Well, that was certainly an instance of 22 men playing a game of professional football. Yesiree, it certainly was. In the end a 1-1 result is likely enough to guarantee Aston Villa safety; if Spurs manage to beat Blackpool at home then the last tiny shred of the relegation threat to Villa will be gone and we can fully turn our attention to getting the ship righted for next year. So, while three points might have been a bit of an ego boost the one should suffice and I guess that's good enough at this stage.
As for the game itself, the fairly entertaining first half gave way to a dreadfully boring second half, each team having a few opportunities but ultimately playing out the string. A lot of Villa fans have been harshly critical of the effort or, perhaps more accurately, the passion of the players, inferring that they don't care enough. I don't like attempting to understand the motivations of people I don't know, but I think it's likely they're just as sick of this season as all of us are and they're having trouble finding the motivation. It's a small point; they're paid to play the game and play it well and such lapses shouldn't be allowed, but I think it's an important thing to understand. There's no way you can convince me these players don't care; I just think they want it to be over.
Wigan got on the board first thanks to some comically bad defending from Aston Villa; Victor Moses made the entirety of the Villa defense look ridiculous in weaving in and out of tackles before sliding the ball to a completely unmarked Charles N'Zogbia who coolly slotted home past an understandably furious Brad Friedel. By the time N'Zogbia got the ball, Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker were the only Villa players anywhere in his neighborhood and both were desperately scrambling to get back into the play. It was Aston Villa's defensive struggles this season in a nutshell; Collins and Dunne both took themselves completely out of the equation with clumsy, hopeless tackles, Luke Young was faked out of his boots by Moses and Kyle Walker was simply not a factor at all. People still want to blame Gerard Houllier for somehow ruining the defense, but unless he hits them all in the head with a hammer after every training session I'm not sure how he's to blame.
Villa's goal came from an Ashley Young set piece, which surprises me just as much as it does you. It was a well-taken, driven low shot that Ali Al Habsi likely could have done better with, but credit where it's due. The more interesting bit came after the goal; according to Express and Star beat writer Timothy Abraham, Young told Stiliyan Petrov to, err, go do something rather unpleasant when the Villa captain came over to celebrate the goal, presumably due to Petrov's desire to take the free kick. Petrov then went to have some words with Gary McAllister and one might imagine they weren't especially pleasant. All class, that Ashley Young.
It's gotten to the point with Young that his personality is so completely vile that I can't look past it to his undeniable talent. In addition to telling his captain to "f*** off" he also dove shamefully in an attempt to draw a penalty, got in the referee's face when an out-of-bounds call (quite rightly) went against him and persisted in dancing on the ball in an attempt to do the spectacular rather than doing the correct thing and passing out of trouble. Ashley Young is a good player, but he's nowhere near as good as he thinks he is and manages to be shockingly unpleasant in his demeanor on a consistent basis. Were Villa hurting for quality wide attacking players I might be willing to overlook such things, but they're not. His value is at an all-time high and it seems unlikely that he wants to be here any more. Time for him to go, and to use the funds to shore up the back line.
Speaking of the back line, good heavens. I don't think Richard Dunne and James Collins are bad players necessarily, but they're not the players this team needs (as a paring at least) and some of the mental errors we've seen from them this season defy belief. After a decent spell of pressure Dunne sent in a back pass to Brad Friedel that was so heavy and off course that Wigan ended up with a corner. Had they managed to score it would have been one of the more egregious errors of the season, but since it ended up being nothing we're (thankfully) left only to look back on the incident with a quizzical raise of the eyebrows. Villa has ample talent up top and on the wings. There are the makings of a very solid midfield. But something has to be done about the defense. Whether it be a host of new signings or some manner of tactical adjustment, this can't continue if Villa wish to return to their recent prominence.
Emile Heskey had a very Emile Heskey first half, causing massive disruption in the box, holding up play well, supplying some clever balls to Darren Bent and missing an open net, but he had to be removed at the half after picking up a yellow for making contact with referee Mike Jones. Heskey had every right to be upset about a foul not being given after he was banged into from behind by a Wigan defender and Jones was letting a great deal of very physical play against Big Emile go unpunished, but a veteran player like Heskey has to be smarter than that. Villa are extremely lucky that Heskey wasn't sent off and it would not surprise me in the least to see him pick up a suspension. And as much as I like Emile that might not be the worst thing in the world, as Nathan Delfouneso is back with Villa and it would be wonderful to see him get a run out.
Not that he will, Heskey or no. Marc Albrighton being brought on at the half for Heskey was the only substitution used by Gary McAllister over the course of the entire game, despite the stagnation of the match crying out for a change. The game was there for the taking, Villa creating some major pressure on Wigan's defense, but McAllister stuck with two holding midfielders throughout. Gary McAllister is every bit as bad an in-game manager as people seem to think Gerard Houllier is, and if Villa end up with a new manager next season then I will rejoice in never having to see Gary McAllister's team selection (or face) again. It's to the point where it's at all difficult to be excited for these games, because it's all so boring. It's the same negative flat 4-4-2 blandness we saw under Martin O'Neill but at a much lower level of execution. Can you imagine how horrid that will look against Arsenal? Villa are going to get carved to pieces, and they'll deserve it because the style just doesn't work against a team of their talent and tactical approach. Route One, 4-4-2 Englishness has its place, but its place is not with these players against elite teams playing a more refined style. If Wigan can take Aston Villa's midfield out of the equation, Arsenal will slaughter them.
But it doesn't really matter all that much what happens, I suppose. Villa are likely safe beyond doubt, and this season will be over in a few weeks time. Thank goodness for small favors.