Thanks to Injuries to regular starters Gabby Agbonlahor, Ashley Westwood and Christian Benteke, options were quite limited for Paul Lambert against Manchester City. Villa set up in a 3-5-2 formation (5-3-2 defensively) with Yacouba Sylla making his first league start in place of Westwood, Libor Kozak taking over for Benteke, and Gabby's absence leading to the inclusion of Nathan Baker at CB thanks to the shift in formation, while Leandron Bacuna kept Matt Lowton out of the right-(wing)-back spot. With Aguero injured (or rested ahead of City's clash with Bayern Munich on Tuesday) Pellegrini fielded Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo in an orthodox 4-4-2, with only Samir Nasri on the left wing having a lot of freedom.
Lambert's formation caused some consternation given the poor results Villa had while using the same shape last year, but it was understandable with the injuries we have and the opposition we faced. City's two traditional strikers would be marshalled by Villa's back three, meaning we had a man spare to either cover or to step out and attempt to win the ball, while the three in central midfield were there to combat the pair of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho who had thoroughly over-powered title rivals United a week ago. When Lambert spoke after the game he made it clear that he did not want to surrender the midfield to Citys' powerful duo.
Ever positive, Lambert said post-game that Villa gained a foothold in the game due to the numbers we had in the centre of the pitch. We did start well, recycling the ball and keeping possession for about two minutes (it doesn't sound very long... it is) but as soon as City won the ball back after a speculative pass from Sylla, they seized control of the first half. That being said, Yaya and Fernandinho were certainly not as effective as they can be, this largely down to the positioning and defensive effort of our three centre midfielders (Sylla, Karim El Ahmadi, and Fabian Delph.)
With the centre of the pitch packed, the theme of the first half involved City moving the ball wide, looking to exploit the space and create chances from there. Indeed the first thing City did once winning the ball after ~two minutes was to send the ball wide left (Bacuna had been drawn inside) for Kolarov to run onto and deliver a low cross that saw Milner flash a left footed shot wide.
Nasri and Kolarov had untold joy against an often isolated Bacuna, who endured a very tough opening 45, both on the ball and off it. The City pair's influence can be seen in the amount of touches they had, Kolarov with the most in the match with 105, while Nasri was 4th with 80 despite leaving the pitch after 67 minutes. The first dashboard below shows City's passing in the attacking third, and the second shows Nasri's contribution in the attacking third. The focus of their passing came down their left flank, with Nasri responsible for >25% of passes in the attacking third.
Nasri was keen to come inside onto his stronger foot and when Kolarov offered the overlap it created regular opportunities to either shoot, or to try pick out Negredo or Dzeko in the centre; Nasri attempted a few clipped balls into the box from deeper positions, while Kolarov fired balls across the danger area. Citys' focus on width saw them attempt 19 crosses in the first half, but with our numerical advantage in the area (3CBs vs 2CFs) it meant that any cross had to be pinpoint accurate. Below are two dashboards, the first showing Citys' first half crosses, the second Villla's defensive clearances.
Despite City's dominance peppering our box with crosses, our defensive organisation in open play was pretty solid, only allowing half chances, or shots from distance. The pressure City applied out wide also lead to a number of corners however, and the pressure finally told late in the first half from one such corner leading to a deflected Toure shot that gave City their opener. There was some questionable defending at the set-piece - a frustrating issue continued from last season, and the season before that, and before that - with the whole defence moving back in a line and leaving Toure in six yards of space around the penalty spot to tap the ball home.
Given the quality of opponent Villa didn't see much of the ball all game and when we did gain possession we often surrendered it cheaply (especially in the first half) which made it easier for City to stay on the front foot. One of the main culprits of wasting possession in the first half was Sylla; completing just 61% of his 21 passes - some very ambitious, while the weight of others put teammates in trouble, perhaps due to a little bit of rustiness. The other culprit was Bacuna who completed 41% of his 17 passes. As mentioned, Bacuna was often isolated but even so, 41% is dismal. The fact that Sylla and Bacuna saw more of the ball than the majority of their teammates made their wastefulness more expensive. Only Delph saw the ball a similar amount, efficiently completing 90% of his 21 passes.
So we'd weathered a storm, and perhaps rode our luck; a clearance off the line, a deflected Yaya shot going narrowly wide prior to the corner City scored from, but we had defended with good organisation, especially in areas where Lambert wanted us to be solid. We had rarely threatened Joe Harts' goal and failed to attack effectively, but we went into half-time just 1-0 down, still in the game.
The difference after the break was startling. Villa still didn't see much of the ball, but with the game still there to be won players approached the second half with more energy and endeavour, taking a few more risks. It wasn't the best football we've played under Lambert, lacking key players (Gabby, Westwood and Benteke) and still integrating new players (Bacuna, Kozak, Luna) so it should be no surprise that we lacked a bit of cohesion offensively, but the attitude of the players was superb and it lifted the crowd.
Perhaps no-one typified the change more than Bacuna. After being targeted with cruel regularity by City in the first half, his head didn't drop and he contributed as much as anyone to the win. He looked to get forward in support of attacks, and played a delicious through ball for El Ahmadi to slot past Joe Hart (a little fortunate El Ahmadi wasn't called offside, but maybe we were due a decision going our way.)
