Well. That feels quite good, doesn't it?
The key to this game for Villa was neutralizing Mikel Arteta, and for the vast majority of the day they did just that. Nigel Reo-Coker may have had some frustrating touches in the attack, but as the destroyer (credit to Gareth for that one) he was incredible. He's not an especially refined footballer in a technical sense, but he was given free reign today to do what it is that he does best, and it was magnificent. Reo-Coker kept Arteta in check throughout the afternoon and managed to thoroughly disrupt Everton's ability to control possession in the midfield.
I'll admit to being quite confused about Reo-Coker's appearance in midfield in the starting XI today; I woke up shortly after 7:00 AM this morning, saw the original lineup which included Ireland, grumbled to myself and went back to bed. When the game started and Reo-Coker was on the pitch, I'll admit to be puzzled. And I will also admit to being quite pleased. Stephen Ireland is certainly a better player than Nigel Reo-Coker, but he doesn't come anywhere close to offering what Reo-Coker does in terms of disrupting play in the midfield, and I think that we saw that today. I absolutely adore Marc Albrighton anf think that his future is a bright one, but for the moment his place is on the bench in favor of Young and Ireland. What confuses matters is Young's performance in the withdrawn striker's role today; Ashley was absolutely brilliant and he's made me reconsider whether it should be he or Ireland split out wide. He really does look to be a holy terror in the middle, and at this point I am loathe to wish for change in that regard.
No better example of his being well suited for that role could be found than his part in Villa's goal; Luke Young made a brilliant run and put in a wonderful finish, but Ashley's gathering of the ball and service (not to mention his direction of play) were absolutely stunning and well worth acclaim. He continued to trouble Tim Howard throughout the day, never fully capitalizing but giving Everton multiple things to concern themselves with, something a truly brilliant player should be able to do. Ashley Young was everywhere today; on the wing sending in his trademark crosses, in the center of the box willing himself towards goal and on the edge of the box feeding through balls to attacking players. It was as dominant a performance as we've seen from Ashley in quite some time, and the case could certainly be made that he carried Villa to victory. Not in the sense that he singlehandedly beat Everton, but in the sense that he was in exactly in the right place at eactly the right time doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.
The same, sadly, cannot be said for Marc Albrighton. The kid is wonderful, and I adore him, but he needs to learn to trust his own abilities. On several occasions he looked to be clear to goals, only to mystifyingly stop and cut back, allowing Everton's defense to reset and chances to go uncapitalized upon. In several other cases he charged on in defiance of all logic, attempting to outrun Steven Pienaar or run through Maraoune Fellaini. Marc Albrighton will learn, and he'll gain confidence, and he'll improve. I have no doubt about this. But at the moment, he's not quite ready. He reminds me a lot of Fabian Delph last season; too talented to ignore, but too raw to entrust with the role of regular. This isn't a slight, as being compared to Fabian Delph is a compliment. It's just an acknowledgment of reality.
Did you guys know that Everton had 18 corners? Because they did. 18 corners. That doesn't sound all that great, but I think it's important to consider that this was Villa's game during their best stretch of last season; attack early, go ahead, dominate the opposition in the final third and attempt to capitalize on the counter. It was completely and totally nerve-wracking, and I don't doubt that a few seconds have been shaved off of my life, but that's Villa. That's good Villa, even. It's kind of what the defense is built to do, really. They're not especially fast, so they clear like crazy and frustrate the hell out of the opponent. It's not especially traditional or confidence inspiring, but they've been doing it for a few years now and either this is one of the longer stretches of good luck that we've seen in a while or there's something to it. And this isn't to discredit Everton; they played a tremendous game (especially in the second half, when they were clearly having the run of play) and they were stifled by one of the better defenses in the Premier League with a home field advantage.
Subjectively, this was an amazing win and I could not be happier with the way things proceeded. Yes, it got more than a little dicey towards the end, and while it could be argued that Everton certainly deserved a goal, they didn't get one and that was in large part due to the brilliance of the back line. This wasn't Villa betting West Ham, this was Villa beating a good club giving it a go and refusing to break down. That's huge; I think that a lack of confidence has more than a little to do with last week's results, and the squad seem to have regained their confidence judging by their play today. They appeared to be in control of the match even when it looked as though they were being bossed, and I don't see any way that this could be taken as a bad sign.
Objectively, this match was thrilling and I heard more than a few neutral observers around the pub testify to that fact. It was end-to-end stuff, with quality play in every aspect from both sides. The sequence towards the end, with Tim Howard making a miracle save with one hand while hanging in midair only to be followed by an equally stunning full-stretch, cat-like parry by Friedel less than one minute later was just absolutely heart-stopping stuff. This was a wonderful game, played by two wonderful clubs. It was more than befitting of its storied history as the most-played fixture in the English top flight, and most importantly, Villa now hold the edge in the series on points and have gotten back to the correct side of the results.Villa might have taken another early exit from Europe, and they might have been embarrassed by Newcastle a week ago, but they've also taken six points from three games and sit at fourth in the table as we speak.
It might have felt as though the sky were falling this time yesterday, but a cursory glance upwards can confirm that it is not. We aren't out of the woods quite yet, as there is still a manager to name and 35 fixtures left to play, but Villa are in good shape going forward. Six points and two quality performances out of three. That's not bad, and it's time to breathe.