(Photo by Richard Heathcote, Getty Images)
If all you know about this game is the score, you're missing a whole lot of information. Queens Park Ranger's first goal came after a fairly harmless shot was blocked, falling right to Djibril Cisse. Their second came when Stephen Warnock headed a completely harmless cross past Shay Given to score one of the worst own goals in the history of own goals. Neither moment was particularly flattering for the Aston Villa defense, but 99 times out of a hundred neither of those end up being goals. For a total of about five seconds in a game that went on for 95 minutes, things went right for QPR. And as frustrating as it was to get only a point from this game, especially seeing as how it was down almost entirely to mental errors, there's a whole lot to be excited about.
Villa had 70% of the possession, something I would never expect to see, not even in my wildest dreams. And this wasn't an instance of Villa dominating possession and doing nothing with it, either. 23 shots, 15 of them on target. QPR spent the vast majority of the afternoon pinned back in their own area. There were three legitimate claims for hand ball in the area, one of which was absolutely undeniably a penalty that was not awarded. Tactically, Alex McLeish got absolutely everything right. In the attack, the players were tremendous. If not for two defensive blunders, this would have been a convincing win, a statement almost. But those defensive blunders happened, and this is less of a pattern now than a theme. Something has to change.Stephen Warnock has good days and bad. When he's good, he's tremendous; he's had a few man-of-the-match type performances this season. When he's bad, he's an absolute disaster. Today, he was an absolute disaster, and that's been the case more often than not as of late. There's a consistent meme developing, one where Stephen Warnock is deserving of praise for the way he handled being frozen out of the team by Gerard Houllier. From a professional standpoint, maybe. But has anyone considered that Houllier had good reason for doing so? I don't think Warnock is worth the risk, and today is a pretty excellent example as to why. And Warnock is far from the only culprit along the back line; Alan Hutton continues to be a liability in defense (though credit to him for how well he got forward today) and Carlos Cuellar has been poor in his past two starts. Richard Dunne is a less extreme version of Warnock, prone to the occasional gaffe; the difference is that Dunne's gaffes are less frequent, and his performance the rest of the time is at a high enough level to make him a good player in spite of the hiccups.
Alex McLeish inherited this defense and aside from Hutton, he hasn't had much of an opportunity to fix it. But he has other options, and he needs to consider them. I don't begrudge him wanting to give Warnock the chance to prove his worth, but his chance has been squandered. Eric Lichaj can play left back, and appears to be back to full fitness. Enda Stevens is very young, but there's got to be a reason McLeish wanted him in the first place. Hell, at this point I'd rather see N'Zogbia in the back four than Warnock. I am very happy with the job McLeish is doing as of late, in many ways. But he has the power to at least try something else with the defense, and if he chooses not to then he deserves to share in the blame.
Ultimately, there was much to be happy about today. But it's hard to feel as good as one likely ought to after such a dominant performance when schoolboy-level defensive blunders turned a sure win into a frustrating draw. Villa could have been in 9th place, ahead of Stoke on goal difference, with a win today. They'd have been close enough to 7th that a late run at Europe wouldn't have been out of the question. But they dropped points instead, and they did so in an embarrassing fashion. Missed opportunities are just about the most frustrating thing in sports, and iftoday was anything, it was that.