Teams and Tactics
As predicted, Martinez made just the one change with Pienaar replacing Osman on the left side of midfield. Villa left out central midfielder El Ahmadi and brought in the tricky two footed talent of Tonev on the right with Weimann moving across to the left with Agbonlahor and Benteke up top in a 4-4-2.
For the opening hour of the game our play was a tad disjointed in what was a frenetic first half in particular. The play for both sides was focused down our right flank with Villa full back Luna and their left sided centre half Baker seemingly identified as the weak links as Barry persistently looked to play in Mirallas behind them in what was the most frequent combination of any player on the pitch in the first half. Mirallas created the most chances for the second successive game and had the beating of Luna every time he was released 1v1. The ex Sevilla fullback eventually cried off injured with Baker moving across to left back and Ciaran Clark joining Vlaar in the centre.
Villa would have gone in at half time in front but for the heroics of Tim Howard who put in a stellar shift in the toffee net. His save from Benteke’s spot kick stirred memories of Neville Southall against Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline in 1988 and the bearded American stopper also superbly denied Benteke point blank before foiling his mate Weimann shortly after. The bulk of Villa’s good work was started down the left from Luna to Delph who would then pick out Weimann to good effect.
Overall defensively I thought we dealt with the significant threat of Benteke much better than in the 3-3 last season particularly in the air with Jagielka winning 7/7 headers to Benteke’s 2 /12. When the ball went loose ex Villa man Gareth Barry was on hand to hoover up the second balls – winning 9 recoveries which was more than any player on the pitch.
Whist we did ok at the back going forward we were a tad spluttery. The turning point of the game came on the hour mark when Martinez introduced Osman for Barkley. Young Barkley’s decision making wasn’t great and sometimes he hung onto the ball a bit too long. With the exception of a shot that stung the bar in the first half he was relatively subdued but this is typical of a player of his age and inexperience.
Osman’s introduction immediately re-invigorated the left side which had been largely peripheral in the opening hour. Baines and Pienaar had linked up with just 3 passing combinations in the first half with Barkley not linking with Baines once in the first hour. It was all the more strange given that Villa’s right side looked defensively suspect with Tonev and Bacuna an untested duo whose skills are more suited to going forward. Post match Martinez spoke of the rationale behind introducing Osman for Barkley;
“I told Leon that it was going to be a good opportunity for him in the last 20 minutes with Villa tiring and when he came on it was a masterclass of getting on the ball in the attacking third”
What Martinez is alluding to here is backed up by the data. Osman was found by Baines crisp passing into central spaces no fewer than 8 times in the final half hour – the most prolific passing combination of the second half from either side. It was this ability to find space which was crucial in the opening goal. After Baines and Pienaar had finally clicked with some neat one touch passing down the left, Ciaran Clark – who usually has a shocker against us – got sucked in by the ball and when Osman received from Pienaar he was able to tee up Lukaku in the space Clark had vacated to expertly dispatch beyond Guzan.
Shortly after, the blossoming James McCarthy played in Osman who linked with Pienaar before playing in Lukaku whose shot was deflected wide. From the resulting corner, Baines was again let loose to feed Barry who played in Osman to score the clincher with a nice tucked finish. It was the little man’s sixth strike against the Villa – his personal best tally against any side – and while he’s not had his cigar on much this season he remains a key member of the squad.
The Toffees rode their luck here particularly in the opening 15 minutes of each half and were indebted to the often maligned Tim Howard who was a colossus with notable supporting roles from Jagielka and Barry. The key moment was the introduction of Osman who turned the game – not just in his assist and goal but in general to find space and breathe new life to the left flank.
In general though we should be happy as for the second week running a high energy opponent visibly ran out of gas as the game went on. You could argue its a coincidence but a trend has emerged where sides can compete with us for long periods but eventually whether it be from chasing the ball for such long periods or not it seems to take its toll. This has seen us scoring 7 of our 8 goals on the road in the second half of games.
Coincidence or not, the Blues keep marching on!