I'll get this out of the way at the outset; I'm thrilled that Aston Villa won. Winning away from home is an incredibly difficult thing to do in this league no matter the opposition, and it is foolish to be anything but satisfied when the outcome is in your favor. As soon as the final whistle blew I was on a high that carried me through the rest of the day, and thinking about Heskey's winner still has me excited nearly ten hours after watching it. Winning feels good, especially after the last two league contests.
So, with that out of the way, I'll say this; I have some fairly major concerns after this game. Villa did enough to win, certainly, but it didn't really feel like they deserved it. Both goals came against the run of play, and Wolves controlled both possession and the pace of the match for the majority of the day. Aside from a few moments of brilliance, they looked to be the better team and were it not for another tremendous performance from Brad Friedel the result could have very easily gone the other way. Wolves had 58% of the possession on the day, and a great deal of that came in the final third; this wasn't an instance of a team controlling the ball by playing keep-away. Villa were out-shot 16-10, although they were able to put eight of them on frame as opposed to Wolves' seven. In the end the defense did enough. But one can't help but think that had Villa been up against a side with more dangerous scoring threats that the outcome would not have been nearly as pleasant.
The central midfield was once again a problem. Nigel Reo-Coker made a few nice plays to disrupt the attack, but for the most part he was invisible. Reo-Coker is never going to be confused for a playmaker or a serious threat at goal, however, and he's not in the XI for that purpose. The far bigger issue, it must be said, is Stilyian Petrov. Villa's captain looks completely out of his element a great deal of the time; he's little help in defense, a complete non-factor going forward and his passing has been well below what should be expected from a player at his position. I'd prefer to see a formation with Reo-Coker playing as a pure defensive midfielder and Stephen Ireland in an attacking/playmaking role, but removing Petrov from the XI is a difficult decision and it isn't one that I expect Houllier to make. But some sort of adjustment needs to be made. Teams will adjust to Villa's attacks always coming down the flanks; Wolves did so today and after a sparkling start, Marc Albrighton was completely taken out of the game.
Things didn't improve much when Steve Sidwell was brought on for Petrov in the 86th minute, and Sidwell's challenge on Adlène Guedioura five minutes later was a nasty one that easily could have resulted in his being sent off. I've been fairly outspoken in my opinion of Sidwell, and the Wolves match gave a good example of why I feel the way I do. He brought nothing to the game but a reckless and quite frankly dirty challenge that may well have resulted in a serious injury to the young Algerian international (Update: it broke his leg) It was the kind of challenge that makes people dislike players and it's frankly an embarrassment to see someone in the claret and blue making such a tackle. Being poor is bad enough, Steve. No need to be both poor and dirty.
But enough doom and gloom. There were some bad things to take away from this game, but there were some good things as well and they weren't limited to the three points. The defense was mostly excellent, and while Wolves were able to manage 16 shots they were very seldom especially good shots. Against Stoke and Bolton there was a tendency towards dis-organization under pressure, and that far less the case today. The backline ate up the pressure and Carlos Cuellar in particular was excellent. Wolves goal was the result of a fantastic ball from Matthew Jarvis, and while Friedel most likely could have made a better play in the ball Jarvis deserves all the credit in the world for the effort. The defense looked once again like the unit that established themselves as one of the best in the Premier League last season, and they did so without Richard Dunne. It was an encouraging performance from an area of the club whose form had been to this point something of a concern.
Marc Albrighton disappeared after finding himself the target of greater attention, but early on he was brilliant. His cross to Downing that resulted in Villa's first goal was downright wicked and the youngster gave Wolves plenty to think about for the entire first half. Speaking of Downing, Stewart had himself another fantastic day and is currently Villa's leading goalscorer with his third on the season. Downing was more than a handful in the attack and made some excellent defensive plays as well, stopping counters before they began and generally making a nuisance of himself. Downing has taken his game to an entirely different level this year, and it's been needed. He's been a frustrating player in the past, but his form to this point has been a revelation.
And then, of course, there was Emile Heskey. I honestly don't know what to say other than to say that the big man was absolutely fantastic in every sense. When I first noticed Ashley Young playing in the more forward position with Heskey in the hole I was slightly annoyed, but the strategy worked; Young still had an opportunity to create when Villa had possession in Wolves end and on the counter Heskey was able to slow things down when the breakaway wasn't in the cards. Once Agbonlahor came on for Albrighton things got rather bizarre, with Young, Heskey and Gabby rotating between central positions and the wing. It didn't necessarily pay off today, but it's good to see Houllier willing to get creative tactically and try something different. Heskey's big moment came in the middle, and by his point I'm sure you've all seen it. Warnock's cross was a good one, but Emile's header was an absolute thing of beauty. I've never been happier to be that surprised. I didn't think he had it in him, but he did and bless him for it.
Emile Heskey is a polarizing player, but he's one I've long contended has value to give. It's entirely possible that his form so far this season may very well be an aberration. It's also possible that Gerard Houllier understands the value a player of Heskey's style can bring to the team and makes tactical adjustments to maximize his contributions. We'll see. But Emile Heskey won this game for Aston Villa, and he silenced his critics, even if it is only for one day. Villa came into the season facing some severe difficulties and in order to prevent themselves from regressing, they'll need unexpected performances every now and again.
At the end of it, Villa won. It wasn't the prettiest, most convincing win ever, but it was a win. Things haven't always gone smoothly this season, but they could be far worse. One only need to take a glance towards Merseyside for evidence of that. At the moment Villa sit in fifth place in the Premier League, ahead of Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Fulham and only a point behind Arsenal and Manchester City. If they'd displayed he same kind of resolve against Stoke and Bolton that was in evidence today, they could very well be top of the table. We're only six games in, and there's still the vast majority of the season to play, but given the way things felt after the losses to Newcastle and Rapid Vienna, it hasn't turned out too horribly. Things get significantly more challenging now, with Spurs and Chelsea on tap. Let's hope snatching the result today gives Villa some confidence going forward. This is where we figure out what we really have.