Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor and Nathan Baker take center stage in the goofiest picture ever taken. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
I'll be honest, I wasn't able to watch this game as closely as I would have liked. I did my very best to watch live but work intervened and though I've been watching the replay I've been doing so while drinking beer and eating pho while knowing the result. I've watched every minute of this game, but I've done so under less than ideal circumstances for a blow-by-blow. These mid-week games are just awful.
Villa started out clearly the better side, desperate it would seem to get on the scoresheet early. They came very close, challenging Wigan keeper Ali Al-Habsi on numerous occasions, but the Latics were even to the task. It became apparent early on that the starting positions of the middle band were largely meaningless, with Agbonlahor, Young and Downing swapping positions freely and in general making life very difficult for Wigan's defense, but the final ball was once again largely missing. Darren Bent was finding space in the defense and for the most part the balls were finding their way to the right areas, but things still aren't quite clicking yet and though Villa were largely bossing things early you could feel the frustration beginning to mount. As it did, Wigan began to establish themselves on the game and the last 20-30 minutes of the half was a breathtaking, end-to-end affair, with Villa definitely the better side in terms of overall quality but Wigan doing enough to test both the back line and Brad Friedel on several occasions. Things were legitimately a bit breathless at times with the defense looking somewhat unorganized, but as the game moved on the back line began to sync up and the early struggles looked largely the result of the defense working Nathan Baker into their ranks.
Wigan took control towards the end of the first half, and though they were unable to find a goal the mood heading into the half was a bit dour. Villa had most certainly had their chances, but not only had they been unable to take control of the game they'd managed to allow Wigan back into it. It was a bit too much like what we'd seen early in the season, Villa going into the half as the better of the two sides with nothing to show for it, only to come back out in the second looking as though they were sleepwalking. Luckily that's not what we saw today, with Villa starting the second half brightly and pressing Wigan relentlessly out of the gate. Houllier's halftime adjustments were subtle but noticeable, with the second band of attacking players switching positions even more frequently with the aim of confusing Wigan's back line and the pace of Young and Agbonlahor clearly causing some serious problems for the Latics. Villa managed to find their way ahead in the 50th minute when on the second of two corners, Carlos Cuellar head towards Al-Habsi. Wigan's keeper did well to swat the ball away but Gabriel Agbonlahor was exactly where he should have been and he contorted himself into position to head home. It was a deserved goal for Villa and wonderful to see Gabriel get his first goal in the league of the season.
Aston Villa weren't content with the first and continued to press ahead, confident in the ability of their stout back four, fronted by Jean Makoun in the defensive midfield, to keep the Latics at bay. All eyes were on Makoun to start the day and the newest addition looked quite good, winning balls and generally making a nuisance of himself in the center. Makoun was employed in a more box-to-box role as opposed to pure defensive mid and he looked right at home, but it would be reasonable to expect him to play a bit deeper against the more intimidating attacks in the league. The only criticism of Makoun's play would be his tendency to move the ball a bit more quickly than his teammates might be expecting, but in general he looked fine addition to the side and it's a problem that will work itself out in time. There was a moment of tension late on when James Collins seemed to be having an angry word with Makoun about his failure to track back and cover the center of the area but again, Makoun is expected to function as a part of the defense in those situations and familiarity will do wonders to solve such problems.
Villa's second came from the spot after Ashley Young was fouled rather pointlessly by Hendry Thomas. Young was allowed to convert the penalty himself and did so emphatically, hammering home just to the left of center. From then on the confidence running through the squad was apparent. Villa showed some wonderful build--up but were wasteful in the final third, dallying about when they should have been going for the jugular. There was a great deal of quality on display, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing in particular putting together some dazzling link-up, but the second band was unable to work the ball to Darren Bent and their own chances were left wanting. Looking back on the stretch that led to Villa ending up in the drop zone, one of the things stood out was their glaring lack of confidence. This wasn't a team that looked like they thought themselves capable of winning, and they were generally proved to be correct. Today at times it appeared that things had swung a bit too far in the opposite direction, as chances that looked cut-and-dried were left wanting in lieu of attempts to find the perfect ball or dazzling run seemed to take precedence. It's good to see the boys having fun again and I'm certainly in favor of attractive play, but the instinct to put the opposition away has to take prominence and that wasn't the case today.
And right on cue, things got very nervy late on when James McCarthy struck from distance and the ball took a wicked deflection into the net in the 81st minute. It was a lucky if well hit goal that seemed to both wake Villa up and send them into a bit of a panic, with the last ten-plus minutes of the game being fairly frantic, with Villa dropping ten behind the ball and Wigan able to carve out several decent chances As tough as it might have been to watch the back line was able to thwart the late onslaught and Villa emerging victorious. It's the biggest remaining complaint that I have with Gerard Houllier; close games late on are met with the most defensive possible approach, and while that's understandable in certain circumstances it's frustrating to see a bit perplexing to see in a game where Villa looked every bit the more likely to score until McCarthy's strike. It's difficult to fault Houllier seeing as how the back line were able to thwart Wigan's attack with (in hindsight) little difficulty, but given the nature of the equalizer it would have been a bit more relaxing to say the least had Villa been able to put more distance between the two sides. The bigger issue is that when Villa play back they seem largely incapable of holding possession. Wigan posed little threat until the moment they drew within one, and from my perspective it would seem that the better bet would have been to continue pressing forward. It's splitting hairs though, as the end result was Villa picking up their sixth point from two games and pulling themselves to 13th in the table.
- James Collins and Richard Dunne were incredible once again, and it's worth noting that in addition to being an absolute brick wall defensively they seem to have developed some pretty impressive vision in terms of starting the attack as well. It's a refreshing counterpoint to long clearances being battled for aerially in the midfield, but it makes the long punts from goal towards the end of the game slightly more irritating.
- I can't speak enough about the switching of the players in the second band. Watching Wigan's wide defenders cope with Agbonlahor's pace on one attack and then having to adjust to Downing's clever dribbling or Ashley's feints and cleverness was an absolute joy. Pay less attention to where the players start; none of them are going to be there long. It's an attempt to create confusion and as the players grow more comfortable it will only serve to create more headaches for the opposition..
- Ashley Young's pre-penalty routine is clearly designed to create tension, and boy oh boy does it serve that purpose. Unfortunately I'm not the opposing keeper. Ashley looks like he is going to throw up and if he takes any more time I'm probably going to join him.
- A lot of people aren't fond of Wigan's drummer, but I like it. Really it's a shame for Wigan's supporters; they do their best to create a good atmosphere, but there just aren't enough of them for the effect to fully translate. They deserve better.
- You know who else deserves better? Roberto Martinez. Wigan should by all rights be somewhere in the middle of the Championship table and instead they're hanging on in the Premier League. This club plays an entertaining, fluid style of football and though they're short on talent they manage to make most games a bit nerve-wracking for the opposition. This is a club that should be praising the heavens for their good fortunes for Martinez, and instead there is talk of sacking him. Premier League clubs aren't always good at understanding expectation or context, and for Martinez's sake I hope he's able to escape to a club whose board lives somewhere outside of Crazytown, because he deserves far better.
This is a game Villa absolutely should have won, and though it was a bit more tight than it should have been they were clearly the better side and we should all be encouraged. The FA Cup tie against Blackburn is up next with Manchester United to follow on Tuesday. The momentum is there; let's hope we can build on it.