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Di Matteo’s calamitous halftime subs rekindle Sherwood fears

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Roberto Di Matteo’s decision to bring Alan Hutton on and shift Micah Richards to centre back calls into question what the manager has learned in two months on the job.

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough - Pre-Season Friendly
Aston Villa manager Roberto Di Matteo looks on during the pre-season friendly between Aston Villa and Middlesbrough at Villa Park on July 30, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

I… don’t know.

Aston Villa’s first half was fine. For the first half hour, the Claret and Blues looked good and went 1-0 to the good, but Luton Town clawed back into the match, leveled the scoreline and carried play for the final first quarter of an hour. Ideal? No. But you’ve gotta remember this Villa team really doesn’t know how to win. They’re gonna get rattled, and we’ll have to deal with it until that problem is fixed.

With his side entering the break on the ropes, it provided a perfect chance for Roberto Di Matteo to make a match-changing substitution or a tactical switch or, quite simply, an opportunity to calm the side down so it could get back to the solid, if not entertaining, brand of football it showed during the first 30 minutes.

Hey, you can’t say he didn’t match a match-changing subsitution.

Di Matteo made two subs at halftime, the first of which was fairly innocuous. Ross McCormack, on a booking, came off for Rudy Gestede in a straight swap. While I’d prefer McCormack on the pitch in a vacuum, the Championship campaign is much more important, so (1) saving his legs for Saturday and (2) trying a new personnel combo out up top are both solid reasons.

The second sub, however, won Luton the match, with Di Matteo bringing Alan Hutton on for Nathan Baker, and crucially, moving Micah Richards to centre back.

Now, I’m not a huge Micah Richards fan but, again, with Hutton and Leandro Bacuna the other options at right back, he’s begrudgingly the best option there. Trying to resurrect his Villa career has a certain level of merit, as long as it’s, you know, at right back.

There’s no merit, whatsoever, to even trying the disastrous Richards-Hutton right side of defence combination, and Di Matteo deserves every bit of criticism he gets going forward for it. Not only is it shocking he’d even consider unnecessarily making that switch, it’s shocking that he actually did it.

Of course, what isn’t shocking is that Luton controlled the entire second half, which is a pretty damned sad statement. The issues of a weakened midfield were exacerbated — seriously, we’ve been talking on Twitter about a need to play a three-man midfield against a League Two side — and Gestede was rarely involved. Because, you know, he’s a target man. You kind of have to competently defend and have half a foothold in a match before you can even think about using him.

So instead of strengthening his side at the break, RDM seriously harmed it. In bringing on Gestede, he effectively reduced Villa to 10 men, and with a calamitous backline where… Jores Okore?… was the best actual defender (because as we saw earlier in the match, Jordan Amavi still has a lot to learn at that part of the left back gig), it might as well have been 11 v 9 or 11 v 8. That’s sure as hell what it looked like.

And as @UTVilla pointed out on Twitter, perhaps the substitution was injury-motivated, as Nathan Baker had picked up a knock earlier in the night. But what is Tommy Elphick — you know, your club captain — doing on the bench if you won’t bring him in to win your first competitive match in more than six months? While I don’t care that much about the EFL Cup, there’s a difference between “trying things out,” like bringing Gestede on, and “managing like you have no clue,” like trying the whole Richards at centre back thing again.

When Villa sacked Tim Sherwood last year, they were at the bottom of the table, but they weren’t one of the division’s worst sides. Metrics insisted the club were a bit unlucky, but nevertheless, I supported the club’s decision to can “Tactics Tim.”

That support was because Sherwood made stupid tactical changes to his side that routinely cost Villa points, not that he wasn’t getting solid performances out of the club (especially early on).

Seeing Di Matteo bring Hutton on for Baker, be it an injury-dependent move or a planned one, seriously rekindled those fears. Villa’s first half hour was great Wednesday night, and Di Matteo had a chance to make that level of performance the standard for the match, not the anomaly.

I get that Di Matteo’s a Champions League-winning manager or whatever, and one accomplished at this level of football too, but it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the management of the side today at Kenilworth Road. He’s the one that’s made the call to keep Richards and Hutton around, the guy that’s kept Leandro Bacuna and Aly Cissokho in the setup.

When they don’t perform, despite past evidence that says they won’t, that’s on him.