The Doc's Diagnosis: Aston Villa v Arsenal

This, to me, was a tale of two strikers. One who wasn't playing, and one who was.

I make no bones about the fact that I am a huge Gabby fan. His pace has always terrified even the best defences (he won't be getting a Christmas card from Nemanja Vidic), but he's learned to hold the ball up, he now works the channels brilliantly, he's added power to his pace and he works hard to harry an opposing back four when they have possession in their own third. But he wasn't available today - and how we missed him.

We did of course have the returning John Carew. I make equally few apologies for the fact that I dislike the Norwegian. On his day, he can be "unplayable" (as they say). But that unplayability is always related to the fact that he is big and strong.

He has pace, too - when he can be bothered to use it. He couldn't be bothered to be anything other today than big and strong, which threw his performance into very strong relief against an Arsenal side which know how to use a football.

Carew spent most of the afternoon standing around. He put no pressure on the Arsenal back four when they had the ball, and made no effort to take up imaginative positions on the few first half occasions we actually got forward. John Carew is a lazy dilettante of a footballer, and his days at Villa Park are seriously numbered. We can't afford players who can't give a f***.

This isn't meant to be a criticism of 4-5-1 as a viable formation. I think it's a perfectly workable shape, but it puts the onus on the "1" to work his socks off. Carew can't, or won't do that. Gabby can, and will.

And Gabby's pace, hunger and desire to get down the channels means that Villa play different football when he is on the field. Because he finds better positions, the attacks have purpose and stretch defences. With Carew's slobbishness, we just end up lumping the ball towards him and hoping he can be bothered to try and win it.

With that rant over, cue the second one

Once again, we started with Downing on the right and Young on the left. A few seasons ago, this was a mildly successful guerilla tactic. Full backs expected wingers to take them on on the outside and try to pull a cross back from the bye line - the "wrong footed" approach was a surprise move, which saw wingers cut in and either shoot or deliver a whipped inswinging cross. It paid dividends then - but we're into the law of diminishing returns now as every decent back four in the league is wise to it.

But we persevere, for some reason. It isn't helping Ash, and it isn't helping Downing. Instead of buggering about, why doesn't Houllier start with Downing left and Young right. With a clear brief to use their pace and skill to get behind opposing full backs on the outside and deliver telling crosses into the box.

If they can't do that, surely they aren't wingers of Premier League quality?

And now, perhaps, rant number three

In our last few games, the stand-out performances - even against the very stiffest opposition - have come from young players. Barry Bannan must be running Stu close for player-of-the-season so far, and Clarky was superb today.

A start for Pires? You have to question that - you just have to. I can understand that he may have a presence on the training ground, but did he participate in the great performance against Man Utd? No. Did Jonathan Hogg? Yes.

Nuff said...

Man of the Match