After Aston Villa's loss to West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion was over, I remarked that I'd never been as angry after watching Villa as I was at the end of this one. It's been about twelve hours since then, and though that was probably an accurate statement at the time things have since progressed to a palpable sense of disappointment (though still with some anger peppered in here and there.) I can deal with losing (which is probably going to come in handy a lot more often than I'd like this season) but so many things about this game left me feeling alternately furious, depressed, hopeless and empty. Not something I've felt as a Villa fan before (though certainly something I've experienced as a fan of other teams in the past) and it wasn't a great way to start a Saturday.
The most obvious explanation for these negative emotions is the indefensible sending off of Chris Herd; the young midfielder was ostensibly shown red for stamping West Brom defender Jonas Olsson during a corner kick just seconds after both were warned about physical play in the box during a previous set piece. That warning followed an earlier talking-to, and it's really difficult to blame referee Phil Dowd for sending off Herd for stamping on Olsson, something that would be justifiable on its own merits and almost impossible not to do given the earlier incidents.
Except of course for the fact that Herd didn't, you know, actually stamp on Olsson. At least not so blatantly that it can be seen on any of the replays from the broadcast. Still, the assistant referee was quite insistent which is somewhat troubling giving that the alleged stamping would have been completely and totally blocked by Olsson's not-insignificantly-sized body and that Dowd spotted no foul and didn't award a penalty until the linesman had been emphatically waving his flag for a good ten seconds. Herd was not shown the red card until after Dowd spoke to his assistant.
Based on the evidence I've seen; the replays, still images, Olsson's complete and total lack of any kind of reaction and Herd's legitimate shock at being shown the card, Olsson and Herd got tangled up in the box through the fault of no one and the linesman made an incredibly stupid assumption. One thing I've learned watching as much football as I have is that the more a player protests a booking the likelihood of their guilt is far higher. On those occasions that the player's reaction is comprised of looking incredibly puzzled before turning around and walking off the field, the odds are pretty good that they've just gotten royally screwed. Herd's was most definitely the later. At the time it was 1-0 Villa; though Chris Brunt would shank the ensuing penalty comically wide left the Baggies took complete control of the game from that point and go on to win at Villa Park for the first time since 1979.
So yes, the Herd sending off didn't exactly help my mood. But in terms of the bad taste left in my mouth by this game, it wasn't really all that high up the list. I've used to being angry at bad decisions made by referees. In a way those are easier to deal with, because they're out of the control of the players. Sure you've been wronged, but it was that damned referee's fault! Nothing our poor brave boys did, those unfortunate lads. But I don't feel that way at all. The sending off was awful and it changed the game, but the way the team and and the manager responded was the thing that's upset me the most.
To be fair Villa didn't look all that great before going down to ten men. Darren Bent had an absolute sitter that he skied over the bar, another head-scratching moment in what has been a forgettable start to the season for the striker. Gabriel Agbonlahor did well to win the penalty that Bent converted to give Villa their goal, but if not for some shockingly bad defending by Steven Reid the spot kick would have never been awarded. In the time between Villa's penalty and Herd's sending off I was preparing myself for an hour plus of bunkering and aimless possession with the goal of course being to knick a 1-0 win. Not exactly the most thrilling thing in the world, but not exactly unexpected either and hey, three points.
We didn't get that. Which, well, whatever. Losing sucks and losing to West Brom really sucks, but these things happen. The manner in which it happened though, oh my god. Let's be clear; the Baggies didn't play well. At all. Their two goals came due to Villa defending poorly on set pieces, something Alex McLeish spent the better part of the past week hammering on. (Though, credit where it's due, Paul Scharner's goal was a lovely one. He never should have had the chance to take that shot but he did, and he sure as hell took advantage of it.) West Brom held on to the majority of the possession (by a 62%-38% margin) and put a great deal more pressure on Shay Given than Villa could muster against Ben Foster, but as poorly as the home side played the Baggies could have easily had another two or three with better execution. Their passing was sloppy and they persisted in giving the ball away in dangerous areas with a regularity that probably made Roy Hodgson none to happy.
