Aston Villa's November nightmare stretch has come to an end with today's 0-0 draw against Arsenal, and though one point from three games certainly isn't the best record, there are plenty of positive signs to take from the toughest run of competition so far this season. It took a late fight-back from Manchester United to overcome a 2-0 deficit and Villa looked competitive for the first hour at the Etihad before everything fell apart, but of all three games this was arguably Villa's most encouraging (if not their best) performance.
From a neutral perspective (and likely that of Gunners fans as well) this was a pretty drab affair, But personally, I thought it was a great deal of fun to watch; Villa came out looking to take the game to Arsenal on the attack and pressure them into mistakes with a high-pressure defensive approach; with some assistance from a sloppy, water-logged pitch, the strategy paid off. Arsenal's normally fluid passing game was clearly not working as well as they'd have hoped, and Villa were able to take advantage by staying aggressive. Unfortunately as has been something of a theme this season, they were unable to turn that fairly consistent attacking pressure into goals. The best chance of the first half came after Wojciech Szczesny went skidding out of the box with ball-in-hand to give Villa a free kick from a dangerous location; Barry Bannan then pulled the ball back to Ciaran Clark at the top of the box, whose driven shot squirted through the wall and to a waiting -but unfortunately offside- Andreas Weimann.
Aston Villa went with the same approach at the start of the second half, but a bit of a wrench was thrown in the works in the 51st minute when Ron Vlaar was forced off with a calf injury and replaced by Eric Lichaj, forcing Matthew Lowton to the middle and leaving Villa with just one central defender on the pitch. Arsenal could smell blood in the water, but the Gunners just weren't themselves this afternoon and a brief spell of dominance soon gave way to the status quo of the day; Arsenal held possession well, but when it came time to put together an attacking move they were unable to craft much in the way of decent chances. Despite having nearly 70% of the possession, Arsenal managed just one shot on goal, and Aston Villa were more than happy to let the visitors make mistakes and hit back on the break.
But as the game entered the final 20 minutes, it was clear that Villa's high-pressure approach had taken its toll on the side, and players began to fade and retreat. At that point it looked as though it would take something very special for Villa to get onto the scoresheet, and they nearly got it in the 78th minute; Brett Holman, introduced for the underwhelming Karim El Ahmadi 15 minutes earlier, found himself in a pocket of space at the edge of the box on a counter and sent in a dipping rocket of a shot that looked to be destined to sneak in just under the bar until it was deflected just high by Szczesny. That would be that in the way of real chances for Villa, with the Gunners ratcheting up the pressure on a makeshift Villa back line. But with Arsenal off their game, they didn't have enough to break through, and a huge sigh of relief immediately followed the referee's whistle; losing any game is bad enough, but this one would have been an absolute heartbreaker registering just below the United loss on the broken dreams scale.
So again, plenty of reasons to feel positive about this one, especially given the 5-0 thrashing that came before. That the kids were able to bounce back after what must have been an emotionally draining loss to City is a major positive, another sign of the resilience that this squad seems to have. But the bigger test lies ahead; no one expected anything from Villa these past three weeks, but starting on Tuesday that's not going to be the case for quite some time. Reading, QPR, Stoke and Norwich is as friendly a run of games as the last four were daunting, and if Villa can't take 7 points or so from this stretch then all of the positive signs we saw against the big clubs are largely meaningless. Villa has shown a somewhat nasty tendency for playing down to the level of their competition, and though they've certainly looked a much better side over the past month or so than they did earlier in the year, they've got to get it done against these teams if they want to put relegation fears behind them earlier this year than last.
I think what we've seen from Villa here lately is a very positive thing. The lineup has begun to settle a bit more, and this team looks to have found an identity. The central midfield pairing of Bannan and Ashley Westwood has been a revelation, while Christian Benteke continues to make the case that he is Villa's most capable striker. This team isn't as sloppy in possession and prone to silly errors as it was in August and September. But they're still 17th in the league, and they've still lost 7 games while taking points from just 6. The next four games are just about as big as any stretch all season, because I genuinely believe there's a good chance they can will all of them and go into January comfortably mid-table. But they've got to figure out how to turn the positive build-up play into goals, and they've got to show the kind of belief that was on display against Arsenal when they take the pitch against teams like Reading. Losses to newly promoted sides were somewhat understandable earlier in the year, but this team has been together in its current form for nearly three months now.
The bug question going forward is pretty clear; can Villa turn the quality of their play against teams like United and Arsenal into dominant (or at least wining) performances against lesser sides? Because if they can, this team is going to be just fine this year, and they could be pretty special next year. But if the answer is no, and Villa continues to struggle against the middle and bottom table sides, something has to happen to turn things around, whether it's a big acquisition or two in January, Paul Lambert having to swallow his pride and bring players like Bent and N'Zogbia back into the fold, or a rethinking of the team's positive tactical approach. I'm optimistic that things are going to take a pretty positive turn for the better here soon, but I've certainly been wrong about that kind of thing before. The good news is, we won't have to wait too much longer to find out.