BOLTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: Stiliyan Petrov of Aston Villa is congratulated by his team-mates after scoring his side's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa at Reebok Stadium on December 10, 2011 in Bolton, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
It may have come against the 19th-placed team in the Premier League and it may have been far less comfortable by the end than it had any real right to be but it was a vital three points - earned away from home even! - for Aston Villa. The first half wasn't the least bit close really; Bolton looked atrocious and had the final product been better Villa could have put things away before half time. Instead Bolton scored very quickly after the break and the last half hour was hang-on time, but an excellent performance from the Villa back line and a few crucial big saves by Brad Guzan preserved the 2-1 score line.
The big news of the day was Alex McLeish's decision to play a 4-4-2 and that proved to be the right decision. The 4-4-2 is much maligned and certainly has its drawbacks, given Villa's personnel and the style of football McLeish favors it's probably the formation that makes the most sense the majority of the time. The defense and central midfield can afford to sit deep due to the width provided by the outside midfielders and having two dedicated strikers allows for more opportunities to be created from hoofed clearances meaning the aimless long-ball tactics that have been so harshly criticized this season have the potential to create a legitimate counter-attacking threat. That didn't come into play so much in the first half when the ball spent 54% of its time in Bolton's final third (which is amazing given the way things have typically cone this season) but it was a huge factor later on in the day. Villa's demonstrated ability to create chances from the counter prevented Bolton from committing as many men forward as they probably would have liked, and several spells of consistent Bolton pressure were broken thanks to counter attacks that on another day may have been balls hoofed into touch instead.
There was some grumbling that Villa had a far less positive approach for most of the second half than the first and to be certain it would have been nice to see them take this one by the throat and kill it off much earlier than they did, but a lot of credit for that has to go to Bolton. They were much, much better in the second half and when you're playing away from home with a lead the paramount thing is to preserve it. What's more, Villa certainly had chances to kill off the game, they just didn't finish them. I've been as hard on McLeish as anyone and I completely stand by critical thing I've said, but today he got things mostly right. Darren Bent absolutely has to finish the chances he flubbed, Stiliyan Petrov can't miss a wide-open net and had the finishing been better this would have been a far more lopsided game. I genuinely hope we see more of this, because it was wonderful seeing Villa look like a competent attacking team, creating chances and playing something close to entertaining football again. I don't expect this approach against teams like Arsenal, Chelsea, City, United or Spurs, and it would be suicidal to try. But against Bolton, Stoke or even Liverpool? Yes please. It works, and it's fun, and everyone is happy.
As with most wins, there were some major positives to take away. Clearly, Marc Albrighton's performance was the biggest. It's been nearly a year since Albrighton looked like a decent player, and in that entire time I never once felt like his struggles had anything to do with his ability. He's just looked completely lost, unsure of himself and prone to disappearing completely. Today he was back to the player that filled us all with so much hope last season, and if he's regained his confidence and can get back to the level he was at early last season that will be huge for Villa, probably a far bigger deal than bringing in a player during the transfer window. Charles N'Zogbia also had what was probably his best game in claret and blue today; he may have been the best player on the pitch during the first half, and though he wasn't as much of a menace in the attacking phase during the second 45 minutes he was tireless in defense and did some very good things in terms of springing counters and keeping possession late on in the game. Brad Guzan was very good; his only mistakes were minor and quickly remedied, his distribution was fine and he never once looked out of his depth. The bigger challenges lie ahead of course, but nothing about the way he played today gave me cause for concern.
All in all, a whole lot to like about this game. The scary fixtures start back up again next week against Liverpool, but of the nightmare slate of December games that one is quite easily the least intimidating. More importantly, these three points mean Villa are going to avoid a total meltdown this month no matter what happens in the rest of the games, and there's now at least a seven point cushion from the bottom of the table. Even better than avoiding disaster would be to build off of this result and surprise some people over the next few weeks. Crazier things have happened.