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Villa are the new Stoke? Unfair criticism from Mourinho and Wenger.

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Do Villa play the long ball to this man too much? Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger seem to think so. Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images
Do Villa play the long ball to this man too much? Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger seem to think so. Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

It’s fair to say that Stoke City’s style of football under Tony Pulis was widely regarded as one of the most unattractive in England’s top flight. 

While Potters fans defended it to the hilt – and rightfully so after it took them to a FA Cup final and through the Europa League – many up and down the country have cast judgement on the Midlanders who bully their way victory with their long ball approach.

Now a new challenger has, apparently, stepped up to the plate to relinquish the Potters crown as both Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho cast their judgement over Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa side in the first week of the season.

The Arsenal boss sneered at his opening day of the season opponent after their 3-1 loss describing Villa as a dirty side who kicked their way to success at the Emirates.  Mourinho, who would have been  a little hypocritical to have suggested a similar view to that of his French counterpart after Branislav Ivanovic elbowed Christian Benteke in their encounter on Wednesday night, described Lambert’s team as a side that plays long ball football rather than, as he describes it, “playing football”.

“I don’t think they played a lot because they don’t play a lot,” was the Special/Happy One’s verdict after he nicked a 2-1 against a gutsy Villa side.

“Every ball the goalkeeper has, every ball the goalkeeper kicks so they don’t play.

“They have a special player [Benteke] with special qualities, they use him. The goalkeeper has a great kick. Benteke is great with the first ball and they play from Benteke. They are this and they counter attack.

“That situation with Benteke is very difficult to control because the goalkeeper has the ball, you cannot press the goalkeeper, the ball is there, he kicks the ball and after that everything is from Benteke.”

The scathing judgement from Mourinho does have it’s points.  Brad Guzan does have a tendency of looking for the long ball when he receives it and Benteke is a formidable player who has a talent for finding neat the right man with a flicked header or holding up play to allow his teammates to join the attack.  Villa can utilise this option and no doubt will find success from this as the year goes by.

It’s a useful way to play when your squad lacks defenders who possess the ability to play out from the back like Barca and your back four is renowned for making silly mistakes in possession that lead to goals. It’s also good when your star player is over 6ft tall and has the touch and skill of a world-class centre forward in the making.

Lambert, though, was quick to defend his side’s style of play and to point out that his side is more than just a long ball team.

“We’re a football team,” was the Scotsman’s adamant reaction to Mourinho’s comments.

“Everyone’s got their opinions on it and I’m not getting caught up in all of that. I’m proud of my team, the way we played, we don’t play long ball.”

If Mourinho looks back at the footage from the last two games he might see what Lambert means.

On a night where Chelsea continued to up the tempo to try and push Villa into the silly mistakes we are used to seeing the visitors stood firm. The midfield trio of Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Karim El Ahmadi look composed on the ball and Delph in particular was a wizard at points, jinking through the Chelsea ranks and feeding balls into space for the front men. Westwood too, who looked a little out of his depth in the early points of last season, has grown into his role as the holding player, staying calm on the ball near his own area and trying his best to play his team out of danger.  There manager can see this for himself and noted it before he left the pressroom.

“If you look at the midfield lads, they’re small lads, they’re footballers and the two fullbacks are not the tallest.

“I thought Fabian Delph was absolutely outstanding. I thought he was fantastic and as I’ve said, I’m proud of them.”

Against Arsenal, too, the Villans worked hard not to just rely on Benteke and the prowess he possess up front. Delph again, was a big player on their opening day of the season, as was the running of Gabby Agbonlahor who tormented Arsenal’s defence for much of the game. 

Physical? Yes. Gritty? Yes. But a dirty, long ball football team? Definitely not. 

Villa have shown enough already this season that they can play the sort of football that will see them more than avoid the drop zone this season, although there is a worry that when the adrenalin inducing games come to an end – their difficult early season run finishing with Liverpool in two weeks after already facing two of the top four – the players might drop off and slump against other mid-table sides. If that can be avoided, then Lambert’s side will be playing their attractive brand of fast flowing, hard hitting football for a little while longer, whether the big guns like it or not.