The second half also saw Villa manage to get more men forward through better use of the ball, with Delph being key. He regularly made himself available to the centre-backs despite being under pressure, showing close control to make a yard of space and finding a forward pass that often by-passed City's midfield and set us on the front foot. It was one such moment that lead to our first goal; taking the ball off Clark with three City players closing in, he skipped clear and calmly found Weimann who laid it off to El Ahmadi with Luna eventually winning a throw in. The territory gained saw us able to move forward as a unit and from the throw in Delph got on the ball again finding Bacuna who set up El Ahmadi. El Ahmadi made some good runs behind City's midfield and was picked out by Delph on a number of occasions, helping us turn City's midfield. The dashboard below shows the passes Delph received; a few from Guzan, but the majority were short passes as he looked to take responsibility and drive us forward.
It wasn't the type of performance that has seen Delph earn plaudits since the turn of the year, performances that have usually been filled with energy, tackling (the occasional foul), interceptions, and a few driving runs. Instead it was a very disciplined and mature performance. He still played with great energy but sat in front of the three centre backs, shuffling from side to side to face the attack. He chose wisely when to step forward and press City's midfield, while also filling in when a centre back was out of position. The defensive discipline saw him make only one tackle and zero interceptions, but his positioning and covering were excellent.
The dashboard below shows our defensive actions; the absence of tackles and interceptions in the centre of the pitch in front of our box perhaps highlights the discipline we showed centrally. We opted to stay in position rather than commit to challenges, which could have opened space for Yaya and Fernandinho to drive into and at the heart of the defence. Sylla and El Ahmadi got through a lot of yards, tucking in before having to sprint out to assist Luna and Bacuna as City moved the ball wide. Villa's three centre backs made just two tackles between them, while making five interceptions. If one CB stepped out of defence - which happened quite regularly to help apply pressure - there were still two CBs (and often Delph) in reserve.
City played with great width throughout and Kolarov over-lapping on the left lead to City winning their tenth corner of the game, from which they scored (more frustration). Soon after going 2-1 up Pellegrini withdrew Nasri - who had become petulant and frustrated - and introduced Navas who played on the right with Zabaleta with Milner moving to the left. Navas' first involvement saw him picking the ball up on the touchline, sprinting to the by-line and whipping in a very dangerous cross. Bacuna had been targeted in the first 67 minutes and now Luna would be targeted, however we continued to deal well with balls into the box from open play. There were a few dangerous moments with Zabaleta and Navas linking up well causing Sylla some problems in particular, and as he tired towards the end of the game he was unable to track Zabaleta.
A mad two minutes came soon after the Navas change, first with Bacuna capping off his very good second half with a wondrous free-kick in front of a rapturous Holte End. This was soon followed by Guzan saving a shot from Kolarov, looking up field to see us two-vs-2, and hitting a long punt which sliced City's defence in two as well as any Ozil pass-from 70 yards, no less. Weimann slotted past the on-rushing Joe Hart, and it was great to see his industry rewarded. Weimann struggled for form over the first 6 games missing a few great chances in a couple of our losses, but his willingness to work never falters; it was his bustling run having picked it up on the half-way line that earned the free-kick for Bacuna, and he was alive to the potential for the winning goal.
With just shy of 20 minutes remaining, City huffed and puffed and threw men forward, creating a few dangerous situations out wide; however, Yaya dancing into the box to set up Stevan Jovetic was the only time they tested Guzan. Villa saw the game out well; last season we dropped 28 points from winning positions. this season, while it's still early, we've taken the lead in 3 games (vs Arsenal, Norwich and Man City) and dropped zero points. The defence still has its moments of worry, but the defensive concentration we've seen in closing out games is certainly an improvement on last year, and this despite Lambert having to make regular changes to the back line due to injuries.
I want to briefly talk about Guzan's' distribution. Against City it was not great, with a number of his goal kicks going straight out of play, and it is certainly an area that he can improve upon. Although having played some very tough opponents in our opening six fixtures, we perhaps have not had the luxury to work the ball out of defence; we were able to do it against Liverpool as they sat back, and we did it against Newcastle (until Kozak came on) although pass accuracy vs the Magpies hindered progress. Against lesser opponents I hope we will see more patient build up from the back, taking more control of games (remembering that we're still missing a few key players that may limit our potential to do it all the time.)
Nine pts from our opening six games, when taking into account opposition, injuries, and some important players lacking a bit of form, is an excellent return. Collectively we've yet to hit the form we saw towards the end of last year, yet we've seen a couple of big results. It has been the energy, determination, resilience and spirit we've shown that has seen us compete against our richly assembled opponents thus far, the team spirit especially on show as El Ahmadi and Bacuna rushed the bench and Lambert to celebrate their goals. There is certainly more to come from this team, a fitter squad will help competition, and an "easier" run of fixtures will hopefully see some improvements in creativity in attacking areas. We can look forward to those improvements, and we can look back at what has been an encouraging start.