Villa Displays Bodes Well For The Future
I'VE JUST got back from Villa Park and unusally for this season it is with a light heart and positive outlook. The deserved point came from a battling performance by a team was had a better balance than of late, combined solidity at the back, zest and spirit in the middle and, with two up front, looked to have some punch.
The game offered several reasons for optimism and pointed to possible solutions for some of Gareth Southgate's long-standing problems. Here's a few observations:
**George Boateng is back - and what a difference it makes. General George admitted after the game that he had been disappointed with his recent displays, that he had been playing with an injury and that he could maybe have done with a rest. That much we all knew. But we also all know that when he is on song that his gives Boro bite in the middle, breaks up opposition moves to relieve the pressure on defence and, although he is not creative himself, if he wins the ball and releases it quickly he can be pivotal to the team breaking forward at pace.
He was back to his best in a sizzling second half. Admittedly he started slowly and several times in the the first half he miscontrolled, was slow to close down or scooped attempted clearances to Villa players. Possibly he was phased by the loud and incessent booing every time he touched the ball, who knows? But as the game wore on he started to exhude authority, his positioning meant he was first to the ball, he was quick to tackled, he was finding team mates with a neat range of passing and as his confidence grew he started to dribble and get forward into dangerous positions. That bodes well for Boro.
**Jonathan Woodgate put in a second successive defensive masterclass that screams out his case to be considered the best centre-back in the league. His hair may be unkempt but he has an assured poise and almost artistic grace about him that makes him a delight to watch. His positional sense and pace means he rarely has to make a rash tackle, instead he reads a run or the angle of the ball and deals with it in an unflustered way. Twice Agbonlahor burst free into the box to open a yard or two gap but Woody almost nonchalently followed and as the Villa man adjusted his stride, turned and shaped to shoot the Boro man simply stretched out his leg and stole the ball off the strikers's toes. Awesom ein its simplicity.
Woodgate playing in this form must rattle even the best strikers. As the game wore on Agbonlahor and Angel both gave up trying to beat him and even in good positions to push it past and try to beat him they checked and played the ball back, surrendering the initiative and giveing Boro time to regroup. He is a major asset but almost certainly a short-term one. If he continues like this it is inconceivable that Real Madrid won't want him back.
** Three at the back worked. Boro have three decent central defenders so it makes sense to play them and it solves the political problem of getting £6m man Robert Huth some pitch time without displacing Manu Pogatetz, arguably Boro's most consistent player this term. Those three combine pace, power and height and give Boro a rock solid look about them.
**The wing-backs worked too, although there was a shaky start. Abel Xavier (who at the end went to the Boro fans and whipped off his top to reveal a t-shirt saying "Thankyou Middlesbrough" in return for the club's support over his drugs ban) offers a physical presence going forward that Andrew Davies and Stuart Parnaby don't and is a strong defender too. Andrew Taylor is a real offensive threat on the left and has fantastic control but at times in the first half drifted out of position, that was why Villa right-back Olaf Melberg got the space to wander forward at will. He was tighter and more disciplined in the second half and that helped cut out that route and eased the pressure on Boro.
**Malcolm Christie's goal was offside. So what? They all count. And it was against the run of play in a first half that Villa had dominated. But, it came because for the first time in week's Boro were getting bodies forward and into dangerous positions. And although Boro rode their luck - Schwarzer made two good saves and Villa missed a few glorious chances - they have now not conceded from open play in three games and picked up five points from them to start heading in the right direction. If that is the kind of attacking mentality based on a solid platform Southgate has in mind then, while far from a complete product, it bodes well for the future.