For the first hour of Saturday's loss to Everton, Aston Villa looked like a side that was finally beginning to put it all together. The home side looked purposeful in possession, tenacious in midfield, and calm and composed at the back. If not for a super-human effort from Tim Howard to save Christian Benteke's penalty in the 7th minute Villa would have been out ahead early and as the dominant side to that point this game could have ended much differently. That penalty miss would be the first of many blown opportunities for Villa, and in the end this result will go down as the season's most frustrating thus far.
From the outset, this game felt different than Villa's other three wins. Against Arsenal and City it was largely a case of weathering the storm and pouncing at the right moments, while the win over Norwich City was largely a case of pouncing on one of the only opportunities in an otherwise grinding bore of a match. That wasn't the case here; Villa looked sharp from the outset, putting together good move after good move and largely neutralizing the visitor's attack. Brad Guzan was only asked to make one save of real significance in the first half, doing well to parry Romelu Lukaku's driven effort from inside the box away for a corner in the 31st minute. Villa ended the first half having been clearly the better team, and they ramped up the pressure after the break; Everton were forced to endure a consistent wave of heavy pressure, but the home side's inability to finish their chances allowed the Toffees to come away unscathed.
With his team struggling to stem the tide and create any chances of note for themselves, Roberto Martinez brought on Leon Osman for Ross Barkley right at the hour mark. That would prove to be the correct decision, with the veteran midfielder have an immediate impact on the shape of the game. In the 68th minute, Villa's first real defensive breakdown was punished by the visitors, with Osman finding Lukaku at the edge of the area, somehow left alone in acres of space by Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark. Lukaku, who to that point had been largely neutralized by Villa's defense, hammered a low drive into the bottom corner of Guzan goal to give Everton a 1-0 lead against the run of play, and from there it was over. The advantage immediately swung to Everton following the goal, and it would stay with them for the rest of the afternoon.
It took just the one gaffe at the back to turn Villa from a side that looked confident in purposeful in all phases to a side bankrupt of ideas or quality. Osman would put the cap on things for the visitors in the 81st minute with a goal to the very same corner as Lukaku's, and Villa should likely consider themselves lucky it didn't turn out worse. And though there was much to like about the first hour, Villa's inability to turn their overall good play and possession into goals is what stands out in hindsight. This could have been a statement win for Villa, but instead it ended with the side looking very much like the one we've seen so often; disorganized, devoid of confidence and nonthreatening. In a word: beaten.
A 2-0 loss to Everton is not, on the face of things, a terrible result. They're a good team, and it wouldn't be too much of a shock if they managed to finish the season in the top four. But the way this game unfolded was supremely disappointing. Villa didn't finish their numerous good chances, Everton did finish one of their only good chances, and it caused the team to fall apart. It's a stark contrast to Villa's win against Manchester City, in which they battled back on multiple occasions. In this game, it just wasn't happening. Christian Benteke clearly isn't quite himself right now, and that doubtlessly had an effect today. And ultimately, there was much to like about the way Villa played for the majority of this game. Even great teams are wasteful in attack and teams far worse than Everton manage to score against the run of play. But watching Villa fall apart to the degree that they did was brutal. And Paul Lambert needs to figure out how to keep it from happening again.