When you go to the Britannia Stadium to play Stoke in the Premiership, you know what is coming. An aerial barrage, a hostile reception, and a real physical challenge. And tonight was no different.
After a bright opening from Stoke, when Kenwyne Jones had a couple of decent chances, Villa came back into the game, moving the ball nicely on the floor, and making the most of their technical superiority. With their smaller, quicker players, the obvious tactic was to keep the ball on the floor, and shift it around quickly to try and expose the slower, more physical Stoke defenders. When they did this, Villa looked threatening.
The opening goal came on 35 minutes, when a nice passing move concluded with Gabby Agbonlahor curling a beautiful cross beyond Robert Huth, and Stewart Downing angled a magnificent header beyond former Villa keeper, Thomas Sorensen. However, only minutes later, Stoke can rightly feel they should have had a penalty, and a route back into the match. A Kenwyne Jones header hit the hand of James Collins—there was little he could have done to get his hand out of the way, but his hand was away from his body and high above his head, and Stoke should really have had a penalty.
Indeed, it is possible that Villa could have had a penalty in the first half as well. Whilst Stewart Downing was about to take a corner, Stiliyan Petrov began his run toward the near post, and Jon Walters blatantly tripped him inside the area. The ball was not in play, and referee Lee Probert saw it more as just hassling each other at a corner, but Stoke can count themselves a little fortunate.
However, after the goal, Villa looked as though they could be set to run away with it. Ashley Young had a glorious chance to double the advantage, and surely settle the match just before half time. A glorious cross from Agbonlahor found him completely unmarked four yards out, but he directed his header wide. Stewart Downing volleyed a Marc Albrighton cross, which was saved well by Sorensen, and Young’s cross rolled across the face of goal with nobody able to get a touch. The halftime whistle could not have come at a better time for Stoke.
The second half saw Villa seemingly abandoning the short passing, and simply resort to long balls in the hope that Agbonlahor and Young could get on the end of one and create something. However, against the big Stoke defenders, they had little joy.
We also saw a further example of the inexperience of Kevin MacDonald. Toward the end of the game as Stoke pushed for an equaliser, the Villa midfield was clearly tiring—Petrov, Reo-Coker and Albrighton were beginning to struggle. However, he failed to make any change until the 85th minute, when Emile Heskey was brought on for Gabriel Agbonlahor. It seems difficult to see why he did not bring on Stephen Ireland for Albrighton.
This change would have allowed him to move Ashley Young to the right wing, with Stewart Downing remaining on the left. Petrov and Reo-Coker could have sat as two holding midfielders, with Ireland providing the cover in midfield, as well as fresh legs, and an improvement in ball retention. However, he failed to make this change.
Even without this change, the decision to shift Marc Albrighton to the opposite wing once Danny Collins had picked up a booking for a foul on the youngster was strange. Albrighton loves to run at defenders and take them on, and with his marker on a yellow card, he could have had joy against him, or drawn another foul and the dismissal. However, Collins found himself facing a different prospect in Downing, and one which he would have preferred given the situation.
On the flip side, Tony Pulis’ substitutions changed the game for Stoke. Ricardo Fuller looked bright and creative when he came on, and Jermaine Pennant gave them a different option down the wing. The Stoke equaliser came when Nigel Reo-Coker was caught ball-watching, providing space in the Villa box, Matthew Etherington crossed the ball to an unmarked Kenwyne Jones to nod home.
The Stoke winner was disappointing from a Villa point-of-view. It came from a free-kick that should never have been given. There was no contact on Jermaine Pennant, although it was careless from the experienced Petrov to run in and allow Pennant to knock the ball past him and con the referee into giving the free kick. There were far too many stupid free-kicks, corners, and throw-ins given away by Villa during the game, particularly against a dangerous Stoke team.
The free kick was delivered into the box, James Collins’ defensive header was poor, Emile Heskey’s attempted clearance was even worse. The excellent Etherington drove the ball back across the box and Robert Huth stuck out a foot to divert the ball into the net for Stoke’s first win of the season.
One other observation from the game concerned Richard Dunne. James Collins was excellent under the aerial barrage from Stoke, but Dunne was a bit disappointing. He looked off the pace at times, and noticeably did not go up for any corners. Considering he is such a threat from set pieces, this is a little strange. It suggests that he is maybe not entirely fit, and if this is the case, he needs to take time off to sort his fitness out properly. Villa have several good replacements for this position in Cuellar, Davies and Clark, and it would be better for both Villa and Dunne in the long-term to sort whatever the problem is.
Overall, a draw would probably have been a fair result, but the defeat is difficult to take, given the circumstances. Kevin MacDonald’s inexperience was again highlighted, but had Villa taken their chances, the game would have been over by half time. However, although MacDonald failed to use his bench, there was a worrying lack of options to change the game on that bench.
Emile Heskey is hardly the player to bring on to grab a goal, whilst there were three defenders, Stephen Ireland, and the young holding midfielder, Jonathan Hogg alongside him. Apart from Ireland, there is little depth there to suggest that a game can be changed. The return of Sidwell should boost those options, and Carew’s return will be looked forward to. However, even with these, there is a lack of options really available to the manager.
The first team proved in spells today that there is plenty of quality available. However, the consistency is not there. The first task facing Houllier is to introduce this, and he will also be looking to add further options in the January transfer window. MacDonald will still be in charge for the Bolton game next weekend, but then the hard work really begins for the Frenchman.
On a side note, Tony Pulis' determination to be at the game, despite a family bereavement earlier in the day was admirable, and I'm sure everyone would join with me in wishing him and his family all the best during a difficult time.