Aston Villa's identity becomes clearer despite 2-1 loss to Chelsea

Michael Steele

Aston Villa may have come away with nothing tangible to show for their effort at Stamford Bridge, but the signs that this is a club in the ascendancy are plain for all to see.

Fresh off a stunning opening-day win over Arsenal at the Emirates, Aston Villa headed to Stamford Bridge with an eye towards both making a serious statement of intent very early on in the Premier League season and earning at least some measure of revenge for the humiliating 8-0 defeat they suffered in the same venue just nine months ago. They fell short of course, but the manner in which they did so was in the moment pure agony; a decent showing in a 2-0 loss to the home side would have done little to shake the positive feeling that permeates in the wake of a strong finish to last season, a solid summer transfer window and Saturday's result, but Villa did one better. They actually managed to come pretty close to winning the damned thing.

Obviously, that's a more positive outcome than a respectable defeat in which they didn't really threaten. But to come so close and to play so well-arguably better than they did against Arsenal-with nothing to show for it is certainly a bitter pill to swallow. Chelsea are, in the mind of more than a few very reasonable individuals, the front-runner for this season's Premier League title. They're absolutely stacked with talent, and there's no denying that they're in far better hands under Jose Mourinho than they were with Rafa Benitez pulling the strings. And if not for some other-worldly saves by Petr Cech, a few inches here or there on shots by Andi Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, and quite possibly a few different calls from the referee, we could be talking about Mourinho's first-ever home loss in the Premier League.

We're not, though, which is a bummer. Instead, Chelsea's superior talent edged it in the end, specifically a vintage Frank Lampard set piece that found the head of Branislov Ivanovic-who, to be absolutely 100% clear, had no business being on the pitch after a clearly dangerous and likely intentional elbow to the throat of Christian Benteke-and though Villa would continue to threaten for an equalizer it just wasn't to be. It wasn't the sharpest performance the Blues have ever put together but, but it also isn't as though they spent the entirety of the game making uncharacteristic errors. Villa made it very difficult for them to play the game the way they likely hoped to thanks to their pressing game, and though the visitors looked largely toothless in the attack for the first 45 minutes Chelsea was unable to build on their early lead thanks to yet another strong defensive effort from the Villa back line.

But despite their incompetence going forward for almost the entirety of the first half, it took only one quick sequence just before the whistle to remind everyone how quickly they can punish their opposition. What looked to be one final long punt from Brad Guzan before half time eventually ended up in the possession of Ashley Westwood, who found Gabby Agbonlahor in a pocket of space on the wing. Agbonlahor's first touch was a thing of beauty, giving him the half-step advantage needed to blow past Ivanovic and into space down the touchline. When Benteke snuck into the box unmarked, Agbonlahor slid an inch-perfect ball into his path that the big Belgian put away with ease. As Graham MacAree over at We Ain't Got No History points out, when the Benteke-Agbonlahor connection is clicking it's a very difficult thing to handle.

This combination of high-pressure defense and lightning-fast direct play in the attack has been a theme for Villa since beginning their turnaround towards the end of last winter. It's increasingly becoming this team's identity, and it's easy to understand why; the speed and general athleticism of the front three is incredibly difficult for any team to handle, while Fabian Delph's bulldog mentality in the middle is nicely complimented by the composure of Ashley Westwood. Against teams like Arsenal and Chelsea Karim El Ahmadi helps to give the center of the pitch a bit more bite, and if a more attacking look is desired there are multiple options available to move into the third midfield slot. But ultimately, it's looking increasingly likely that Aston Villa is going to take roughly the very same approach to every game, and if early returns are any indication they could have some measure of success in doing so.

For the first time since Martin O'Neill threw his little pity party, Aston Villa has an identity all its own. And quite frankly, it's a hell of a lot more enjoyable to watch than any of the MON teams. They're not quite to that level just yet in terms of talent or in terms of effectiveness, but they're a hell of a lot more fun to watch. Whether or not Villa will be able to maintain performances of this quality against A) teams that expect to beat them and look to push forward with aplomb or B) teams that have scouted them thoroughly, remains to be seen. The Premier League season is largely a contest of punches and counterpunches, and though there's every reason to feel confident in Paul Lambert at the moment, the true measure will come once teams begin making alterations in effort to deal with Villa's approach.

But still, it's been an encouraging week thus far. Aston Villa has played its game against both Arsenal and Chelsea away, and they've emerged with three points and a positive goal difference. That's a solid record, and it's also worth noting that those are two fixtures that most likely would have been notched as a loss in mid-season that are already off the table. I'll say it again; these kids can play, and this is a legitimately decent team. We could be in for a fun season.

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