I do not know where this team has been all season, but I do know that I never, ever, ever want them to go away. This was the best Villa have looked in a very long time and to put in that kind of performance against no less than Manchester City was absolutely huge. I was less than optimistic of Villa's chances coming in to this game and they went out and made a fool of me. And I have never been happier to be proven so wrong.
Things got off to a slightly nervy start, with Manchester City pressing forward dangerously, their passing skill and fluidity well in evidence. Villa came out with what looked to be a very attacking formation, with Bent up top, Young in the withdrawn forward role, Downing as the central playmaker and Albrighton and Agbonlahor on the flanks. The attacking intent was somewhat offset by the defensive side of squad, Villa going once again with four central defenders across the back and Petrov in a deep lying playmaker/holding role. The early on was City finding their way through the midfield with relative ease but Villa's back line were equal to the task and after the first five minutes or so Villa's forward players were able to begin making an impression on the game. Things were end-to-end for quite some time, City pressing forward and being deterred time after time by a completely re-invigorated looking Villa back four. Villa weren't necessarily sitting back in the traditional sense (at least not to begin with) but there was less charging forward from the full backs and though the counter-attack was clearly Villa's strategy in terms of scoring the build up took place largely on the ground through short passing and well-played through balls.
The strategy paid off in the 18th minute, when Gabriel Agbonlahor sent a perfectly played ball through to Ashley Young, who then put a brilliant strike on an area of the target where Joe Hart would only be able to turn the ball away. At that point every outcome was a positive for Villa; Young's ball finds the net, gets deflected for a corner or falls into a dangerous area of the box. Of course it was the latter that happened, and Darren Bent did exactly what it is that he brought here to do, first getting himself into the correct position to jump on a poachable ball and then directing the ball past a hopeless Hart and into the back of the net. Villa Park bursts into absolute rapture, 1-0 to the home side. The fans were in tremendous voice all day - the boost given by the club's record signing evident from the start - and though I would have been delighted had Ashley's shot found the net it was really the perfect outcome that it fell to Bent to slot home. Whether it is fair or realistic or not, Darren Bent is looked at as being the savior of Aston Villa and for him to make such a massive impact just eighteen minutes into his debut in front of the home crowd, well, you couldn't write it up any better than that. A spirited atmosphere became absolutely electric, and the chants of "There's only one Randy Lerner" rained down for every part of Villa Park.
If Manchester City were dispirited they didn't show it, and before the cameras had returned from their shots of the crowd the ball was deep in Villa's end. Richard Dunn cleared the ball out for a Manchester City corner, and that was to be a common theme for the rest of the match. City ended up with thirteen corners to Villa's two, and the delivery (particularly from Aleksandar Kolarov who, I should remind you, is a left back that is probably five times the defender that Stephen Warnock is) was generally quite impressive, but so was the Villa back line. Despite sustained pressure from a determined looking Manchester City attack, Villa held on and made their way to the half, 1-0 lead in tact.
Neither manager made any adjustments at half in terms of personnel but both made immediately apparent tactical adjustments; Mancini's side had significantly more attacking intent (especially once Adam Johnson was brought on for Gareth Barry 52 minutes in) while Houllier's were in noticeably more bunkered and less with an eye at capitalizing on the break. It was a gutsy decision by Houllier and had things ended differently it no doubt would have proved to be one that came in for a great deal of criticism, but ultimately I think it was the correct one. Manchester City, for all of their skill and quality, have had a shockingly difficult time breaking down overly defensive formations. A great deal of that is likely down to the style they prefer to play, one based largely on trusting their excellent central defense (and in this I include Nigel de Jong who in Mancini's system is really less of a midfielder than center back) to thwart the opposition while the forward players overwhelm the opposition through patient, quality possession. To his credit it's a style that City have had great success employing and it's tough to fault him for sticking with it, but Gerard Houllier understood what needed to be done in order to stop it. I think that Mancini is very unfairly derided for his tactics, but on the day I don't think there is much question that he was bested by Houllier. The players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their performance as they were excellent, but so does Gerard. With as critical (often unfairly in my estimation) as many Villa fans have been towards him, I sincerely hope that he'll be granted the praise he deserves for this game.
