By Adam Keeble
If Sherwood’s coming-out party was the league game against the Albion and his coronation was the knocking them out of the cup in the same week, his massive win over Sunderland was reason for Villa nationwide street parties. What did Aston Villa fans learn now the dark days of dour, losing football look to be gone for good?
It’s no coincidence the same group of players that looked so stifled under Paul Lambert are now playing gung-ho attacking football. Lambert’s insistence that flair and individual creativity be sacrificed for discipline and defensive duties led Villa into the bottom three. Tim Sherwood’s faith in letting the defenders defend and the attackers attack has led to back-to-back-to-back wins, eight goals scored (40 shots, 21 on target) and just one goal conceded. We know Paul Lambert wasn’t a stats man, so we shouldn’t dwell on the facts, so let’s look at the unmeasurable factor: Aston Villa have their groove back.
As this column has suggested, Sherwood has breathed new life into Christian Benteke, Gabby Agbonlahor and most impressively of all, Charles N’Zogbia (see below) just by telling them to do their thing and not worry about the other stuff. Benteke went as far as to say he’s playing without shackles in his post-match interview. He didn’t need to be benched. He didn’t need to have long punts from the halfway line to bring out the best in him. He needed to be told to go be a striker.
To play down Sherwood’s influence on this change in Villa’s fortunes in naive at best, and downright disrespectful at worst. At this point, even if he fails to keep us up, he’s given the players and fans a belief that survival is possible and that genuinely at least a mid-table finish is possible next season even if he doesn’t bring in any new players. The alternative was a toothless slide into the championship, half the team abandoning the sunk ship this summer, and who knows? A Man City-esque slide from top flight to the third?
The Charles N’Zogbia we saw in the cup against Albion and against Sunderland was unlike any other times we’ve seen him in a Villa shirt. Two defensive managers had him concerned about leaving space behind him, or releasing the ball quickly in case he was caught in possession. This manager has him ghosting by defenders and making passes when the time is right, not lumping them at our big centre-forward and hoping for the best.
More promising still, he doesn’t yet look at full speed (although that’s characteristic of many a temperamental flair winger). There was no way he would possibly be signing any kind of new deal with Lambert at the helm. His bloated contract and indifferent performances saw him bomb-squadded and until very recently he rightly deserved the jeers he would earn with his piddle-poor crosses and apparently lack of enthusiasm. But clearly, in a team with an attacking outlook he can do the business and all it took was a change in philosophy and a few kind words in public from the manager. To let him go for free at the end of the season, then watch him do his thing at Southampton or even Bournemouth would be sickening especially knowing he was only partly to blame.
CIARAN AND RUSHIAN
Another turning point was the tactical substitution of Ciaran Clark as the game wound down against Sunderland. Sherwood was playing some chess and thinking a few moves ahead with Clark on a suspension the next time he picks up a yellow card which would have meant missing key games against Swansea and Manchester United (in which four points would really propel Villa up the league). It also gave Sanchez an airing and gave fans a rare opportunity to salute Clark for his efforts as an individual with applause solely for him as he left the field.
The game might have been won, and it’s fair to say Villa weren’t so much about adding to their total as trying to keep a clean sheet (which is something Lambert struggled with) but it was sensible, tactical, and forward thinking.
The debut of Rushian Hepburn-Murphy might have been low-key in a game that was done and dusted, but Tim Sherwood has spotted something that has elevated this 16-year-old striker from the youth team right to the seniors. Certainly Paul Lambert put some younger players on the bench, and maybe he never had the luxury of a 4-0 win to feel comfortable about blooding them, but other younger players in the squad and on the fringes will look at Rushian and think “if I work hard and make an impression, that could be me”. Another subtle chess move from Sherwood.
GIL MEET AGAIN…
Sherwood’s comments this week about intense training might offer further explanation into Carles Gil’s repeated absences from first team action. Primarily, he now has N’Zogbia in front of him, but Gil is just a few weeks out of Spanish football and now has found a higher degree of seriousness about training under the new manager. Frankly, a few niggles picked up in training might be a price to pay if, as Sherwood says, it get the players fitter and up to the next level. And if Gil can rise to the occasion we might end up with a stronger, fitter, even more enthusiastic talent more suited to the English game even if he has to fight for his spot coming off the bench. I wouldn’t back against him being our first substitute to score this season before it’s over. UTV
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