BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Gabby Agbonlahor of Aston Villa battles with Richard Stearman of Wolverhampton Wanderers during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park on August 27, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
If you saw Aston Villa's clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, be strong. None of us knew what we were getting ourselves into; it was supposed to be a happy occasion, but what we witnessed together was an abomination. Time may heal these wounds, but we can never allow ourselves to forget. It is our burden, our cross to bear, but it will help to make us stronger. If you were lucky enough to miss it, let me assure you: yes, it was that bad. It was every bit that bad. I'd love to see a gorgeous, flowing attacking style from the claret and blue but I recognize that's unlikely to happen any time soon. I understand the value in a pragmatic approach. But this wasn't just conservative football; this was objectively bad football, in every sense of the word. The back line was good and Gabriel Agbonlahor's return to form continues, but outside of that there was nothing worth being the least bit excited by.
You'd expect that from Wolves to some extent; their #1 priority this season is to stay up, and it's understandable that a club with so much money invested in the off-season to improving the back line is going to play a very conservative style of football away from home. But the tactical approach of Villa, a rightly favored home side, was baffling. The danger in attack so many Villa fans were thrilled to see against Blackburn just wasn't there. It wasn't exactly negative as Villa seemed at least cursorily interested in pressing forward, but there were zero ideas. The typical Aston Villa attack went something like this; Given punts long, Bent heads back to Collins, Collins passes to Petrov, Petrov runs backwards and passes to Herd, Herd sends in long diagonal, Wolves clear. Time after time after time, that's what we got. Shockingly, it never worked. That type of thing tends to have limited success against teams playing six men behind the ball; shocking, I know.
To be fair, it didn't start out that way. Early on in the game Villa were keeping the ball on the ground, shuttling it from the midfield and trying to create chances for the wingers (either to score or to give service to Bent) through the center of the pitch. There just wasn't a whole lot happening, and that strategy was pretty quickly abandoned. But why didn't it work? This was largely the same team Villa put out against Blackburn; are Rovers really that much worse than Wolves? Well, yes. But that doesn't fully explain why the team looked so completely non-threatening in attack, to the point that their initial strategy was abandoned about fifteen minutes into the game.
"Luckily" for us, the reasons are pretty simple and can largely be attributed to two players, Emile Heskey and Stiliyan Petrov. That's not going to come as much of a surprise to anyone, save perhaps Alex McLeish. With Petrov, the issue is simply that he's not a very good player any longer. With Heskey, it's twofold; first that he's not a good enough player to be regularly starting in the Premier League at this point in his career, second that he's been shoehorned into a position he's never been suited to play. While having two below-average (to be charitable) players on the pitch isn't necessarily a disaster (especially against a team of Wolves' caliber) the way the shortcomings of Heskey and Petrov manifest themselves in such a way that it can disrupt the entire attack and force Villa to play a much less dangerous and attractive style of football.
Let's first look at Petrov. We give him a great deal of stick here (and for good reason as he's not very good) but let me be clear: on a team with a more creative central midfield presence that is looking for someone to hold possession and disrupt the opposition's attacking flow from box-to-box, Petrov is far from a disaster. He's not going to do much if anything to put his team in danger via bad giveaways or being overmatched in the defensive phase. He is, at this point, a fairly generic rear-hub/holding midfield type of player. The problem, of course, is that Villa most emphatically did not have a more creative presence on the pitch for most of the afternoon. We've gotten used to seeing promising counter-attacks (where Villa still look their most dangerous, even without Ashley Young) completely derailed by Petrov and that was certainly in evidence on Saturday. The ball is pushed quickly from the center of defense to a wide position to Petrov in space, with Gabby or Charles N'Zogbia streaking into space down the wing, and instead of getting the ball quickly into that space - something Jean Makoun was very good at doing - Petrov will more often than not take the ball with his back to goal and either turn into space and stop or turn into a defender and fall over with the end result being the same; a complete loss of forward momentum.
That was incredibly frustrating to see on Saturday, because Gabriel Agbonlahor was having an absolutely wonderful game. Every time he got the ball in just the smallest little window of space, he made something happen. His speed seems to have fully returned and a lot of the strength he picked up before last season is still there as well. He looks, quite frankly, as good (if not better) than he's ever looked and that's playing out of his natural position. I do not doubt for a second that if Gabby had gotten the ball more consistently he'd have either scored or created the opportunity for someone else. But as soon as Wolves adjusted, the ball was never going to be finding Gabby over the top. And yet, that's all Villa had. Partially because of the lack of flow through central midfield which can largely be attributed to Petrov, but for another fairly obvious reason as well; Emile Heskey is not a playmaker.
How's that for a groundbreaking statement? But it's pretty clearly true. I have far less of a problem with Heskey than a lot of people do; I don't love the style of football he's well suited to playing, but he's got value as a player that can win balls in the air, stop hold-up play and create some havoc in the box. Given the board's current fascination with the wage bill I'd have preferred to see him leave over the summer but he's not an inherently awful player to have around. But playing behind the striker, on a team featuring inverted wingers that aren't going to do much from wide areas, he's a disaster. The things he does well are largely wasted at the position and the things he does poorly (namely everything other than being very big) are wasted. Heskey should never play anywhere other than up top alongside a goalscorer, but in this game he was very clearly positioned as a withdrawn forward and that makes absolutely zero sense even in a best case scenario, much less given the rest of the talent around him.
This would be a frustrating state of affairs no matter who was on the bench, but with potential solutions to both problems collecting splinters it's bordering on infuriating. Barry Bannan came on and the team looked almost immediately more dangerous, even more so when he moved to the center. If McLeish is unconvinced that Bannan is ready for such an expanded role, surely Stephen Ireland is worth at least a look; wasn't it just a month ago that the new gaffer spoke at length about Ireland's "fresh start" at the club? As to the Petrov issue, Jean Makoun has just been shipped off to Olympiakos which means McLeish doesn't seem to think it's much of an issue at all.
That worries me, and it should probably worry you as well. McLeish doesn't seem interested in wavering from a 4-2-3-1 with inverted wingers, and that's not inherently a huge problem. What is a problem is that he also seems intent on having Petrov and Heskey on the pitch as often as possible, despite the fact that they are actively hurting the team. I'm willing to give him a pass for this one game as he's likely still trying to get a feel for his squad and wants to play things conservatively. But there's no way he could have watched what happened on Saturday and thought to himself "yep, that's what we were looking for." Yes, the defense was excellent and Villa had a few decent chances. But we're three games in and Darren Bent has yet to receive any kind of consistent service. All three of Villa's goals came against an awful Blackburn team, and frankly I think the fact that Villa scored early and forced Rovers to go on the offensive had a lot to do with their ability to assert themselves to a greater extent. If teams know all they need to do is play a deep line and pack the box to almost completely neutralize the attack, we're going to see a lot of games like this.
It's possible Bannan and Ireland aren't the answer any more than Heskey, but there's certainly a lot more reason to believe they'll have success in that role. If McLeish isn't happy with either option logging starters minutes then he needs to change up the tactics; put Heskey up top in a 4-4-2 and punt away. It's a bit crude, but it's got a much better chance of working that what we saw against Wolves. Alex McLeish promised us attacking football, and despite his time with Birmingham City I was willing to believe him. But it's not working so far. I can deal with counter-attacking play. I can even deal with narrow, negative, stifling football if it's executed well. But I cannot deal with complete and total incompetence, and that's what we saw on Saturday. a scoreless draw with Wolves at home should never be acceptable and when you can so easily diagnose what caused the problems it's far, far worse.