The Aston Villa Soapbox: must we settle for mildly entertaining?

Aston Villa, M Salut decided as he walked away from the Stadium of Light, are not a team of thugs. Darren Bent is doubtless “one greedy b******” (there are sensitive souls looking in), though I quarrel with the “only” of the chant; Agbonlahor gives a decent impersonation of a man in training for an Olympics diving medal and Richard Dunne can act like an immature and unpleasant schoolboy, as he did after conceding the foul that led to our second equaliser. For all that, it was not a dirty match and both sides did try to play. But Pete Sixsmith wonders whether “mildly entertaining” football is what both sets of fans must accept as their lot …

Twelve months ago, I was sitting in a darkened room with a cold towel over my head as I tried to get over the 5-1 drubbing at Sports Direct Park. It was probably the worst result in my Sunderland watching experience and, to be honest, I still haven’t fully recovered from it.

A year on, things are not a great deal better. I sat through a “mildly entertaining” (Louise Taylor’s words in The Observer) 2-2 draw with Aston Villa, which showed to me that both sides will finish somewhere between 8th and 14th and wondered whether the vast amounts of money spent can really be justified for something so mundane.

We scored two good goals, took great pleasure in hooting at Darren Bent when Westwood saved with his foot and saw the emergence of Connor Wickham as a genuine top level player.

All well and good and it led to interesting debate and a feeling that we had been entertained by both sides. But what it didn’t do was make me, or M Salut, believe that we were on the cusp of a breakthrough that would lift us out of the mediocre pile that is much of the Premier League and take us to the rarefied atmosphere of the top six.

Villa fans probably feel the same. Look at both clubs: lots of money spent and no realistic signs of anything special under prosaic managers who know how to master the basics but just seem unable to lift the levels of play.

Tactically, Bruce got it right. The 4-4-2 worked well enough, the midfield beavered away, the defence looked reasonably solid and the two up front grafted away for 90 minutes. It was a vast improvement on the huff and puff against the Mags and the rubbish we dished up at Carrow Road.

However, it wasn’t enough to beat a Villa side who have exactly the same problems as we do: expectations from supporters that are not being fulfilled.

Petrov blinded by the lightImage: Marion O’Sullivan

They had the best and most creative player on the pitch in Stiliyan Petrov, who had an outstanding first half and scored a fine goal. He was able to pick his spot because our defence and midfield was all over the place and he saw that Mignolet had come a little too far off his line.

Fortunately, his fellow midfielders N’Zogbia (nothing in this performance to suggest that we missed out in August), Herd and Heskey were unable to give him any worthwhile support and he faded. Gabriel Agbonlahor will be dealt with later.

Our midfield looked better balanced than Villa’s but was one short against them. Vaughan and Colback worked hard throughout, with the Welshman always looking to open up the opposition. We had some width and Larsson probably had his best game so far. He forced two excellent saves out of former loanee Shay Given, a player who has a single winner’s medal from his time in the game – the Championship (or Division One) medal he won with us in 1996.

The main difference between the two sides was up front, where Bent turned in a performance that was easily recognisable to Sunderland fans recalling his less wholehearted outings. His work rate was negligible compared with that of Bendtner and Wickham and he looked slow and sluggish throughout. Gary Bennett mischievously suggested that he would be agitating for a move come the next window.

On the other hand, Bendtner and Wickham worked extremely hard with the latter thoroughly deserving his goal. A great ball by Sessegnon (possibly the trickiest player we have had since Alan Brown turned down David Nixon in 1961) was finished with a resounding thump by the youngster, right across 1996 Championship medal winner Given.

He had a good game last week and a better one this. He could be the business if he maintains this progress – but let’s hope our expectations aren’t too great and that he ends up like Colin West, Ally McCoist and one or two others.

Image: Addick-tedKevin

I thought that Kieran Richardson was probably our best player. Should Pete Horan be reading this, his computer screen will be shattered into a thousand pieces as he has as much time for Kieran as Silvio Berlusconi has for Angela Merkel. He looked like a full back on Saturday and none of the Villa midfield got the better of him.

Which brings me back to Agbonlahor. No angel, this Gabriel. I am rapidly forming a real dislike for him based on his aptitude to tumble over whenever he feels a free kick or penalty is needed.

The dive he took on Saturday was a real case of cheating. Larsson never touched him and to go down as easily as he did is, in my book, cheating. My anger towards him was compounded as we defended the free kick with all the panache and style of an Under 11 team, allowing Collins/Dunne to score.

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That we came back to take a deserved point is down to the spirit of the players and the stupidity of Dunne who had no need to push Sessegnon. Of course, Alex McLeish saw nothing wrong with it and even claimed the first equaliser should have been chalked off because of some imaginary infringement by Vaughan about a decade before the ball ended up in 1996 Championship Winner Given’s net.

