Aston Villa and Wolves last net at the Molineaux on September 26th of last year; Villa were fresh off a dominant 3-1 defeat of Blackburn in the Carling Cup and Emile Heskey's 88th minute winner gave Gerard Houllier his second win in as many games at the helm. It was the new manager's first Premier League game in charge and though Wolves battled hard and might have felt unlucky to take nothing from their effort, derby games are generally tight affairs and the spirits of the Villa faithful were as high as they'd been all year. After a very difficult start to the season, it felt like Villa were finally headed back in the right direction and the worst of their troubles were behind them.
So how's all that working out?
This is probably the most important match of the season so far for Villa; a win likely puts several results worth of breathing room between themselves and the drop while a loss would make things go from bad to flashing-lights-and-breathing-into-paper-bags terrifying. Even a draw is quite simply not good enough. I've been outspoken in my defense of Gerard Houllier and while I think that giving him another season to allow his longer-term plan to begin to take shape, at a certain point he needs to begin producing results. Whether or not Gerard Houllier is to blame for things like the 3-2 defeat at Bolton is of course a matter for debate; I think that it's impossible to blame him for Bent missing two sitters, Young's blocked penalty or the countless other blown opportunities from that game-Villa were dominant and probably should have won by several goals. But they didn't, and in large part that's because of terrible set piece defense and a complete and total inability to close down games. Even if those things aren't directly Houllier's fault he is far more culpable for these failings than he is for poor finishing from the club's proven attacking players.There are legitimate criticisms to be made. With that said, it's difficult to change a team's culture overnight and blips of this type are to be somewhat expected along the way. It's simply not as cut-and-dried an issue as some folks would like to believe.
The point of all this is to say that while I can't really envision a scenario (short of relegation or his actually murdering Richard Dunne) under which sacking Houllier would be the correct decision, I can certainly envision a scenario in which it would be justifiable. And because I think switching managers yet again would have disastrous results for the club, I'd very much like it if Aston Villa would start winning games. Consistently, if possible. That would be just super.
Unfortunately, winning this game won't be as easy as it probably should. We've talked a lot about the limited defensive options these past couple of days, but it bears repeating; Villa are very, very vulnerable to counter attacks and good wing play, and unfortunately Wolves excel in both of those areas. They aren't a good team at all, but they're good enough to keep things competitive most of the time and they're dangerous enough in the attack to grab a result enough of the time to be scary for most any team. Their talent level isn't high enough to compete over the course of a season, but they're a very well coached, well disciplined team and in any given game they're a massive threat.
That, combined with the fact that Villa's biggest weaknesses play directly to Wolves strengths, gives this one the feeling of a classic 'trap' sort of game; I think most people expect Villa to win and I'd imagine that would probably extend to the players themselves. And by all rights, they should. Fabian Delph at left back is somewhat nerve wracking, but to be fair to the youngster he's looked quite good in his appearances there. Richard Dunne and James Collins are both out, but I don't think I'm alone in having more faith in Carlos Cuellar than either of those two. Nathan Baker is a very good young prospect, not quite at Ciaran Clark's level but not someone that I'm uncomfortable to see on the pitch. Kyle Walker has had his struggles defensively this season, but he's looked far better the past few games. If the defense plays as well as we know they are capable of playing, this game shouldn't really present much of an obstacle. Villa clearly have the edge in attacking talent and I don't have much concern that there will be any lasting trouble with Darrent Bent and Ashley Young's finishing.
Wolves tend to play a 4-2-3-1, with the two defensive mids sitting very deep. It's a formation very much employed with the counter-attack in mind, and against teams that like to push their full backs forward those counters usually come down the touch line. Matt Jarvis against Kyle Walker is, in my mind, the key match up in this game from Villa's standpoint. Walker loves to push forward and he's quite good at doing it, but he doesn't always know when to get back on defense and if Jarvis can exploit that there could be trouble. I don't think that Walker should be held back; he's a complete handful when full backs are forced to choose between the crashing full back and Downing, Albrighton or whomever happens to be on the wing at the time, and I think there's something to be said for coming out with serious attacking intent. Walker just needs to be aware of when his runs are creating major vulnerabilities at the back; he's been better at that over the past few games and if the trend continues, a lot of my concern goes out the window.
Aston Villa are a far more talented team than Wolves. I think that they've shown, over the past few weeks, that the attacking phase of their play can be incredibly dangerous. Four goals against Blackburn and what probably should have been four or five against Bolton is worth taking notice of. The transition from Martin O'Neill's grinding, bunker-and-counter style to a more open, possession driven style was never going to be simple but it looks like the team is getting closer to meshing going forward. The crucial thing will be getting to the same point with the defense before it's too late. I don't think this particular unit is going to be the one that finally stops the looking however, so I'm fully prepared for a bumpy ride come kickoff.