Not an especially interesting game from any sort of tactical standpoint, but an entertaining and well deserved win by the home side should give Aston Villa supporters a lot of reason to feel positive going into a tricky run of games. Gabriel Agbonlahor turned in another magnificent performance, scoring the first goal, setting up the second and in general making life for Wigan Athletic's back line completely miserable. Fabian Delph put in his best performance of the season; Alan Hutton was less of a disaster than normal; Stephen Ireland looked competent; and Barry Bannan continued to show he's one of Villa's best players, making it difficult for Alex McLeish to keep him out of the first eleven with any regularity. This wasn't a great or even good Wigan team Villa beat today but they looked convincing in the attack (and if not for some fantastic saves from Ali Al-Habsi this could have been a far more one-sided scoreline) and prevented Wigan from creating anything approaching a real chance at goal until deep in the game.
The first twenty minutes or so were little to write home about, the two sides feeling each other out and trading a lot of speculative balls without making many inroads. But as the half progressed Villa started to put a bit more pressure on the Latics with Agbonlahor's 36th minute goal the culmination. And my goodness, it was a beauty. Stephen Warnock (who looks very much like his old self this season, it must be said) did very well to wrest control of the ball from a Wigan attacker before sliding the ball to Barry Bannan in space. Bannan played a gorgeous lofted through ball for Agbonlahor who weaved his way through seemingly the entire Wigan back line before curling a ball past Al-Habsi to put Villa on top. The Agbonlahor show picked up again just 30 seconds into the second half, with Gabby taking a ball between the touchline and center circle and dancing through both the midfield and defense this time before sending in a low, driven shot that went a hair wide of the post.
From there on out Wigan would have some chances, but Shay Given had very little to do all afternoon. At the other end Al-Habsi continued to frustrate Villa, and without his heroics Villa could have had at least three additional goals. As it stood they'd get just the one more, but it was another beauty; Agbonlahor took a bit too heavy of a touch in pushing the ball into space in his own half but used his strength to win it back, went on a scorching 50-yard run down the touchline and sent an evil little cross to the waiting right foot of Darren Bent who gave Al-Habsi little chance to keep the ball out. From there Villa were content to soak up the pressure and ride out the win and though Wigan enjoyed a short little burst after Shaun Maloney was brought on they were still unable to do much to bother Given and after some adjustments from the home side Villa were able to regain control. Just a solid and workmanlike performance from Alex McLeish's men, easily their best of the season in all facets. With the three points Villa remain unbeaten in the Premier League and now find themselves in 6th place. What's more, only Newcastle United have allowed fewer goals (4) than Aston Villa (whose 5 allowed matches the number let in by Manchesters United and City.) There's still some sorting out of the attack to be done but there was definite improvement in that regard today. We all know this would be something of a transitional season, but so far it's difficult to be too upset with the standing of things. It gets much, much tougher next week with Villa's unbeaten status pretty seriously threatened by a visit to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City. This was a big result for Villa.
Some quick bullet points after the jump.
- After a spotty performance last week, Gabriel Agbonlahor was back on form again today. Both goals were largely of his creation and he's now notched four on the year. More than just the goals, Agbonlahor's presence at the top of the line has been a revelation. Darren Bent is on of the best pure scorers in the game, but that's really just about all he does. Agbonlahor is a more complete forward, and together they look a very dangerous striker pairing. Once Charles N'Zogbia gets into the rhythym, things could get interesting.
- Speaking of N'Zogbia, he didn't start. Apparently Alex McLeish didn't take too kindly to the winger's criticism of the way he's been used by the manager. Interestingly though, when N'Zogbia came into the game it was on the right. And though it's tough to make a real appraisal given than Villa had by that time pretty much set up shop, he looked pretty good. Which is nice, because Villa will be a much better team if he's doing something more than taking up space.
- Stephen Ireland started. He wasn't a disaster. At this point, that's a sign of encouragement.
- Alan Hutton probably had his best game as a Villa player; Victor Moses is a tough assignment for any outside back, and Hutton kept him quiet for the most part. He also did some decent work in the attack and did much better getting back in transition. With all that being said, I'd have rather brought in Patrick van Aanholt than Hutton on a permanent transfer.
- Having mentioned Hutton, this seems like an opportune time to bring up Wigan's penalty that wasn't, because to ignore it would be revisionist. Franco Di Santo did wonderfully to create a pocket of space in the box before Hutton made some pretty heavy contact in the box and the big Argentine striker went down. To be clear, Hutton made contact and none of it was the ball. Had the penalty been awarded, it would have been fair. But to play Devil's Advocate, Mark Clattenburg was letting a whole lot go on the day and Di Santo appeared to be looking for the contact. Calling it a penalty would have been completely justified, but I'm not sure it was as grave a miscarriage of justice as the announcer would have had us believe.
- On the one hand, I feel bad for Di Santo. He had a very good game, was getting beat up pretty consistently by Dunne and Collins without getting the calls and just didn't have the support from his teammates to break through the back line. It had to be a frustrating afternoon for him.
- On the other hand:
- Ali Al-Habsi has made some very questionable decision this season, and he's come under a fair bit of scrutiny for them. But man, he makes some just absolutely world class saves. He made three of them today, just highlight-reel stuff. Were he more polished, he'd probably be playing at a much bigger club than Wigan and he's certainly still young enough to get better. He's really going to prove to be a great signing for them in the long run.
- In the 25th minute, Villa almost got their goal of the season out of the way; Barry Bannan made that pass that he always makes and never ceases to be amazing, an impossibly curled cross into space that Bent chested down, sent into space with a neat little flick and volleyed in what looked like a sure goal. Al-Habsi made one of his highlight reel saves to keep it out, but it was still stunning to watch.
- Bannan almost got on the score sheet himself with a wicked curler towards the top corner that Al-Habsi dove to touch away. Bannan had a fantastic game all-round, bringing that spark of creativity from central areas Villa have so desperately been missing in recent years. Barry Bannan is neato.
- Stilyan Petrov took two of his patented long-range screamers today. The first one was about halfway to the center cirlce and ended up about 80 rows deep. The second one was from ever farther out. And the only thing that kept it out was Al-Habsi's third groan-inducing Superman effort of the afternoon. That shot from Petrov was struck violently, with about as much behind it as any shot on target you'll ever see, and it curved and dipped in a wicked fashion. Had that sucker gone in it would have been highlight reel material for years to come.
You should be feeling very good about this club right now. That was a good performance and fun to watch. More like that and we'll be just fine. But don't get too used to the positive vibes; Manchester City next weekend. Could be a scary one. But I'm a lot less worried about that game now than I was last night.