Mansfield v Aston Villa match analysis: Plenty of positives but the big test is yet to come

Alex Fisher wheels away after  scoring for The Stags-Pic by: Richard Parkes
Alex Fisher wheels away after scoring for The Stags-Pic by: Richard Parkes

It can often be very frustrating hearing a football manager putting a positive spin on defeat in their post-match interview.

You can just hear the irritated fans thinking ‘We lost so just tell it how it is and speak the truth,’

Ollie Palmer holds off the challenge of the Villa defender -Pic by: Richard Parkes

Ollie Palmer holds off the challenge of the Villa defender -Pic by: Richard Parkes

Moments after Mansfield Town were beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa on Thursday, boss Paul Cox came out and gave a positive spin on the game that any political spin doctor would be proud of.

But to be fair, Cox was spot on. Afterall, does it really matter if you lose a pre-season game, especially when you’re a League Two side battling a Premier League team? No, not really.

Pre-season is, as we all know, about getting fitness levels bang on, experimenting with new systems or new partnerships and looking to replace those players long since departed.

It’s all about being ready to hit the ground running when Mansfield take to the field at Northampton on 9th August for the eagerly-anticipated season opener.

Aston Villa's Gabby Agbonlaher is sandwiched by the Mansfield defence -Pic by: Richard Parkes

Aston Villa's Gabby Agbonlaher is sandwiched by the Mansfield defence -Pic by: Richard Parkes

Cox had named three trialists in his starting line-up, including an unnamed goalkeeper as he continued his hunt to replace Alan Marriott.

Stags started with a 4-4-2 formation, with Sutton, Dempster, Riley and Marsden all lining up alongside each other in a unit which could well form the backbone of the Mansfield rearguard for large chunks of this season.

Villa, perhaps as you would expect, fielded a star-studded line-up, with former England star Joe Cole making his debut in the famous claret shirt, in a first half which was certainly full of positive signs for the home side.

The visitors had their chances to take control with Martin Riley alertly keeping the scoresheet blank when he cleared Joe Bennett’s effort off the line on six minutes.

Mansfield’s unnamed goalkeeper, the second different shot-stopper in as many pre-season outings, showed excellent reflexes to parry a well hit shot from Leandro Bacuna after a patient passing move by Villa had carved the defence open on 20 minutes.

Gabby Agbonlahor should have fired the former European Cup winners ahead when he headed Bacuna’s cross over on 28 minutes.

But to this point the Mansfield defence would have been very pleased with their night’s work as they remained strong, resolute and kept a good shape against a level of firepower they will not be facing throughout their League Two campaign.

Young Liam Marsden continued where he left off last season with an impressive and comfortable performance, which was very much on a par with his much more experienced defensive partners.

The trialist goalkeeper also did his chances of earning a full-time contract no harm at all as he commanded his box well and produced a number of superb saves throughout the 90 minutes.

Stags began to grow in confidence and, as the half wore on, started to take control of the game and push their famous opponents on the defensive,

Shay Given had to be at full-stretch to turn away Sam Clucas’s curling 25-yard free-kick on 35 minutes, before Mansfield got their reward for that growing belief four minutes before the break.

The lively Alex Fisher, who linked up well with the ever industrious Ollie Palmer, backed up his goalscoring reputation with his second goal of pre-season as he headed home from close range.

Only time will tell if he is the man to finally replace the goals of Matt Green, but it’s certainly been a good start so far for the former Monza man.

Villa made 11 substitutes at half-time and significantly added to their firepower with the introduction of sharpshooter Darren Bent.

Stags, in contrast, made changes throughout the second half with Anthony Howell, fans’ favourite Matt Rhead and youth teamer Chris Spencer just three of those to enter the fray.

The substitutions perfectly highlighting the difference in quality and resources available on offer to both sides.

It took just 16 minutes for the new-look Villa to draw level as they dramatically upped the quality of their passing, movement and tempo of their play.

Darren Bent showed his natural goalscorer’s instinct to tap home into an empty net after Alan Hutton’s surging run and cutback left him with the simplest of finishes.

Kieran Richardson was denied on 73 minutes by the outstretched boot of Mansfield’s trialist keeper as Villa continued to turn up the pressure and stretch Stags in wide areas.

And, as Mansfield began to tire, Gary Gardner made it 2-1 on 85 minutes before Bent bagged his brace right on the final whistle to secure Villa’s victory.

The scoreline suggested a comfortable victory, but the reality was anything but as brave Mansfield were left to reflect on a harsh lesson of Premier League quality.

Boss Paul Cox received the competitive workout against quality opposition he so desperately desired and witnessed his players under pressure for at least 30 minutes of the encounter.

Of course, pre-season ‘pressure’ is a totally different kettle of fish to what will be faced on Day One at Northampton when the result really means something. and the home fans are getting on Mansfield’s back.

The questions that now remain are will the injured Sam Clucas feature at Sixfields? Will Mansfield Town stand up to the pressure in a similarly impressive fashion when the heat is really on and, most importantly off, will the budget available to Cox allow him to sign the trialists he wants?

The next three weeks are going to be crucial.