Aston Villa ran their unbeaten streak to four games and Darren Bent made his return to the team in a 0-0 draw that was quite a bit more entertaining than the scoreline would lead one to believe. Villa had the better of the play and managed 13 shots to Stoke's 2, but the Potters defense put in a tremendous performance and left Asmir Begovic with very little to do. The Villa defense was put under significantly less strain than that of the visitors, but they performed exceptionally well and snuffed out Stoke's rare chances.
With continued injury struggles causing problems along the back line, Paul Lambert opted to line his side up in a very fluid 3-5-2 shape, with Eric Lichaj and Matthew Lowton filling the wing back roles and Chris Herd moving into central defense alongside Natha Baker and Ciaran Clark. With all three central defenders having experience in midfield, Villa were able to consistently push one of the three into attack, adding another dimension to the midfield and consistently giving the Potters different looks. Stoke's very good and exceptionally well-disciplined defense were able to cope with things quite well, but against other sides it's easy to see it being much more effective. It's at the very least an interesting experiment, and one that I wouldn't mind to see continue even after Ron Vlaar, Joe Bennett and Enda Stevens are back to full fitness.
Defying expectations to some extent, the first hour of this game was quite a bit of fun.Aston Villa were on the front foot and forcing Stoke's defense to shut them down. They did, and though the Potters' didn't get forward a whole lot their counters were fast and direct, and though Villa's defense were quite good at snuffing them out the sheer speed with which things went from back to front kept things from getting too comfortable. Things were physical all afternoon, but as the clock ticked towards half time it got downright chippy. That's to be expected when Stoke is involved; they live right on the line, and against a young Aston Villa side it's clear they were looking to shift that line just a bit further. The goal is of course to either bully the opposition out of the game or force them to step over the line in retaliation, and that was by far my biggest concern coming into this game.
But the kids kept their heads about them, and dealt with Stoke's physical play in the best possible way. Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood were never going to win the physical battle with Steven N'Zonzi, Dean Whitehead and Glenn Whelan, so they didn't even try. They got rid of the ball as quickly as possible and didn't allow their disadvantage in terms of size to become a factor thanks to their advantage in terms of skill. And when Stoke turned up the physical pressure a notch, the Villa players capable of going toe-to-toe in that aspect of the game responded in kind, but only in kind, always offering a reminder that they can play that game too, but never going too far. The body check Eric Lichaj put on Ryan Shotton early in the first half was a perfect example of that, as was Brad Guzan getting right up into the face of Kenwyne Jones after being taken out violently while claiming an aerial ball. I don't necessarily want my team to engage in that kind of thing on a regular basis, but in certain cases it's a necessity. Villa's ability to keep themselves from playing into Stoke's hand on that front without allowing themselves to be bullied shows both maturity and toughness, and that's something incredibly encouraging to take away from this game.
Villa continued to press and give Stoke trouble after the break, but the game changed quite a bit in the 66th minute when Gabby Agbonlahor and Brett Holman were withdrawn for Darren Bent and Stephen Ireland. Bent's name was met with pretty rousing cheers from the Villa Park crowd, and at the time I thought it was the right decision; Benteke put in another tremendous shift today and he was giving Stoke all kinds of problems until it came time to finish. With Bent's poaching ability, it was easy to see what Lambert was thinking. But it pretty quickly became clear that Agbonlahor and Holman were a big part of Villa's ability to stretch the Stoke back line to that point, and neither Bent nor Ireland had any success along those lines. Additionally, Ireland just didn't have it today, and though it made sense to sacrifice one creative player at the expense of Bent's positional awareness and finishing ability, without anyone to really connect things in the final third a lot of the sting was taken out of Villa's attack.
Villa had a few opportunities late on, but nothing much came of them and their last real chance was ended by Lichaj's slightly over-exuberant cross/shot/something that ended up about 30 rows deep on the opposite side of the field. A win would have been a very lovely thing with Liverpool and Chelsea just around the corner, but it's easy to forget that Stoke is actually a pretty decent side that is all but impossible to break down. In a big-picture sense, the positive takeaways outweigh the frustration of taking only a point. Benteke was excellent again, Lowton and Westwood continue to look like the bargain signings of the century, and not a single Villa player had anything less than an above-average game. The continuing signs of cohesiveness and maturity are most welcome, and though Villa moved down a spot in the table and are just two points above the bottom three, I just have a really hard time seeing them being involved in a relegation battle come the end of the season. These kids continue to show me something new every week, and I remain optimistic that they're going to keep getting better and that this core of players could end up turning into something really special.