BLACKBURN, ENGLAND - MARCH 03: Gabriel Agbonlahor of Aston Villa and Grant Hanley of Blackburn challenge for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa at Ewood park on March 3, 2012 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
If watching Aston Villa this season has taught me anything, it's that I am an idiot. After that first half, I was confident. Supremely confident. Blackburn Rovers didn't belong on the same pitch. Did Villa miss chances? Sure, and it was frustrating. But Blackburn didn't even have the same opportunity; Villa were bossing it, and though I expected Steve Kean to make adjustments at the half and for Blackburn to rise to something above a level of utterly putrid, I also didn't see a way they'd be able to keep Villa from scoring at least once more. Like I said; I'm an idiot.
For the first 45 minutes, Blackburn barely had a whiff of the ball. The pressure from Villa was constant and overwhelming, and if not for several world-class saves from Paul Robinson it could have easily be 3-0 at the break. Charles N'Zogbia looked well on his way to putting in the best shift of his time in claret and blue, popping up everywhere and routinely making the Rovers back line look ridiculous. The interplay between he and Ireland was consistently dangerous, and if there was a criticism to be made of the pair (who really were the cornerstones of Villa's attacking play over the course of the first half) it would be that they seemed at times to be far too insistent on scoring intricate goals rather than taking the chances as they came.
In general, the entire Villa team was tremendous in the first half. Chris Herd and Stiliyan Petrov hoovered up everything in the center of the pitch, Marc Albrighton and Gabby Agbonlahor each had several very nice moments and on the rare occasions the home side made forays into the Villa half the back line dispatched them with relative ease. At a certain point I actually found myself making positive observations about the play of Alan Hutton; I've always thought he was quite good going forward and today was no exception, but he seemed to have remembered that he is in fact a defender as well, and on a few occasions he charged forward to put in a good cross and broke up a counter-attack within seconds. Nearly everything about the first half was encouraging; the tactical approach looked perfect, the players looked confident and in-form and Blackburn appeared utterly beaten.
And then there was the second half.
Steve Kean was quite clearly not impressed, and he showed it by making two changes and shifting the formation at the break. The moves paid off almost instantaneously, with Rovers coming very close to an equalizer just a minute into the half. The pressure from Blackburn was immense right out of the gate and the visitors were on their heels, but that was almost to be expected; after such a terrible showing for the first 45, there are really only two ways one would expect the trailing side to respond; as they did, or by retreating into their shells completely. The team with the lead has to appraise the response and adjust accordingly; I was confident Villa would do so. (Idiot.)
Needless to say, Villa never adjusted. Somewhere around the hour mark, I thought to myself that it was almost as though the teams had traded places at the break; Villa were suddenly doing all of the terrible and stupid things Blackburn had done during the first half and Shay Given was the one doing the bailing out. As the game wore on, it became readily apparent that Villa were actually significantly worse than Blackburn had ever been. Alex McLeish seemed to notice (somewhat surprisingly) and decided to make a change in the 75th minute. The good news: he brought on Bannan and Gardner, who were exactly what Villa needed at the time. The bad news: he took off N'Zogbia, who was one of the few Villa players that still looked as though they remembered how to play football.
I'm not entirely sure what more N'Zogbia had to do today. He scored Villa's only goal, an emphatic half-volley that gave Paul Robinson no chance. He was all over the pitch, on several occasions in the second half flying in to cover for Alan Hutton after the latter's patented mis-timed tackles gave Marcus Olsson space down the left. There was nothing to fault in terms of the quality of his play or work rate, and he didn't look to be out of gas in the least. Marc Albrighton completely disappeared in the second half and didn't do much in the defensive phase, but N'Zogbia is the one McLeish chose to withdraw? It makes little sense. N'Zogbia was clearly quite unhappy at being removed and I can't say I blame him. I don't know what goes on behind the scenes at Bodymoor Heath and the clashing-of-heads between the two have been widely reported, but once he's in the damned game the only thing that ought to matter is the way he's performing.
Not long after the substitutions were made, Blackburn got the equalizer that had been coming for nearly 40 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Alan Hutton lost David Dunn at the back post and the Rovers striker headed past a helpless Shay Given. From there each side had a few half-chances, but the draw nearly everyone expected ended up being the final result. "A tale of two halves" is the old cliche, but it fits. Ultimately, a draw was probably the fair result; both sides will feel as though they could have won, but they ran into a pair of excellent keepers, wasted a few chances and ran into some poor luck.
From my perspective though, that's a whole lot worse for Villa. It's indicative of the same problem they've been having since the beginning of last season. Villa can't kill of games, they exhibit complacency when they've performed well and once the counter-punch lands they seemingly have no answer. There's a lot of blame to be placed on the players for this and every other result like it. There's something fundamentally wrong at the core of this team, and it's only fair to point out that whatever it is predates Alex McLeish. But he's sure as hell not doing anything to make it better, and I suspect that he is, in reality, making it worse. If this all seems a bit overly gloomy after a 1-1 draw in which there were some undeniably positive signs, I apologize. But I know this team is good enough to dispatch Blackburn Rovers by several goals. Were it an isolated incident, it would simply be one of those things. But it's not. It's a pattern of playing down to the level of competition, and when that level is "relegation fodder" it's hard not to be alarmed.