This was a result that probably wouldn't have upset a lot of people coming in, but given the circumstances it was a disappointing one. Down a goal or no, when you are playing two-thirds of a game at home with a man advantage you really should take home at least a point. Fair play to Tottenham though; they came into Villa Park the far better team, went ahead early and performed brilliantly in defense before grabbing a second and putting the game away. Villa didn't perform horribly but the same old familiar problems reared their ugly heads; two absolutely shameful defensive lapses and an inability to finish or even put threatening balls on frame led to Spurs taking all three points. You can't really be all that upset with a loss to Spurs, but Villa failing to capitalize on their opportunities and good fortune this season has become a recurring theme and it's cost us dearly.
Things got off to a frantic start, with both teams putting pressure on the opponent's goal early on. Villa were nearly ahead thirty seconds in and Spurs came right back to test Brad Friedel less than a minute later. The back and forth continued until Rafael van der Vaart found Alan Hutton's low cross and slotted home in the 23rd minute. The chance was created by an excellent ball to Hutton from Luka Modric, but Villa had every opportunity to clear the danger. It was a shocking display by the Villa back line (Stephen Warnock and James Collins in particular) and in the immediate aftermath it started to look like things could get ugly in a hurry.
Villa got a massive break just short of five minutes later when Jermain Defoe was sent off for a clumsy aerial challenge on James Collins. Defoe was certainly guilty of being clumsy and foolish while leading with his elbow but you'd be very hard pressed to say there was much if any intent there. A yellow would have been reasonable but a red was almost incomprehensibly harsh and indicative of what was to come from referee Martin Atkinson. On the balance the poor refereeing ended up favoring Villa because of the gravity of the decision to send of Defoe but it's difficult to say it was biased; it was just really, really bad all around. Spurs got away with some pretty blatant time wasting at the death, some really shocking challenges went uncalled while other, far tamer challenges ended in bookings. Atkinson has never been my favorite referee but he outdid himself with his performance in this game and I'd be happy not to see him involved in a Villa match for quite some time.
Down a man Spurs switched into a more defensive mindset, with Redknapp making the (correct in my estimation) decision to play only van der Vaart up top and in more of an advanced attacking mid role than as a striker. Spurs had their goal and Redknapp is smart enough to know that Villa are most dangerous on the counter; this team has a tons of trouble scoring with that many men behind the ball and Spurs have enough pace and long passing ability to pose a threat while bunkered. It's a rough day when Harry Redknapp outsmarts your team from a tactical standpoint, but that's pretty much exactly what happened. I've defended Gerard Houllier all year and one bad day against a superior team is certainly not enough to change my mind about him but this was not his best showing. The decision to start Jonathan Hogg while Barry Bannan and Nigel Reo-Coker sat on the bench was frankly bizarre and made even more so when it was confirmed that Stilyan Petrov was fit enough to play as well. The decision to bring on Robert Pires for Delph was even more baffling, as Villa had tons of possession but no creativity through the center and desperately needed a goal being down 1-0 when Pires began warming up and 2-0 by the time the switch was made. Even managers have their bad games and this was certainly one of them for Houllier, but let's do hope that it was a blip rather than a trend.
Villa's trouble got much worse in the 39th minute when a limping Emile Heskey was withdrawn and Nathan Delfouneso brought on in his place. Delfouneso played well but Heskey's presence in the box was obviously missed by the wingers. Spurs were in general more than happy to let Albrighton and Downing pump high balls into the box with only Agbonlahor and Delfouneso there to meet them, and it really is no accident that Villa began looking far more dangerous once James Collins was switched to a center forward role late on in the game. Downing and Albrighton have fantastic delivery and there's no two ways about it, but with no big target and no push through the middle there's not a whole lot that can be with those types of balls. Villa's tendency to get fancy when in the center of the attacking zone was on full display this afternoon and it led to a lot of seemingly dangerous attacks being thwarted fairly easily by Spurs. Not to take anything away from Spurs defense; they were fantastic and Harry Redknapp has them to thank for the three points. But Villa were alternately wasteful and impotent and it was fairly painful to watch.