So, two sides who have a lot in common – a long and glorious history, decent fans, US ownership and a feeling that their chances of supping at the high table of Champions League is receding further and further.

Oh, and both have experienced Darren Bent. Our fans turned to bitterness and bile; their fans may well do the same if the likes of QPR come knocking in January with a big cheque.

Old Trafford next week. Let’s attack them and see how vulnerable they really are.

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23 thoughts on “The Aston Villa Soapbox: must we settle for mildly entertaining?”

  1. I think us being a regular “top six” team as you put it, is a pipe dream. You’re wanting to be up in the top six with the likes of Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs???? Who would you be expecting to dislodge from that six?
    We have to accept that at present, even with the cash we’ve invested, we’re still a stepping stone team. It hurts to say it, but the top strikers will see S’land as a stepping stone to bigger teams and have treated us as such. We’re becoming a bigger club, but we’re looking at a good few years before we are regular top ten. I still reckon we’re seeing the most attractive football at the SOL than ever, and now have more squad depth than ever, so that’s progress…. isn’t it?

  2. Good to see that some fans are acknowledging the improvement in the team. Bringing in so many new players was always going to be difficult ,unless we were lucky and they all gelled from day one…..and in my opinion one thing Bruce isn’t, is lucky. Last season’s injury list was horrific, the season before all his defenders got injured, and we cannot keep our most talented goalkeeper on the pitch. Add to that your best goal scorer does a runner and then his replacement does the same. Steve Bruce deserves a very large slice of good fortune very soon.

  3. I came away feeling like we had a got a win,the match was entertaining and I d say even it was better than just “mlidly” entertaining.Plenty of talking points, plenty of goals a pantomime villain and a decent atmosphere…it’ ll be better than most home games this season Ill wager.
    Richardson much improved,but the jury is still out as far as I am concerned.Sess is a great plus to our team as is Larsson.Lets hope Whickam carries on in this vein(but where was Bendter on Saturday?)

    We are very slowly improving,unbeaten in two now,which everyone must be pleasently pleased about(apart from ” Bruce” Out” wife).

    Message for our Villa supporter Dave,there was minimal contact on Agbonlahor, nowhere near enough to knock the player to the floor…outright professional cheating I am afraid,though to be fair our players do it too.Just it smarts when a goal is the direct result.Vaughn’s obstruction wasnt a direct attempt to kid the ref but we did get away with it,you get a dozen or so of those in every game.No hard feelings though,a draw probably a fair result.

  4. I’m completely at a loss to understand what Wickham can do now that he couldn’t equally have done some 8 weeks ago, or what level of preparedness he is now in (and wasn’t then) for the rigours of the PL.

    If someone can explain his sudden blossoming to maturity, then I am all ears. If anything in the glimpses that we have seen of him I’d have thought that Ji looked the more ready of the pairm (and strongly agree with Bill’s comment).

    They say that a week is a long time in politics but not as long as it seems to be with football. We started the season without an experienced striker but level on points with everybody else. Now there is increased pressure on the team to grind out results nm(which since Wickham became involved they have done). Is Steve Bruce some sort of tactical, man management genius? Nope I don’t think so, but often managers find out what they should really do, either by accident or when they have no choice.

  5. Agree, Bill. If you spend that much on players you have to have confidence in them. We arent in a position to keep them on the sidelines week after week. They should have been played earlier.

  6. And do we chastise the manager Bill for not starting him earlier in the season or give him credit for getting the lad into shape before utilising him? Answers on a postcard to Dong Won-Ji.

  7. Sorry to be on your blog, just picked it up on Newsnow on my Villa search. It’s amazing how supporting the opposition gives you a different opinion. I thought Agbonlahor was fouled, not a bad foul but a foul anyway. to call it cheating is wide of the mark though. i also thought n’Zogbia was deliberately blocked. Your goal wasn’t ages later, but having said that i thought Sessegnon’s turn (good player btw) was great and the finish by Wickham was too.
    At the moment Villa are just not good enough, and i think your lot are pretty much the same. It seems that a draw was a fair result but I am sure we both think we should be winning against each other. Anyway, I’ll toddle off now. No offence to you all

  8. A lovely piece, but Richardson our best player? I think not. Sessegnon, Bendtner or Wickham for that gong.

    I thought that this was a hugely improved performance and yet it still was insufficient to see off a rather pedestrian loking Villa side. Bent looked like a lot of dosh has been frittered away on him.

    After a decade and a half in the game Emile Heskey seems to have only recently discovered that he’s a big lad. He ran clumsily into Colback but for me his challenge with Mignolet was just an accident. Heskey is still as poor a footballer if not worse than he ever was.

  9. The expression on Agbonlahor’s face gave it all away after they scored – he knew he’d “won” a free kick. Odd expression, but players do see cheating as simply a part of the game. If refs have been told to come down hard on fouls / challenges, then they also need to come down hard on cheating – even if via a retrospective review of the footage.

