SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Stillyan Petrov of Aston Villa is congratulated on his opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Aston Villa at Stadium of Light on October 29, 2011 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
If last week's performance was the worst-case scenario of life under Alex McLeish, today was a best-case scenario. At least from a tactical and entertainment standpoint, because wow did that equalizer sting. It's quite clear that Villa's difficulty defending set pieces did not end with Gerard Houllier's tenure as manager and Alex McLeish having been so outspoken about Villa's difficulties in that area will likely be furious at his side having dropped two points in such a manner. But in his ire, let's hope the gaffer doesn't overlook the positives because there were quite a few of them.
Sunderland had the better of the early play but Villa defended well, and perhaps most encouragingly they seemed capable of doing something aside from hoofing the ball aimlessly up the pitch when the opening was there. The emphasis on keeping possession that was a hallmark in Villa's earlier games made a return today, and though Villa could most certainly use a bit more creativity should they hope to become a truly dangerous attacking side they're going to be a lot more effective if they're managing to keep hold of the ball. And while the defense will earn the bulk of the derision on the day, it's going to be difficult to convince me that it is of greater concern from a big picture perspective.
Villa grabbed the momentum after a well-executed counter attack was capped by a stunning left-footed finish by Stiliyan Petrov and the build up to the goal was representative of nearly everything encouraging about Villa's performance; where in weeks past one would have expected the clearance of Sunderland's corner to be hoofed mindlessly up field, in this instance the opening for a decent counter attack was identified and all involved-Emile Heskey for making the initial clearance, Darren Bent for being aware of Charles N'Zogbia in a decent position to start the counter, N'Zogbia for a lovely touch into space on the flank, Gabby Agbonlahor for finding said space on the flank before sending a heady cross-field pass to Alan Hutton, Hutton for his patience in slowing things down enough to allow Petrov to catch up and Stilyan for a tremendous finish-deserve to be commended. Given the attacking talent Villa have at their disposal the bulk of their truly dangerous play is going to come in situations such as these and they executed brilliantly to take the lead against the run of play.
From there Villa looked more confident and had some fairly nice periods of possession but didn't look especially like scoring another. The lack of industry came back to haunt them ten minutes before the half when Stephane Sessegnon quite cruelly reminded me of what made me desperate to see him in claret and blue in the 2010 summer window; after using several clever touches to make Alan Hutton look like even more of an idiot than normal he slid a ball so sensually appealing that it bordered on the obscene into the box for Connor Wickham to drill past Shay Given at the far post. Villa didn't exactly cover themselves in glory with their defending on the play it's difficult for me to be too upset; Sessegnon is an excellent player who used his skill to create a goal, and sometimes players as good as him get the better of you. It happens.
The rest of the half was largely uneventful, and though Villa had a bit of the wind taken out of their sails by the relatively late goal they had to be feeling pretty decent as they came back out onto the pitch. Their play to get things underway in the second half would certainly lead one to believe that they had some confidence in their ability, because they poured on some early pressure and looked destined to go ahead. The wind came out of the sails a bit after Emile Heskey's right arm caught Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet in the face as the two challenged for a corner; there was no malice in it and it's hard to see what Emile could have done to prevent the injury but the images of Mignolet's blackened eyes and nose leaking blood like a faucet as he walked off the field did not make the breakfast I prepared during half time all that appealing. While a team losing its first-choice keeper to injury is never a good thing it did seem as though the injury delay allowed Sunderland to catch their breath a bit because they took a pretty firm grip on the game after Keiren Westwood got things back underway. Villa continued to defend well but Sunderland's onslaught was relentless and they came very close to going ahead over the next 10 to 15 minutes.
Still, Villa were resolute and continued to fight back on the counter. Eventually things settled, the visitors started to maintain a bit of possession and the momentum began to swing back the other way. In the 70th minute it looked for all the world like Darren Bent had won a long ball rounded the keeper and was about to finish into an empty net but play was blown dead as he was judged to have fouled Wes Brown before gaining control of the ball. The replays showed what looked to me like a completely fair shoulder to shoulder challenge by Bent with the Sunderland defender going down just a wee bit too easily, and apparently Kevin McDonald agreed as he was sent off for his protestations. A far more frustrating moment came just two minutes later when Gabriel Agbonlahor and Bent worked a clever little one-two sequence that saw Agbonlahor send an absolutely perfect ball through the Bent in space one-one-one with the keeper. Bent then shot meekly on the ground and Westwood kicked the ball away. All credit to the young keeper as it was a tremendous save, but there's no excuse for Bent not to score there. There were approximately 30 places Bent could have put the ball and only two of them would have resulted in a save. That's two games in a row that Bent has missed one-on-one chances despite having time and space, and when your entire purpose on the team is to finish chances like those you need to make sure you actually finish chances like those.
The rest of the game was frantic stuff, each side enjoying spells of pressure but neither breaking through. In the end, the final two goals were the result of soft but stupid fouls and excellent set piece delivery. Sebastian Larsson gave Gabby a totally unnecessary shove in the next to the touchline and then took offense to Agbonlahor's perceived overselling of the damage done. I'm a big Larsson fan and was hopeful he'd be willing to come to Villa during the summer window, but in this situation he made himself look a bit of an idiot. Petrov's delivery on the ensuing set piece was tremendous and both James Collins and Richard Dunne got a head to it with Dunne ending up getting the credit for the goal. Five minutes later it was Dunne's turn to make himself look a bit of a prick, giving a bit of a hefty nudge to Sessegnon in a remarkably similar area. Dunne then persisted to bark at the official while refusing to give the ball to Sunderland before being shown a yellow card for time-wasting. Larsson then at least partially made up for his silly foul with a predictably gorgeous delivery and all 5'7" of Sessegnon found daylight between Dunne and Collins, giving himself a free header from six yards out and finishing past Given. It was tremendous awareness from Sessegnon, but to allow the smallest man on the pitch to win a header in the box from a set piece is completely inexcusable; had Villa managed to clear and hang on we'd be talking about a tremendous three points and a fantastic all-around effort; instead we're left to rue what has become a recurring theme so far this season.
Still, plenty of reason for optimism. Sunderland played very well (and I am extremely jealous of their good fortune in landing Sessegnon, Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner; all three are very good players that would be of tremendous value to Villa right now) and there's no way they're not a better team than some of their early season results would indicate. Charles N'Zogbia was probably the best Villa player on the pitch today (though there's a compelling argument for Petrov as well) and for the first time he really showed us what made him such a special player at Wigan. I'm still not (and likely never will be) and Alan Hutton fan, but he put in a very good shift today and while I may not care for the player as long as he's wearing claret and blue I want him to do well. The aforementioned Petrov had his best game of the year by far. In truth the only player I can find any real fault with was Stephen Warnock; the majority of Villa's extended spells of possession ended with exceedingly hopeful crosses from well outside what would traditionally be thought of as dangerous areas and his clearances were often needlessly hurried, but even Warnock looked good in defense and made some very nice runs in the attack.
This was a really entertaining game with a fair result and lots of positive signs. The way things ended was frustrating but had Villa emerged with three points it likely would have been harsh on Sunderland. If Villa can string together a run of performances like that one,, they're going to be fine. Replacing Heskey with Barry Bannan might have changed the complexion of things a bit as Villa looked desperate for a spark of creativity during many of their long spells in control. If this is the kind of football Alex McLeish wants to play (and I think it's worth noting that he chose to do so away from Villa Park) the next few years might not be so bad after all.