It's not the result anyone would have really been hoping for, but there was a lot to like about Aston Villa's performance today against a difficult to break down Swansea City side. There was a lot not to like as well, but in terms of the things I was most concerned about Villa actually performed far better than I expected so I'm less frustrated than I think I otherwise would be. Aside from the obvious (Heskey starting, Delph starting, Bannan not starting) I didn't have much problem with Alex McLeish's tactical plan today; it's certainly not my preference of styles, but it was a defensible approach and Villa really did boss the second half pretty convincingly, the hosts clearly frustrated by the pressure being applied by the visitors and beginning to make increasingly frequent mistakes in possession. For a long stretch near the hour mark it really felt as though a goal was coming for Villa, but they were unable to convert and after standing firm against a last-minute surge from Swansea everyone left with a point, likely the fairest result.
I've been sick for a few days now and hoped that sleeping in might help kill whatever vile little bug I picked up over the holiday weekend (it didn't) so, having been on media blackout before watching the replay I hadn't heard about Gary Speed until I settled in to watch the game. What was supposed to be a minute of silence didn't turn out that way, but I think we can all agree that for whatever reason the sustained applause was a more moving and fitting tribute. Tragic deaths such as this (and pedants be damned, this is in every sense a tragic death) are always upsetting, and I was already in a pretty down state of mind waiting for the game to begin. But seeing Shay Given run over to the trainer and ask for assistance with his contact lenses because he'd been crying was one of those seemingly minor occurrences (in comparison to the actual facts and circumstances surrounding Speed's untimely death) that, in my mind at least, end up truly hammering home the enormity of the loss. I can't explain it, and I know it doesn't make sense. But when I think about Gary Speed five years from now, that's going to be the image that comes to mind. A big brick house of a man, 35-year-old professional footballer Shay Given getting his eyes flushed out before going and playing a game just hours after learning about the death of a close friend.
This is the point at which I'm tempted to say that I've been affected on a very personal level by the destructive effects of depression, but it's the kind of thing that really ought to go without saying. Every single person reading this right now is close to someone who has battled depression at some point in their lives, whether they know it or not. It's an awful disease; anything that could drive a man like Gary Speed to take his own life would have to be. The man was one of the legends of the Premier League era, an almost universally beloved former captain of his national team. In his time as manager of the Wales national team, he'd given long-suffering fans reason for hope, bringing them back from the margins of international footballing irrelevance to respectability in a staggeringly short period of time. He looked to be a star on the rise, for the second time in his life. He had a wife and two young children. His life, from the outside, seemed to be a dream. And now he's gone, yet another victim of a disease that so cruelly robs people of their ability to feel happiness and peace, one of the only non-communicable diseases known to man that causes its sufferers to feel shame and have a stigma placed upon them by so many segments of society.
Suicide is clearly a selfish and wrong-headed thing to do, and now a wife is without her husband and two children are without a father. But any disease that can make death seem preferable to what seemed to be such a rich and rewarding life is outside of the scope of understanding of those that have never suffered from it. Rest in peace, Gary Speed. I'm not a believer in the afterlife, and that's not something that lends me a great deal of comfort. But it's for people like you that I hope I'm wrong. Because if I am, there's a chance you might find the peace and happiness that you were so cruelly denied by simple genetic misfortune.
Now, onto the game. There wasn't a whole lot of note to take from it; the first half seemed as though it was going to be ugly with Swansea dominating possession to an almost comical degree, but there was absolutely no way through for the home side. Villa didn't do much (if any) attacking in the first half, and before you knew it the whistle was blown and the teams headed into the locker rooms for the break. The numbers were amusing; Swansea had nearly 70% of the ball and did absolutely nothing with it, managing just three shots (and none on goal.) These are the kinds of things I think it's important to give Alex McLeish credit for; there's no way Villa was going to come anywhere close to Swansea in terms of stringing together passes and holding onto the ball, and he knew it. So the primary aim was keeping them contained, and Villa did just that. Collins and Dunne were as good as they've been all season, Herd continued to be a destructive force in midfield and Charles N'Zogbia put in a shift defensively in the first half, continuing to highlight what's an underrated part of his game.
With the second half came a noticeable change in the approach of Villa; the back line moved higher and the pressure in the midfield was kicked up a notch, predictably leading to Swansea losing their heads a bit and moving away from what they do best. Villa actually out-possessed the hosts in the second half and put on a fairly aggressive display, and once Jermaine Jenas and Barry Bannan came on the pressure was ratcheted up. Michel Vorm was forced to make a couple pretty excellent saves, Darren Bent was caught just offside a time or two (and called for it once when he looked to be pretty clearly on) and Jermaine Jenas had his second strong showing since returning from injury.
Would it have been good to see that style from the start, or at least a bit earlier in the game? Of course. But things really didn't start coming together for Villa until Swansea began making mistakes in possession and allowing Villa some time in control of the game. Despite the hosts controlling the ball for almost the entirety of the first half, they somehow came out of the day with the better chances (and by a not insignificant margin.) I'm as frustrated as anyone with some of the perplexing lineup choices (you can't convince me that Bannan on the left, Gabby behind the striker and Jenas ahead of Delph wouldn't have been a better team to start with) but hell, at least Bannan is playing again and at least he's willing to give young players a chance. I don't like McLeish obviously, and I don't find the style of football Villa played today to be especially enjoyable in a relative sense. But let's give Swansea some credit; they've kept five clean sheets on the season, allowed fewer goals than Villa and have lost just once at home, 1-0 to Manchester United. This was always going to be a tough game and though a draw is a frustrating result given the run of games to come, it's not an inherently poor one.
A few quick thoughts:
- Everything about Alan Hutton continues to be terrible. The tackle he was booked for early on was as orange as they come, he got skinned alive several times on the flank and he killed multiple periods of sustained pressure and possession with terrible crosses to no one in the box. Any time I feel a tinge of optimism about Alex McLeish, I remember that he paid actual money to have this man be his starting right back.
- I like Chris Herd a lot (and his hair looked much better today) but he makes some odd decisions in possession. In a pairing with Petrov, Bannan or even Jenas it's less noticeable, but when Fabian Delph is the other central midfielder it becomes a bit of a liability. I really think Herd is best utilized in a very deep role, destroying play and linking to the attack rather than trying to help create it. He may develop into a box-to-box midfielder at some point, but he's not there yet.
- Fabian Delph continues to be perplexing and frustrating beyond belief. It's getting to the point where I don't know what I saw that made me so excited about him in the first place. I know there's still a lot of talent there and it's unreasonable to think he won't improve, but at this point I just assume he's going to be bad and that's annoying.
- I continue to struggle to understand the point of Darren Bent on this team. He is bad at doing everything but scoring, which makes him a vital part of a team with creativity and good service from the wings and an expensive, resource wasting statue on this team. I don't blame him; he is what he is and always has been, and on the right team he's a massive asset. On this one he's wasted. And of course, his value has never been lower.
- This was probably Gabby's worst game of the season and he was still Villa's best attacking player. I dunno what they've been putting in that boy's Cookie Crisp, but they should keep it up.
So, that's that. Still 8th place (9th in terms of points-per-match) and still without a win on the road. Next week is United at Villa Park. Get a result in that game and the mood becomes entirely different. I don't think anyone is going to be holding their breath.