True, Paul Lambert’s team selection was a bit of a surprise. But does anyone else remember the days when Martin O’Neill’s squad sheet could have been chiseled in stone, so rarely did it change? When, late in the season, with the players running on fumes, he still acted as though he had no one he could trust to bring in off the bench? There may be such a thing as being too willing to flirt with new lineups, but then again, it seems to be working out well for Jurgen Klinsmann and the USMNT. So I, for one, am willing to trust our skipper.
For the first five minutes, Villa looked by far the better team. If I remember the sequence right, Weimann got off one decent shot and one great shot that, sadly, hit the post. I feel terrible for the guy: he runs like a greyhound and works like a . . . well, another kind of dog, and he just deserves more success. Later in the game, when he skied one over the bar, I could sense his growing desperation.
Anyway, in the sixth minute, when Ciaran Clark handled the ball to give away a penalty, I thought, right, here we go again. Dreamtime is over. Back to searching for an equalizer.
And then . . Brad Guzan showed us why he is The Man. I also feel sorry for him, to be on this kind of form in the Tim Howard era. Any other time in history and he’s the starting goalkeeper for the U.S.A.
So the penalty save brought fresh hope, and then Benteke came off injured. Mentally, some Villans are already running scenarios well into the future—well, if he’s out for two or three months, then he won’t leave in the January transfer window, which means we’ve at least still got him this spring, and if he’s out until spring, then do we have him next year?—when Libor Kozak comes on, shoots, is denied, and then is given a second chance by Gabby that he can’t miss.
Anyway, from anticipation to despair to elation to despair to guarded optimism—rapid-fire sequence of emotional zigzags that pretty much sums up what it’s like to follow Villa. And surely this Libor fellow is a fluke? I kept worrying about Benteke on the bench. How could he be smiling? Maybe the smile is a good sign, as is the fact that he clearly didn’t want to leave the field in the first place.
This was the first game since the win over Arsenal that I was able to watch as it happened. Imminent AYSO coaching duties meant that I didn’t have time to get down to the pub and back (and it’s probably not advisable to coach U8s and U10s with beer on my breath), but I wanted that feeling of watching the game with others. And so I opened up my laptop and logged in to Twitter and set Tweetdeck to #AVFC.
The experience was interesting—it’s fun to see the screen light up after saved penalties, injuries, goals, etc.—but distracting, too. I found myself watching the game itself with only half my attention. And, true to the curse of social media, instead of just marveling at whatever dramatic thing I’d just seen, I found myself struggling to say something witty and succinct. The Age of Social Media is the Age of Narcissism: could that yellow card have actually happened if I didn’t find something funny to say about it?
Anyway, I did enjoy seeing clever things from other Tweeps, and appreciated finding some facts and photos along the way. But back to the game. Villa continued to look good on the counter, and there were moments where I felt that old optimism, that old sense that we’re going to run off two or three quick goals and put the game out of reach. And surely we need to, because our defense looks shocking. We’re cursed on the back line, aren’t we? Okore looked as though he would become an important bulwark on a solidifying defense; now, with Vlaar and Clark in center, and a possibly out-of-position Bacuna at right, and Luna at left, we look as though we’re standing on sand that is crumbling away at our feet.
Luna in particular looked shockingly vaporous. Maybe the Arsenal game was a fluke, but I thought then that he looked like a great addition: a fast, athletic back, alert to offensive opportunities, willing to race tirelessly up and down the wing. But how can he play better against Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea than against Norwich? I’m not writing him off yet, but he needs to show more consistency.
And, speaking of bad days at the office: Aleksandar Tonev. After his first long but errant shot, I thought: glad the boy’s got confidence. After the second: maybe a bit too much confidence, but hey, why not? After the half-dozenth long and off-target shot I wanted shake him silly. I’m sure he just wants to impress, and I know Lambert will have a word, but it’s not the debut I would expect from a professional player. Judging from the comments on Twitter, it’s either time to loan Tonev to a team in the second division or cut off both his feet before ceremonially burning him at the stake. He needs time but, of course, we don’t have a large margin for error.
I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll close by saying this: on Saturday, I didn’t really recognize this team, and it’s not just because of the new faces. We looked haphazard and tentative where, only a few games ago, we looked organized and confident. (Speaking of organization, do you know who we could use in midfield? Michael Bradley. Too bad Villa never had the vision to bring him in for a try. Oh wait, they did? Pity. I guess he’s not good enough for a thirteenth-place team. He just barely managed to find a starting position at a first place team in some place called Italy, after all.)
Hopefully this win will offer some confidence to play our best game again. It was ugly but, for now, those three points are beautiful.
Reasons for Optimism
Tonev is no Benteke, but he might just do the job.
Gabby. No idea why Lambert took him off. He and Guzan were our two most valuable players.
We still look dangerous on the counter. If we can pinch an early lead against teams like Norwich, it will draw them forward, giving us an even better chance of that second goal. And we will need a second, or third, or fourth goal. This clean sheet will be an anomaly this season.
Bradley Edwin “Brad” Guzan
Reasons for Pessimism
Jores Okore is out for the year. Lambert has expressed his faith in Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker. He may be right. History will have fans wondering otherwise.
Christian Benteke. How soon will he be back?
A midweek League Cup game at home against Tottenham, a team that is second in the table and second in form. Given that games at Villa Park hardly seem to give us an advantage. I think we’d be extremely lucky to get a good result. (On the other hand, Andre Villas-Boas has just announced that he’ll field a team of reserves, so . . . there goes that unfounded optimism again.)