Aston Villa’s pursuit of the Barclay’s Premier League title was dealt a blow Saturday by visiting Arsenal, who, despite their seventh-place table position coming into the match, were able to unlock Villa’s iron-clad defense with 192 seconds of inspired play and end Villa’s undefeated start to the season. Weakened by a virus sweeping through the camp—Nathan Baker was a game-day scratch, Ashley Westwood fell ill during warm-ups, and Andreas Weimann was unable to continue past halftime—Villa were able to contain further damage but could inflict none of their own. Their customary efficiency in front of goal (6 shots, 4 goals) was not to be seen. Fortunately, Sunday’s results favored Lambert’s men’s title chase, as 10-man Manchester City held leaders Chelsea to a draw at the Etihad. And, while Southampton’s victory at Swansea has them beating Villa on goal difference to claim second place, Villa remain within striking distance of the league leaders, whom they play this Saturday. It will be a true six-pointer as the Villans travel south to London, and the Lambert-Mourinho duel promises a technical masterclass that should have scholars of the game sharpening their pencils.
* * *
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful match report? Instead, despite Villa’s sterling start to the season, the commentators on Match of the Day, ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, etc., have treated each of Villa’s victories or draws as an opportunity to talk about the other side’s weaknesses. (Liverpool lost to Villa? What are they doing wrong?) Saturday’s loss to Arsenal will undoubtedly be heralded by many as the moment the natural order began to be restored. A top four with Southhampton and Villa? A top seven with Swansea and Leicester City? Heaven forfend.
Look, we know Villa is overperforming.
(The loss may also have given grim satisfaction to Lambert’s detractors, but I’ll leave that topic alone for now.)
Look, we know Villa is overperforming. We know we’ve been a little bit lucky so far. And when we’re up against clubs who spend more on one player than we do on our starting eleven, the cold realities of talent and finance will play their part. We know we won’t be finishing in the top four or even the top seven. But, based on what we’ve seen so far, both from our club and from the likes of Crystal Palace through Newcastle, top ten seems eminently possible. (Thee-to-one odds on relegation? Don’t you believe it.)
Our defense, which was so inexperienced and porous, now looks tough and experienced. If Vlaar had been able to start, or even Baker, yesterday’s scoreline looks different—Cisshoko’s penchant for own goals aside. Our midfield and attack look much more confident. Until the first goal was conceded Saturday, it was Arsenal who was pinned back, and Villa who looked much more likely to score. Lambert’s youth movement isn’t entirely over, but he has proven that he’s not obstinate to the point of madness and brought in some tough veterans who should be able to provide the backbone we’ve been lacking. With Lerner’s backing, he’s brought some intriguing, low-risk options on board and the squad has grown just deep enough that it should show in an improved season.
Yes, we’re in the middle of a tough run of games, but we still have ten points from five games while teams such as Liverpool, Manchester United, and Everton are still struggling to find their form. And Christian Benteke is back in training . . . .
* * *
I watched the first half at home, was scolded for my language by my ten-year-old, and then headed out to the lakefront fields to coach my U10 and U12 teams. I was hoping their performances would take the sting out of watching three goals fly past an ailing Brad Guzan, but, to be honest, it was a small hope. I love all the kids on my teams, but I’ve been surprised this year to find some rank beginners on my squads—and, at this level, kids who can’t kick, pass, run, or defend tend to get found out quickly. Where do you even play them? There’s no hiding on the soccer field. I think my U10 team last year could have beaten my U12 team this year.
Well, my U10s played mostly even but ultimately went down 1-3, a genuine improvement on last week’s 1-6 where there were tears at halftime (not mine, I assure you, although I almost felt like joining in). My 8-year-old got the lone goal, I’m pleased to report. And my U12s battled to a narrow loss in a 3-4 thriller, their closest result of the season. So they’re getting better, and I remain sympathetic to Paul Lambert: we both know something about coaching on limited resources.
Mat Kendrick’s Big Match Verdict (Birmingham Mail)