In a game where the scores finish level, it is perhaps obvious to say that small differences stop the result being a win or a loss.
Against Fulham, it was Aston Villa who scored both goals, though sadly one was in their own net. The changes that made the differences? Substitutions, including the tactical switches that occurred.
I had said to my Dad before the game had kicked off that Darren Bent would come on in the 75th minute, partly because I know the manager’s methods well, but partly because I thought it was the wise choice myself.
As the first half panned out, with many balls coming into the attacking third, yet lacking the “killer instinct”, my belief that Bent would be deployed only intensified.
Some may ask why I felt it would happen, particularly as it has been regularly written that I am far from Bent’s biggest supporter. However, Villa’s number nine does, at the very least, have some kind of predatory ability that lets him get on to the end of those kinds of balls, ergo it makes sense to put him on the pitch.
Add into that the fact that Villa taking Christian Benteke off would be filed under “borderline insanity”, and you can see why we ended the game with two forwards in the middle.
Lo and behold, almost to the minute, Bent was deployed in an attacking role, presumably because the manager could see exactly what I was seeing as the first half was panning out, and had postulated before the game.
Lambert, to his credit and detriment, always looks at how his teams can attack the ball more. The issue here is that players don’t always deliver what seems the best plan by the manager.
Before Bent had even arrived on the pitch, the changes in personnel being made were not delivering the necessary results. For me, it was a case of square pegs and round holes and, although Lambert did shift the tactics slightly to fit, the contributions from those incoming players were not great.
Take Brett Holman for instance. Did his addition, at the expense of Jordan Bowery, push Villa forwards or backwards?
Did Yacouba Sylla coming on yield the best result in replacing Charles N’Zogbia?
Did Bent’s arrival offer more or less than Andreas Weimann? Villa’s Austrian forward certainly made no question of his thoughts on the matter as his disgruntled expression was beamed out to all at Villa Park via the massive screens that follow the action.
With the substitutions implemented, it appeared like Villa were shifting from their 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-1-2 formation. Again, in abstract terms, the concept works because a second striker, especially when pushing for more goals, can leave the opposition’s defence with more to think about.
Given that Villa were 1-1 at the time, going for another goal made perfect sense but I’m unsure if the players who came on made the right impact. Of course they had the potential to change the game – why else would the manager introduce them – but their performances were not sufficient.
It wasn’t just the players who made an impact though. The decision to switch to a 4-3-1-2 means a few things. Firstly, it lightens the midfield for Villa with only four competing rather than five – the first half left Villa in charge of the midfield but the post-goal formation left the home team with an even bigger problem minus another midfielder.
After all, attacking formations require the distribution of the ball through the middle quickly. With Fulham adopting a wider stance, Villa were using their numeric advantage focussed in the middle. This meant ceding wide areas to Fulham but, with five in the middle, it meant that Bryan Ruiz either had to track back to help out or face losing the ball before it got anywhere near Fulham’s front line.
Changing formation made a difference but, as stated above, it wasn’t the tactic change that made the game, but rather the players that fit the roles.
What now? Blame the manager? It seems like, sadly, that does appear to be the default choice in terms of where to go if a game is either lost or points are dropped. After all, the manager is picking the team, right?
To be honest, this is a tad harsh and, if we want to be candid about things, a bit crazy. If a team wins a match, the players made it happen. If the team loses, it must be the manager at fault. “Sack the manager” is a chant heard up and down the country. “Sack the player”? When was the last time you heard that?
Against Fulham there was, as there always is in the minds of a manager, a reason for the tactical change. No manager in the world will choose what he feels will cause a less favourable result for his team – whether attack or defence focused, a manager will always do what he thinks is best.
Of course, he can be wrong, a point mostly proven by how the game ends up. If that tactical change ends up turning the game the wrong way, the manager will get the blame. If it means more points than expected, you can guess who will get the credit.
The truth is that the change enacted by Villa from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-1-2 had an objective it was trying to achieve. Did it get the extra goal it promised? No, but the potential was there for it to make a difference.
It is very easy for me to sit here and pick apart how I wouldn’t have brought x player on but then I’m not under the spotlight. Even though I’m unhappy we ended up with a point after the first half performance, I have to hold my hands up and say putting two up top late on was a move I would have made myself.
We didn’t get a win, and that just heightens the pressure on the games against Sunderland, Norwich, and Wigan. Win all three, and we should be safe. Win none and I’m sure we’ll hear fresh calls for the manger to go.
There’s not long left as we reach the final furlongs of this Premier League season, and what we need to do is stick together and push on. Frustrating as it may be to not get a win, imploding won’t save our season, more wins will, and supporting each other – from the fans, through the players, to the manager – is what we need.
Raise the inquest at the end of the season if need be but, for now, we’ve got to stand united or face being destroyed one-by-one.