And what did Villa do with the little possession they had? They punted. Over and over and over again, punts from Shay Given or Richard Dunne or James Collins would be headed from Bent into a midfield occupied almost entirely by players in striped shirts. When it was 1-1 that was understandable, but after Scharner put the visitors ahead and it was clear that the long ball strategy wasn't working, a change was in order. And it came in the form of...Emile Heskey being brought on for Charles N'Zogbia. If that wasn't bad enough, Heskey spent most of his time on the pitch playing as a central defensive midfielder. Alex McLeish looks at that big clumsy statue of a man and sees 1974-era Johan Cruyff.
And so Villa persisted in punting long and giving the ball away, despite needing a goal just to get back on level terms. Occasionally Stilyan Petrov would end up in possession somehow and his idea of creativity was to ignore his teammates making runs into space down the wing and instead to turn and run backwards before punting long again. Petrov is a controversial figure with some Villa fans insistent that he's well past being a decent Premier League footballer while others swear that he's a steely, calming and much-needed influence in the midfield, but anyone that could see Petrov's performance today and take away any positives should probably seek medical attention right away because they've clearly been given a potentially fatal dose of psychoactive substances. Watching your team flail around without a clue for the better part of an hour is bad enough; watching the man wearing the captain's armband look more clueless and without ideas than the team he's supposed to be leading is painful.
As things began to wind down McLeish made another change, this time subbing off Barry Bannan in favor of Marc Albrighton. Bannan was the only creative player left on the pitch for Villa, while Albrighton looks completely out of sort and not at all a threat until his confidence receives a much needed boost. Still, Albrighton is undeniably talented and can send in a good ball from all over the place; there's a case to be made for bringing him on. But why for Bannan? Despite being down a goal, Villa were still playing with four at the back. Three of them are natural center backs, with Carlos Cuellar making his return in place of the injured Alan Hutton. Why take off an attacking player (who'd had a fine day no less) instead of, say, Stephen Warnock? What's the worst that could happen; you lose by more? Who gives even a hint of a damn? And let's say Bannan was just out of gas. He didn't look it, but McLeish is around these players every day and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why take N'Zogbia (who was clearly not out of gas) off for Heskey instead of Bannan? That way you've gotten the fatigued player off the pitch, brought on Heskey who McLeish appears to have some sort of platonic but still rather creepy fascination with and still give yourself the chance to pull a defender in favor of an attacking player later in the game should it still be necessary.
The mind boggles. And I know that nitpicking coaching decisions is trite and predictable and so forth, but for heaven's sake; the tactical approach in this game was so negative that Alex McLeish thought it was more important to keep a four-man back line and play a striker in defensive midfield rather than attempting to push forward for an equalizer. This was everything people feared when McLeish was hired, yet somehow worse. This was like a worst-case scenario I would use as a hypothetical example of the kind of crazy things people were saying McLeish might do just to make his hiring seem worse. And he actually did it! It would almost be fascinating if it weren't so depressing.
Add in Alan Hutton's horrific challenge that has by all appearances seriously injured Shane Long -the kind of challenge that makes me actively hate players wearing the shirt of the team I support- and McLeish actually defending that challenge in post-game interviews, and you'll understand my current sour state in terms of my relationship with Aston Villa Football Club. I love this team. I will always love this team. But wow do games like these make that love feel completely unrequited (which rationally it is but you know what I mean.) It's just been the nine games and the odds are good McLeish will get at least two or three seasons. That's plenty of time to turn things around (or, alternatively, plenty of time for me to get used to this kind of thing) but this season has not been pleasant so far. Even at the lowest point of last season, I never felt this depressed. I mean yeah, Villa was a bad team for a good chunk of the time, but they were a young team too, with fun and exciting players like Albrighton and Ciaran Clark playing major roles. Now they're a team on which Emile Heskey plays holding midfield.
I'm sure I'm overreacting. It's a thing I do sometimes. By next weekend I'll probably be optimistic again. But I won't be quite as optimistic as I was today, and today I wasn't as optimistic as I was last week, and so on. And I can't imagine I'm alone.