Nik: Enjoy the game!
Brian: You don’t enjoy derbies.
A Game of Two Halves
The 2015–16 edition of Aston Villa clearly has more potential than last year’s model—but while they suffer a historically bad start in league play, a key question is whether they can realize that potential. And with Sherwood’s managerial tactics clearly at fault in a a couple of games, another question is whether he would learn from his mistakes before it was too late.
Fortunately, the old cliche—it’s a game of two halves—is rooted in actual fact. If yesterday’s League Cup game against Birmingham City had consisted only of the first half, I’m not sure extra time and penalties would have been sufficient to determine a result. They might still be playing. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that, due to some ripple in the space-time continuum, there isn’t an alternate universe in which they are still playing an ugly, uninspired game for 18 hours and counting.
Nobody expects attractive soccer to be played in a derby. They expect blood and thunder, cynically mistimed tackles, and enough cards to furnish a small stationery store. But even with the standards set that low, both Villa and the Blues managed to limbo under without brushing the bar. The first half was one of the worst displays I’ve seen since . . . well, the nil-nil against Sunderland last Christmas comes to mind, bringing with it a slight aftertaste of sour beer.
If you watched the game, I won’t risk inducing PTSD by offering my own blow-by-blow. Suffice to say that Ciaran Clark, for all his qualities, won’t be replacing Gana any time soon in the midfield. And though Gabby did up his game for the two matches after he was benched, he wasn’t providing any answers even before he was substituted at halftime. And I’m very angry at the soccer gods for putting me in the position of being shamefully grateful to see him limp off.
Fortunately, City wasted the chances we allowed them, and we made it to halftime without falling behind.
Rudy Can’t Fail
If we criticize Sherwood when his decisions are poor, we have to give him credit when he gets it right. The halftime substitutions of Grealish and Ayew brought the team to life, and Villa looked like a completely different side from that moment forward. They bossed the game and created enough chances that, really, they should have had another goal or two. The way they held the ball in the later stages of the game, seeing out their narrow win, was a relief, as was seeing the game-changing influence of our young flair players. Ayew, in particular, made me wonder whether we don’t get the right Ayew, after all.
And, though I was in no way pleased to see Gestede start—we haven’t crossed enough balls to his head, and he hasn’t done enough with his feet—I’ll defer to Sherwood again on this one. While the goal was created by a good sequence of passes and a cross from Amavi, Rudy applied the perfect finishing touch.
I read later that Sherwood claimed he’d planned the whole thing, from the bad first half to the good second half. We may never know whether pulling Lescott, moving Clark back into defense, and inserting our young flair players just after halftime was a masterstroke or a move borne of desperation. But since it worked, I don’t mind giving him the benefit of the doubt.
It was a funny scene at the nearly-empty Globe, though a dozen Villans shirked work and made the trek to enjoy a Tuesday afternoon with a disorienting amount of sunshine and fresh air coming in the open windows. Problems with the Beinsport stream reminded me of the old days, before NBC came on the scene; after several false starts we eventually ended up in the Globe Lounge. It was a very weird experience to see everybody kicked back in comfy chairs, watching a screen mounted over a fireplace. And the responses of passing pedestrians and drivers to “My Old Man” and “Birmingham, Are You Listening” was priceless.
I should probably mention the lone guy wearing blue. An American, he’d apparently spent six months in Perry Barr and met the wrong kind of people: Bluenoses. He followed us around like a puppy, creating some odd moments. But that’s what makes America great, right? Nobody’s breaking a pint glass and telling him to leave. Instead, he’s welcome to sit with us, enjoy our singing, and take in the sight of yet another League Cup loss at Villa Park.