Spurs second goal was predictable, with Gareth Bale switching to the right, easily evading a hopeless and pointless tackle from James Collins in midfield, evaded two thirds of the Villa defense with a yawn and found Aaron Lennon at the edge of the box. Eric Lichaj was caught forward and raced back to mark Lennon but it was too late, as Lennon had the time to pick out van der Vaart rushing in on the edge of the box and the mane that is quickly becoming Villa's nemesis slotted home. It was a poor effort by the entirety of Villa's defense, but Warnock and Collins in particular. Collins was never going to get close to dispossessing Bale with the tackle but going to ground completely took him out of the play. Warnock was nowhere in sight despite not being involved in the attack that preceded Spurs' counter. Lichaj was involved in the attack but really should not have given Lennon nearly as much time to pick out van der Vaart as he did. Carlos Cuellar was made to look like a statue by Bale. Fabian Delph likely should have stepped up to at least give van der Vaart something to think about. Friedel was llikely hopeless to stop the shot, but was still far too committed to Lennon's side despite the winger posing no immediate threat at goal.
It felt over at that point (and ultimately it was) but Villa battled back which was good to see. It would have been oh-so-easy for the team to fold up like a tent and focused only on not allowing themselves to be further embarrassed but that didn't happen and in the 82nd minute when James Collins gave Gomes just enough to think about to keep him off his line and Marc Albrigthon's well-bent cross ended up in the net. Villa kept the pressure on, with Agbonlahor, Delfouneso, Petrov, Albrighton and Lichaj (twice!) all coming close to finding the equalizer. Spurs were equal to it in the end though, and the whistle blew with a shade over 95 minutes gone it ended 2-1 to Spurs. Frustrating to be sure, but a fair reflection of the play on the field and the superior quality of Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Villa wouldn't have been lucky to take a point or even three from this match but they weren't hard done by to find themselves on the losing end either. We're in a scary spot at the moment and with our next few fixtures we're likely to stay there, but there's an even longer stretch of winnable fixtures to follow and help on the way in January. Be concerned, but don't panic.
- Eric Lichaj was solid if a bit shaky at times in his starting debut against West Brom but today he was legitimately excellent. Gareth Bale was kept completely under wraps while on the left yet found away to make us pay when he switched wings. Lichaj could have done better on the second Spurs goal but he was the least culpable of all the defense and sent in a dangerous cross that preceded the counter-attack. He offers more going forward than Luke Young and is close to equal to what we saw from Carlos Cuellar defensively at right back. This performance is an outlier and shouldn't be what we expect of him every week going forward, but he's clearly a better option than anyone else at the moment and has earned a longer look when Young is fit.
- Stephen Warnock, on the other hand, is terrible. I don't know if this is just an exceptionally long run of poor form or if this is a real and lasting decline, and I'm not sure if I want to wait longer than January to find out. He's just a tremendous liability at this point and if I'm Gerard Houllier finding a new left back is priority number one for the next thirty-plus days.
- Rafael van der Vaart was the difference today, just as he was the difference in this same fixture at White Hart Lane earlier this season. And really, Spurs ability to bring in players like van der Vaart is the difference between where these two clubs are at the moment. In terms of the core of the squad coming into the year, there really wasn't that huge of a gulf between Spurs and Villa, at least not on paper. But Spurs are in a position to add players of van der Vaart's quality while Villa aren't, at least not yet. I haven't yet decided whether that it encouraging or discouraging.
- I can't believe I am saying this, but Villa need a striker and they need him in Janary. Heskey and Agbonlahor looked fantastic as a pairing up top, but as soon as big Emile came off the threat from the strikers was gone. Delfouneso looked great today and he's going to be a very good player for us, but Villa have to have an aerial threat and Nathan is not that. I wonder if we could trick Arsenal into giving us Nicklas Bendtner. (The answer to that last question is no.)
- If Bannan isn't hurt/being disciplined and Hogg starts the next match, I think we can start asking some very critical questions about Gerard Houllier, but I'm not ready to start asking them now. He's given a lot of players a chance to shine and they've emerged as some of this season's best players. He deserves time to see what he's got.