, and his relationship with Holt nearly provided two goals, one for each man, only for them both to be denied in one-on-one situations by the terrific Brad Guzan.
Despite Norwich’s early dominance of the game, however, it was Villa who were the side to make the breakthrough, taking advantage of a defensive lapse by Bassong and/or Turner, depending on who your sympathies lie with. Bassong, following the run of Agbonlahor across the box, leaves his position, presumably expecting Turner to track any runners into this area. Benteke does just this, but Turner is too slow to react, or not on the same wavelength. Either way, Benteke has an easy finish, but the contribution of Agbonlahor was key.
And in fact, it was the only good thing Agbonlahor did all game, which will come as a surprise to Norwich fans as the speedster was a clear thorn in their side in the exact same fixture last year.
Above left you can see his attacking dashboard – just 2 passes into the final third, one failed take-on, and a freekick conceded. Last year, and up against the same fullback, he was a menace, bursting down the wing, getting behind the defence and combining with Bent to glorious effect. He even chased down a stray backpass to slot away a goal.
If you would ask most Norwich fans who they feared, his name would crop up a lot, but in the end he provided very little. Is this a result of the game situation not being to his liking, or being poorly used by Lambert? With the Villa tactics being so one-dimensional and direct, it was hardly a surprise to see him marginalised somewhat.
And this brings me on to Darren Bent. The man is a goalscoring talent, there is no denying it, but his style of play struggles to match what Lambert wants out of his players. At Norwich, Lambert had Holt and Morison, two players who worked their socks off and also got goals – two team players. In Bent he has someone who’s more of a poacher but when the game isn’t going for him, is not doing a lot to help out the other 10 players. So it was no surprise to see him start the game on the bench.
What was a surprise, however, was to see him come on with Villa down to 10 men and them lumping it high into the sky.
If there is one way to positively get the least out of Darren Bent, it’s to play him as a target man. By lumping long balls at an isolated player of his kind, and expecting him to turn that into possession, you are asking for trouble. Three times he was able to pluck a ball out of the sky, and three times he lost it, giving Norwich the impetus and increasing the pressure of the Villa backline.
With the final third of the game getting more dominated by Norwich, Villa really needed an outlet, someone who could take the pressure off and keep hold of the ball. Bent is probably the last person on the list you’d think of. A genuinely puzzling substitution by Lambert who would normally call these decisions perfectly.
Bennett Red Card
Just to highlight exactly what Bent was handed in this final section…
Here you have a comparison of the passing after Joe Bennett received his red card. On the left, lots of incomplete, long balls aimed at the final third. On the right, lots of tidy passing and a complete dominance of possession. It was getting more and more desperate for Villa, and it was no surprise, and entirely deserved, when Norwich finally got the equaliser through a Michael Turner header.
All in all it was a strange game, especially for Villa fans. While Norwich will continue to feel they’re moving in the right direction with 4 points from 2 games and a settled looking formation and lineup, Villa seemed to regress to the sort of football that nearly got them relegated, with an uncharacteristic choice of tactics and substitutions from Paul Lambert.
What’s clear, though, is that a huge amount of work is still needed at Villa Park – and it will not be easy.
To read more of Matt's work, visit his blog Holtamania.com
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