In a radical change for this column, I get to analyse a Villa win. Fittingly, it was a strange beast of a win. The shot ratio was terrible for Villa (17 to 5) but Villa had more than half of the possession. The aggression seen against Burnley last week dropped away entirely but they somehow retained some of the improved passing game, just almost entirely in their own half. It's hard to be completely satisfied with the manner in which they won but the arrival of Benteke is such an overwhelming positive change that it leaves everything else behind.
Lambert ruins the whole Villa plan
In last week's column I rhapsodized about Joe Cole's performance but worried over whether the inevitable change at 60 minutes would ruin the Lions' plan. Instead it ruined the plan eight minutes in, as he limped off with an injury.
It is no exaggeration to say this entirely ruined the Villa plan despite the fact the formation stayed the same and this is directly due to Lambert's substitution decision. In previous columns I've talked about the importance of the man in the hole in the 4-2-3-1 - he is the creative and attacking fulcrum. The difference between Villa with N'Zogbia there and Cole there from one week to the next was astonishing. In substituting on Sanchez he made the obvious choice, but the crucial factor was who went into Cole's position. Instead of a passing midfielder (one of Cleverley or Westwood), he put in Abgonlahor behind Benteke.
It's difficult to fathom Lambert's idea here. On the face of it, this is an attacking decision as Villa would effectively have two strikers. But this is misleading - Abgonlahor has never been effective from deep and in doing this Lambert crippled the link to Benteke through the middle, and marginalised our wing players.
It's a sign of just how much of a turd N'Zogbia's performance in this role was that Gabby still put in better figures than him - attempting 19 passes, with 15 successful. But it's still basically rubbish, especially in a match where Villa had more possession (to remind everyone, Cole attempted 42 passes last week). Gabby attempted no shots, one (unsuccessful) cross and one (unsuccessful) take-on. He was dispossessed three times on the ball . The entire link in the centre of the midfield was broken, and he became bypassed by long balls towards Benteke.
Name size represents player influence. Abgonlahor is just about more influential than Joe Cole - who played for 8 minutes. Weimann is isolated, everyone else limited to defence. Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre
Benteke saves the Villa plan
In previous weeks this would have been a death sentence for Villa, but this week the Beast was back. Starved of a supply in the middle, he drifted to the flanks to get the ball and eventually got the desperately needed goal. It was largely of his own creation, but some mention should go to Cissokho and Cleverley for looking to play positively down the left flank, the only way Villa were going to get the ball to a dangerous area of the pitch.
From there, Benteke had the strength and speed to finish in a way which is basically unthinkable with Gabby and Andi (who have their own qualities but require space to get behind their men, whereas Benteke simply forces his way through). However the use of Benteke as merely a target man is a dreadful waste of his talents and it was disappointing to see him only get two shots in the game, though both were high quality. Benteke with a genuine supply from the midfield must be the aim.
The defensive unit continues to save the plan
However Villa still had a lot left to do and the defensive unit were impressive in their work. Most importantly, the back-four dealt well with Crystal Palace's crossing. Special mention should be made to Cissokho who I have criticised in recent weeks - he restricted Zaha to a single cross from his side of the pitch, with his style of defending being well suited to blocking crosses (Hutton was also impressive but his aggression sometimes lets players pass him). The central duo were strong in the air and Vlaar and Senderos' re-entry to the team should now be a legitimate question.
Cissokho marshalled Zaha well, while Hutton allowed two crosses. Image from FourFourTwo.com´s Match Centre.
Crystal Palace somewhat played into Villa's hands - there's nothing a side playing deep and compact defence likes better than repeated crosses. This article suggests the average crossing completion rate in the Premier League is somewhere about 20% and Palace didn't come even close to that, giving the illusion of dominance with little real threat.
However credit should also be given to Villa's midfielders, Cleverley, Sanchez and Westwood. With no link to Benteke, they were shorn of space but still managed to keep possession within Villa's own half. This week it was actually Cleverley and Sanchez who were the most impressive performers. According to Squawka stats, Cleverley had the joint highest number of successful tackles for any midfielder in the midweek games. Meanwhile Sanchez had by all accounts his most impressive game for Villa with 5 clearances and 5 interceptions, and the joint highest number of duels (tackles and aerial) won of any midfielder in the midweek games. If Crystal Palace were funnelled down the flanks, a lot of this was due to their tireless work in the centre of the field.
A Villa player is number one in something! Image from Squawka.com
Villa won despite Lambert
In previous weeks I've indicated Lambert has been going the right way, playing the 4-2-3-1 and recognising the need for a central playmaker. So his decision this week absolutely mystifies me. How on earth he came to the decision that Abgonlahor would be a better link-up man than either of WESTWOOD (I'm sick of shouting that he should be given a chance at No.10 but seriously it's getting beyond a joke - N'Zogbia, Cole and Abgonlahor have all been given a go there ahead of him) or Cleverley I do not know.
The only other explanation is that he was perfectly happy to use Benteke as nothing more than a target man, Abgonlahor as a speedy counter-attacker and go into a shell against Crystal Palace, which is just too depressing to think about. Our attackers deserve more to feed on. Our midfielders shouldn't have to post the best defensive stats in the league to scrape a win against Crystal Palace. We shouldn't have to rely on our fourth and fifth choice centre-backs playing out of their skins. We won despite Lambert this week.