Which is not to say that Villa were not the recipients of some good fortune. There's really no way to beat a side as good as Manchester City without some breaks falling your way (no matter who you are) and that was certainly the case today. Given the quality of the service from City's set pieces and corners, it's a wonder they were unable to find the net at least once no matter how well Villa's defense were playing. Nigel de Jong's laser shot in the 84th was deflected off of Ciaran Clark and then the post, stopping at least 40,000 hearts in the process. Edin Dzeko really should have done better than to head wide from Adam Johnson's cross just thirty seconds later. But while it sounds a cliche, this is exactly what many of us meant early on in the season when it seemed that every single break was going against Villa. Luck really does even out in the end. There are good breaks and there are bad breaks but where inches and random chance is involved the universe doesn't have a vested interest. It's a coin toss, and eventually the heads will equal the tails. Even if it seems to take an eternity.
On the subject of luck, a lot of people will look at the final tally of shots taken - 24 for City against 10 for Villa - and conclude that the result was a fluke. They'd be wrong. City did take a whole lot of shots, but few of them were dangerous. Most were blocked before they had a chance to trouble Brad Friedel and because Manchester City were unable to fine any way through into the box they seemed to resort to blasting somewhat desperate shots from well outside of the area. They've got the players to make that strategy worthwhile, certainly, but when dealing with an opposition that is so well-rounded, you've got to play the odds and take your chances. Despite their ability to score from distance I'd prefer forcing them to pursue that route every time. Allowing Carlos Tevez to find himself one-v-one with the keeper and predictably slotting home is one thing and it's almost certainly going to be the result of poor defending. Conceding a goal on a well struck ball from distance that finds its way through a mass of defenders is quite another, and there's little more to do in that situation other than to doff your cap and move along. The end result might be the same, but you want to make things as difficult on the opposition as possible and today Villa did just that.
So, the the Bent era is off to a rip-roaring start with an unexpected (to say the least) three points in our pocket and very winnable game against Wigan Athletic to look ahead to on Tuesday. In my estimation that will be the true test of whether we've got this thing moving in the right direction. Remember that Villa have looked impressive against quality opposition in the past only to have a tremendous letdown their next time out. Depending on the result of tomorrow's Blackburn-West Brom clash Villa could move as high as 11th on points alone (or 13th when goal differential is taken into account) if they are able to take three points at the DW Stadium. It's a bit too early to begin counting our chickens just yet, but this looked a completely different club than we've seen all year. This wasn't a bottom-table team Villa beat today, it was a team that came into the day tied for first and on solid form, and they beat them legitimately. Don't forget also that Villa were today without Jean Makoun, who likely would have been greatly appreciated today and will be available on Tuesday. If this is real - and again, while I am cautiously optimistic I am not yet 100% convinced - well, forget next year. The rest of this year could be a whole hell of a lot of fun too.
- A lot of people were upset about Downing playing centrally and Agbonlahor playing on the wing, even after the final whistle was blown. While I know that Gabby has been shaky at times, I absolutely understand what Houllier is doing and I think that it worked quite well today. How often did Agbonlahor's speed down the flank allow Villa to keep possession in the second half and give them an option other than clearing the ball long? Had Villa been forced to do what they did for the final ten minutes, there's no doubt in my mind that City would have equalized. It's true that Agbonlahor isn't a very good crosser, but that's not what he's there for. Yes, Downing spent a lot of time in the center but he and Agbonlahor swapped positions quite a bit, allowing Stewart to whip in a few crosses and his delivery is good enough that he can send in plenty of dangerous balls no matter where he is on the pitch. As Agbonlahor gets more comfortable on the wing he could become an absolute holy terror out there. Young has really begun to look comfortable in the center and I think a move back outside would be unwise. This combination allows Villa to have all of their best attacking players on the pitch at once. Give them some time to get used to it, because if it works the way that I imagine Houllier envisions it, this attack is going to be terrifying.
