This season has been and will likely continue to be a struggle, but games like this one certainly help give one confidence that this club is headed in the right direction. No, Sunderland isn't great right now, but lo look impressive in a win away from home is a major boost for Villa, especially considering the nightmare fixtures ahead.
Brad Guzan: To say that Guzan didn't have much to do would be an overstatement; he had just one save to make (and was kicked quite squarely in the hand by Steven Fletcher for his trouble immediately afterward.) But a keeper can only do what he's given to do, and in that sense the Brad formerly know as "Little" was perfect. His command of the box is as good as you'll see and his instincts are tremendous, and there were a few times yesterday that Sunderland created some situations that may well have been dangerous had Guzan not been so proactive. I am increasingly happy that Paul Lambert made re-signing Guzan one of his first orders of business, because he's been one of the season's few consistent bright spots.
Matthew Lowton: Another solid day at the office for Aston Villa's most consistently performing youngster. Adam Johnson didn't cause many problems, and Lowton was once again Villa's most consistent source of dangerous balls into the box from wide areas (which doesn't say great things about this team's wingers, but credit where it's due.) It was the right back's perfectly placed cross to Christian Benteke that set up the game's only goal.
Ron Vlaar: I think everyone is quickly running out of new and insightful things to say about Ron Vlaar, because every game is almost exactly the same. But for a central defender, that's pretty far from a bad thing. Sunderland are generally beyond horrible at creating chances or scoring goals so Vlaar's job was made that much easier, but it was clear from very early on that they weren't going to be benefiting much if at all from any lapses at the back by Villa. Vlaar's quality and consistency was a huge part of that.
Ciaran Clark: As was Ciaran Clark's. It's almost as if those two were made to play together, and it's a huge relief having Clark back and healthy. This is a huge season for Clark, as he's been around long enough now that age and inexperience isn't as compelling and excuse any longer. He's definitely made the most of his chance, and his performance against Sunderland might be the best game I have ever seen him play.
Joe Bennett: Tough break for Bennett, being forced to leave the game after just ten minutes thanks to the nasty gash on his knee being opened up. Pretty frustrating stuff from the youngster, and also horrible because we had to look at that gross wound again. Thanks, TV cameramen.
Andreas Weimann: Technically Weimann was listed as starting at right midfield, but I don't care what the teamsheet says, that sure did look like a 4-3-3 and Weimann sure did look like a wide striker. Whatever we're calling it I'm not sure that it's Andi's best position, but he does bring some very compelling things to the table and I'm happy with most any attempt to get him a full shift. You'd like to see him do better with the few chances he had (especially the one set up by Stephen Ireland late on that would have sealed the win) but a solid effort nonetheless. Worked his socks off, and it showed late in the game after back-to-back sprinting runs that pretty much moved the tank to empty. I was at one point slightly concerned that he was going to die on the pitch, but thankfully that turned out not to be the case.
Stephen Ireland: This was an incredibly odd game for everyone's favorite enigma. The first half was one of the worst performances I have ever seen by Ireland (which is saying something.) None of his passes were connecting, he was getting caught on the ball almost constantly, and I was begging Lambert to take him off at the break. And then, almost as if a switch had been flipped he was absolute magic in the second half. If Ireland could play that well consistently he would be Villa's best player and there would likely be far fewer calls for a creative midfielder to be brought in come January. He was simply masterful, and the fact that he's now oscillating between horrendous and incredible not only from game-to-game but half-to-half is both fascinating and baffling.
Ashley Westwood: Westwood hadn't made much of an impression in his very limited time in a Villa shirt, but with Karim El Ahmadi missing out due to yellow card accumulation and Fabian Delph being left out by virtue of being Fabian Delph, Westwood was handed a chance. And oh my goodness did he ever take it. Westwood didn't put a foot (or any other appendage so far as I am aware) wrong all day, bossing the midfield and giving Barry Bannan and Stephen Ireland all kinds of room to get forward and create havoc in the attack. I'll be honest and say that, to this point, I was prone to forgetting that Westwood even existed, but that's not going to be the case any longer. This was a coming out party, and it's pretty exciting.
Barry Bannan: Speaking of pretty exciting, where on earth did this come from? I'm a Bannan fan, but he's had his struggle this season; against Sunderland, he was tremendous. Baz was arguably the best player on the pitch, not only doing the things we already knew he was capable of but also putting in a tremendous shift in the defensive phase and showing no evidence of the shortcomings that can at times make him such a frustrating player. His delivery was as good as it's ever been (especially from corners; I know Christian Benteke is a big target, but he basically brought him the ball on a platter every single time) and the few passes he made didn't find their targets were the kind of low-percentage/low-risk/high reward balls that make sense to try. Bannan's development has been frustratingly slow at times, but it's easy to forget that he's just 22 years old; if he can continue to minimize his mistakes and put together the odd performance of this caliber, this could be a big season for him.
Gabriel Agbonlahor: Only Gabby could injure himself in the process of scoring a goal, but given the amount of time that's passed since he last scored in the league I'm sure he'd consider the imprint of Carlos Cuellar's studs on his knee to be a small price to pay. Great positioning on he goal, but perhaps most encouraging was the fact that Agbonlahor seemed to remember what makes him a dangerous player for the first time in a while. Gabby is at his best when he's using his speed to get past his man down the flank and using the space he's created to bring the ball back into a central position. Too often in recent years we've seen him stay in wide areas, typically ending in a poor cross or a giveaway when he runs out of space. When you've got the speed and dribbling ability that Gabby does, you're going to be much more dangerous if you keep moving; cutting back inside allows him to do that, and his seeming lack of interest in doing so when playing out wide is his seeming lack of interest in doing so. Hopefully this can become a trend.
Christian Benteke: No goals, but that doesn't stop this from being the best performance Benteke has had as an Aston Villa player. His movement, positioning, link-up play and use of his physical presence were all nearly perfect. I was excited about the Benteke signing, but I was not expecting much from him this season, which I think was an entirely reasonable approach given the evidence. But he's been tremendous, and he keeps getting better with every game. If his finishing improves (and there's every reason to think that it will) then he is going to be a very, very special player.
Eric Lichaj: This was another somewhat frustrating league appearance for Lichaj. He wasn't bad by any means, but whereas last season he could play at left back without anyone ever noticing that he's out of position, that hasn't been the case this year. He was turned inside out pretty badly on a few occasions, and though he was typically able to recover he also makes himself a bit of a liability with some pretty desperate tackles when he's beaten. He's very handy to have around as he can play passably well on the left in an emergency, but clearly more comfortable on the right. Presumably withdrawn due to injury as he looked to be limping a bit when he came off and wasn't nearly bad enough to justify using a second substitution at left back, but so far as I know there's been no word about the nature or severity of the ailment.
Enda Stevens: Enda Stevens is really tiny, and about ten seconds after coming on he collided with Brad Guzan in the box. That was never going to turn out well. Didn't do anything to make me notice him over the course of a pretty nervy final 20 minutes, which is almost certainly a good thing.
Brett Holman: Brought on to spare Andi Weimann from the cold embrace of death, Holman did exactly what you'd want from him over the final ten minutes; run right at a tiring Sunderland defense, not turn the ball over, and help out on defense by behaving much like a particularly large and aggressive mosquito. I'm less convinced by Holman than others, but as a change-of-pace energy sub he's just about perfect.