  10. I suppose if I were a neutral, like Ms Taylor, I could see how this match was ‘mildly entertaining.’ But as a Sunderland supporter, I was certainly on edge most of the afternoon.

    From the East Stand, I had a perfect view of Heskey smashing Jack in the face; could have been sent off on another day. Actually we was sent off the last time we met for pushing Hendo’s face. Hm, is there a pattern developing? has Heskey got some particular vendetta against young North Easterners?

    I was surprised that there was no MotD coverage of either the Colback incident or Mig’s broken nose– Drogba gettig knocked out by John Ruddy warranted about ten minutes of discussion a few weeks ago.

    Have to agree that Richo had a solid match. He won’t get the credit, but he played very well (set up Sess to set up Wickham for the first goal), and once again, his pace was invaluable in the back.

    I was actually surprised that the free-kick was given for Larsson’s ‘challenge’ on Agbonlahor.

    It’s been suggested that the reason we’ve seen so many high-scoring matches this season is because players are afraid to tackle. I’m not sure it’s quite that simple, but Mr Foy’s rewarding of a free-kick in that instance certainly lends that theory creedence.

  11. I thought Richardson had a good game too , he covers back well , with his speed , it’s usally his mistake he’s covering though . But he’s definitely improving in LB position . Vaughan had his worst game for me , gave the ball away far too often . Just thinking back to match now we had 2 or 3 free headers at goal where we should have done much better , Bendtner and Turner the culprits if I remember correctly . I’d go for Wickham or Sess as MOM

  12. Currently one of the biggest curses in the game is when players go to ground far too easily.If something isn’t done soon the game will resemble five-a side.One of the Villa goals came from such cheatingand I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that ‘contact’ does not necessarily mean a foul.A good report on the game,as usual, from Mr.Sixsmith

  13. Richardson put a great tackle in on Bent in the first half. He had little support down the left from Sessegnon, who drifts inside. I thought he did well. Maybe I just did it to wind up Pete Horan!!

    • I was surprised at Pete’s choice, too. KR gave the ball away cheaply a couple of times, once leading to serious danger. I’d go along with Mark C, Sess/Wickham with Bendtner not far behind because of his excellent movement and reading of the game.

  14. As usual, an excellent match review by Pete; so much more insightful than the national press or MoD ever produce. My only quibble is the comment about our ambition of “supping at the high table of Champions League”. Would not a 7th or 8th finish be more realistic for now?

  15. This is an excellent account and analysis of the match. Obviously we showed spirit and there were good performances, although in the second half we began to look less convincing. However, I think that this is the kind of match that we need to win if we are to improve our position from last year. We beat Bolton last week, but Bolton look as if they are in freefall.

    It all comes down to what we expect and are willing to accept, as Pete suggests. I still feel that given the money that has been at our disposal we should aim higher. I don’t like the culture of the Premiership and all that goes with it, but we are part of it and we should be doing our best as a club to consistently play entertaining and effective football. Old Trafford next and then some dog fights-I am yet to be convinced of Bruce’s ability to take us forward.

  16. Davey: of course the article goes a lot deeper than the headline. How could it be otherwise?
    But in fairness to our sensitive team of sub-editors, by which I mean me, I would point out that the heading is not only a fair summary of one of Pete’s central points but very close to the wording he suggested: “Mildly entertaining – is this what we settle for?”

  17. I have to say that I am pleased to see the 4 4 2 with Larsson and Sessegnon playing on the flanks but it comes at a price. As Davey says there is a tendency for those two to drift inside and the first goal came about after Sess had gone walkabout leaving Hutton acres of space to collect the ball and pick out his pass to Petrov. I left feeling mildly entertained thinking that I’d seen a lot worse and gratified that we twice had equalised rather than twice conceding the lead.

    I didn’t get a good view of the Heskey incidents from my seat in the NE corner but thought I detected an elbow when Colback went down. I didn’t see what happened with Mignolet. Is the fact neither was shown on MOTD significant?

    Maybe I’m biased but I’ve never been a fan of Emile Ivanhoe and haven’t forgiven him for (on his Liverpool debut) getting Mickey Gray sent off.

  18. Good review , much better and fairer than the headline suggested .
    My main concerns on Saturday were ; sitting too far back in midfield – especially 2nd half , not enough width at times with both Sess and Larson drifting inside , and I thiught Bruce shoudl have been a bit more adventurous with his last substitution , although he was unlucky to have his first 2 substitutions forced upon him .
    Apart from that a good game , and never say die attitude from the player and fans – If the 3,000 fans that didnt turn up were the ususa moaners and early seat vacaters – then they can stay away for me . Only a handful left after Villas 2nd goal – and we got our deserved equaliser .
    After watching the Chelsea , Arsenal match though – anything else was a bit of a comedown

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