- Bent's goal was of course immense and all we could have asked for him, but aside from that he was largely quiet. I don't think anyone is particularly concerned by that what with this being his first game at Villa and all, and they shouldn't be. The delivery was there today and Bent was making the right runs, but he was a bit out of sync with his teammates. That's not at all surprising, and I honestly feel like had he been on the same page as everyone else today he would have had several more real chances to score. Even more encouraging was that he and his teammates often seemed to be thinking the same thing, it was just a matter of the timing being off. That's obviously going to improve as time goes on, and I think Darren Bent is going to be very happy at Villa Park.
- I cannot say enough positive things about the defense. Richard Dunne and James Collins were tremendous today, both in terms of their job in preventing Manchester City from having quality opportunities but also in terms of what they did with the ball once they had it. Aside from the hang-on-and-punt-it at the end of the game, long clearances were only made when the situation demanded it. Collins in particular had a few absolutely stunning balls that led to dangerous attacks. Cuellar was tremendous and though I love Kyle Walker I am more than happy with El Rey at right back when facing a more robust attack. Ciaran Clark has a bit of a rough start and he's clearly not the answer at left back, but once he was carded he played very smart, opting to keep his man in front of him rather than risk a sending off and allowing his fellow defenders to close in for the tackle when the opportunity presented itself. Remember when villa had the meanest back line in the Premier League? Well today they were back. I'd love to say that Brad Friedel had a great game, but I can't. Not because he was bad in any way, he just didn't have to do anything. I'm sure he's as fine with that as I am.
- On another note: Brad, it's okay to play the ball to the defenders from time to time. You have a great right leg, we get it, and a lot of the time it makes sense to clear it long, but when you've get ten men in the box trying to pick out Darren Bent while he's surrounded by three or four people taller than him probably isn't the best strategy. Manchester City kept retreating, expecting Villa to counter when Big Brad took his goal kicks and I think Villa expected the same thing. But nope, long punt after long punt. I know he's a defender, but Richard Dunne can actually pass the ball.
- Marc Albrighton had one of his trying-a-little-too-hard sorts of days. His workrate is tremendous and I can't fault his commitment or his heart, but at the risk of sounding blunt he would do well to be a bit less of a blathering idiot at times. And he will, I know. He's still incredibly young and his desire to win absolutely leaps out at you. But the best way to go about that isn't always going 100 miles per hour after everything. He made a few of his characteristic rash challenges, the result of over-exuberance rather than any real malice, and on several occasions he did everything right working himself into a dangerous position only to take too heavy a touch or rush his delivery. Marc, I love you, but you've got to chill out. Just a little bit.
- Machester City might have had nearly three times as many shots as Villa, but Villa made theirs count. 25 shots for City, two on target and only one other of their efforts looked at all dangerous. Nine shots for Villa, seven on target and every single one was well taken. It's not the number of shots it's the quality, and in that department Villa had a massive edge.
- Anyone that doesn't think that Darren Bent's arrival at the club didn't impact the way this team performed today is nuts. Even in other games where Villa have performed better than we would have expected, such as the draws with Manchester United and Chelsea, they've looked as shocked as the rest of the world at the end of them. Today they looked like they had little doubt that they were going to win from the very start and at no point did it look like they had stopped feeling that way. We haven't seen anything approaching that level of confidence from Villa in nearly a year. If it's contagious then everyone should go cough on Stephen Ireland.
Just a thrilling day to be a fan of Aston Villa. As excited as I am for the Wigan match it's really a bit of a shame we don't have an entire week to enjoy this one. After what we've been through so far this year it almost feels like we've earned it.