Much of the talk on the lead up to kick off was the news that, once again, manager Paul Lambert had ostracised Darren Bent from the Villa squad, despite being fit to play. Early reports suggested that the England forward had stormed away from Villa Park; with some suspicious that he may even have been serving his penchant for getting the Christmas shopping done early.
In the previous three games Villa had faced the might of both Manchester clubs and Arsenal. Villa looked much improved against United and Arsenal with many of the Holte End faithful hopeful that the club were beginning to turn the corner, and that an aesthetically solid performance at home to Reading may be imminent.
But Lambert's team selection left me feeling somewhat confused. With an injury to Captain Vlaar the Scot couldn’t do much but to field a young and relatively inexperienced back four, but it wasn’t the defensive choice that troubled me. It was the lack of attacking intent that the line up displayed, against a fellow struggling team, who as the home side Villa would be expected to bombard.
I appreciate Holman’s desire, commitment and ability to run himself into the ground but, to play him in the hole behind Benteke seemed a wasteful choice. I can understand such a decision, to a greater degree, against one of the leagues bigger, more possession based teams but, against Reading it seemed somewhat odd.
Even more baffling was the strategy of telling your clubs record signing, and a proven goal scorer, to put on a nice suit and to retire to the stands to play with his mobile phone. Now I am not in anyway suggesting that Bent should have started, I am already a bigger fan of Benteke and believe the Belgian to be a far more complete forward, but not to include a player, who’s goals kept Villa in the Premier League last season, on the bench seems a rather harsh insult.
With all due respect to Reading this was a game where Lambert could have chosen a more attack minded 4-4-2 formation, accommodating both the bullish combative traits of Benteke, and the finishing prowess of Bent. At the very least it should have been an option for later in the game, if a lone striker was not looking effective.
The game itself was a scrappy affair with both sides struggling to fashion clear chances and Reading often giving as good as they got. Weimann blazed a glorious chance over the bar in the first half and Benteke also found an opportunity tamely hit at goal. At that moment many would no doubt have been questioning whether Darren Bent would have buried it, whilst simultaneously managing to send a Twitter message from his phone. Villa retreated to playing a lot more long ball than I have witnessed so far under Lambert, and apart form his set pieces Barry Bannan had a particularly awful game. Lowton at right back though continues to consistently impress.
The introduction of Stephen Ireland and Marc Albrighton created a mildly more attacking edge but, until the goal came it was difficult to see where it would come from. Benteke’s powerfully headed winning goal again proved the incredible value that the big Belgian forward offers to Aston Villa, with the Holte End chanting his name non-stop further evidence that he is the fans new hero.
However, goals change the perspective of a game, and if the match were to finish in a 0-0 stalemate then it is likely that Lambert’s tactics, and treatment of Bent, would have been viciously criticised. In my opinion Stephen Ireland, one of Villa’s rare creative players, should have started in place of Holman, and Darren Bent should have been worthy of a place on the bench.
I have no idea what is happening behind the scenes but it would appear quite obvious that something about Darren Bent just doesn’t sit right with Lambert. Although no doubt the Scot will again claim there to be no rift between the two?
Villa’s lacklustre performance is irrelevant now, what was of vital importance was that they got a massive three points and have climbed out of the relegation zone. I will gladly suffer a few more uninspiring Villa displays in exchange for a Christmas stocking full of points. As for Lambert and Bent, in Lambert I still trust… January will tell us all more about the future of Darren Bent but, until then, the media will link him numerous clubs falling within a 254 mile radius of the M6.
image: © ell brown