There was a vulnerability to Paul Lambert’s young Aston Villa side today thoroughly reminiscent of Wigan Athletic in Roberto Martinez’s first year at the club. Tactical naivety, inexperience and a struggle to adjust to the pace and physical demands of the Premier League to name a few similarities.
What Lambert is trying to do at Villa is not dissimilar in magnitude to Roberto’s undertaking at Wigan — it’s a long-term project. He has bravely frozen out Darren Bent, who must be on a huge financial packet, and put his faith in a promising but inexperienced crop of youngsters. They’ve now suffered three humiliating defeats in a row for a total score of 0-15. But if they survive, and by extension if Lambert is given time to see his project through, it will be intriguing to see where these lads take them. A risky, but refreshing approach. When you look at the more contemporary cash-driven approach of relegation rivals QPR, I know which one I’d like to stay up.
The match, however, should have been over within ten minutes. Ivan Ramis made a very welcome return to the starting lineup and thumped in — albeit unmarked — a Jean Beausejour corner a couple minutes in. Latics piled on the pressure and had a couple half chances before Shaun Maloney was rather violently taken down in the penalty box. It was the second time this week that the Scotsman was denied a stonewall penalty. There was absolutely no question — no debate at all — that this was another penalty denied. It was, at this stage, adding insult to injury as Chris Herd had clearly handballed in the box minutes prior.
Villa’s response gave their crowd hope and they enjoyed the better of the play towards the end of the first half including a goal disallowed correctly for offside, but Latics’ refreshed back line held firm. When Emmerson Boyce combined with Arouna Kone for a goal of great quality in the opening moments of the second half, it was game over.
Plenty to be pleased about today. Ivan Ramis could not have made a more encouraging return to the starting lineup. His emphatic finish not only put Wigan in the driver’s seat but added to the tension in the stands. He looked like he’d never been gone, confident and excellent with his distribution. His return also resulted in Boyce’s return to the right wing-back position from which he scored.
Arouna Kone has now scored two in a row, and that boost in confidence might just be the difference between a first touch finish or moment of hesitation against United in the home fixture on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, his improved form also coincides with a trip to the African Cup of Nations for most of January.
Shaun Maloney was a joy to watch at his former stomping grounds. Aston Villa supporters must have been wishing they could have him back. He was the modern playmaker exemplified in the first half in particular, popping up all over the pitch, creating and extremly unfortunate not to have won a penalty. That Martinez didn’t substitute him when 3-0 off speaks well of his fitness levels. That Villa didn’t heavily mark him as other sides have started to do speaks negatively of Lambert’s preparation.
Finally, a bit of luck with the fixture list. There probably couldn’t have been a better time to face Villa. A very valuable away win that allows for the possibility of a double over direct relegation rivals.
Penalty decisions and the continued cowardice of match officials when it comes to blowing the whistle in favour of Wigan Athletic. The fine Roberto had to pay earlier this season for criticism of match officials is becoming increasingly ludicrous in hindsight, but has effectively silenced him. What is happening to Wigan with these crucial decisions is astonishing. We all read through the lines when Martinez himself said after the Everton match that Latics have to “be even better” to compensate for the treatment they seem to get. But it is a sadly corrupt situation when Alex Ferguson’s assault on Mike Dean in the Newcastle fixture goes unreported by Dean himself — and Martinez, the most decent and principled man in British football is keeping his thoughts to himself for fear of punishment when his team is consistently wronged.
Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Didn’t have very much to do, but the clean sheet is much-needed.
Maynor Figueroa: 7.5 — Very solid, with one last ditch clearance sticking out in the memory.
Gary Caldwell: 7 — Outjumped by Benteke a couple times but good otherwise.
Ivan Ramis: 7.5 — Strong return from injury with a goal to boot.
Jean Beausejour: 7 — Found space down the wing in the first half, faded in the second. Still not at his best, but enjoyed a bit of freedom with Boyce restored on the other side.
Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Scored a cracker and didn’t let the team down in any way. When he plays at wing-back, Beausejour is given more freedom on the left, as Boyce stays deeper. Latics are also stronger on set pieces.
James McCarthy: 6.5 — Did nothing wrong and indeed was involved in a lot of neat footwork in midfield, but we’ve come to expect a greater influence.
David Jones: 7 — Continued his fine run of form but went off with a knock.
Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — A joy to watch.
Franco Di Santo: 6.5 — Lovely ball for Kone’s goal, but it’s not just his goal-scoring statistics that are cause for concern — he doesn’t get in goal-scoring positions. Still, his hold-up play is second to no one’s.
Arouna Kone: 7 — Goal and assist for the Ivorian. Should have scored a second, but he’ll be pleased.
James McArthur: Non-descript performance, kept it simple.
Jordi Gomez: Not enough touches to really have an impact.
Callum McManaman: Lively and unlucky with a good shot. This was a perfect match to give him some experience, but sadly only got about 8 minutes of it.