RICHARD Dunne has defended Aston Villa against Arsene Wenger's claim that they are a long-ball team.
The Villa defender pointed out that no team can expect to adopt a passing game to compare with the aesthetic approach of Arsenal but, despite statistics backing Wenger's observations, Dunne argues that Martin O'Neill's players are not only playing to their strengths, but that their passing is long but also precise.
The Arsenal manager suggested that the goalless draw at Villa Park on Wednesday was hard-earned considering how O'Neill's team negated his players' strengths with "a very efficient English game with long balls and very physical".
Wenger added that it was not a dirty game, but committed, and that the physicality was positive. He praised Villa's counterattacking capabilities, but his message was clear: you stopped us from playing.
O'Neill was irked by what he considered "an appalling insult" and "a ridiculous statement" from a manager with whom he had a frosty exchange during last season's 2-2 draw at Villa Park.
The statistics indicate that all the 'big four' teams play more short passes -- less than 35 yards -- than Villa, who also commit more fouls than any other team in the Premier League apart from Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Hull City.
But, while Arsenal are more adept than anyone in England at playing a continental-style game, passing the ball short and fast through the middle third of the field with delightful intricacy, Villa's strength going forward lies in the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young and the wingers' crossing ability.
"I think everyone is a long-ball team compared to Arsenal," Dunne said. "They play so much good football it's difficult. We've got pace in our team up front and that's how you use it."
Such tactics also stretch the play more and give James Milner the room to go forward in support. So it comes as little surprise that O'Neill should instruct his players to get the ball wide to Young and Downing as early as possible, before teams such as Arsenal, in which the full-backs often provide the width, have had the chance to regroup.
A long ball, according to Opta, can include a 35-yard pass wide to a winger, or up the channel to Agbonlahor or Emile Heskey.
"They're not just long kicks," Dunne said. "They're placed balls that we know our centre forwards can get on the end of because they can outpace most defenders."
The success rate of Villa's passing is also lower than other teams in the top seven of the league. This requires a greater workrate to win back the ball, and it is an area in which O'Neill will look for more of his players to be instantly comfortable in possession. This, in turn, probably contributes to the higher number of fouls committed. Even Ashley Young, who gave Gael Clichy a torrid night on Wednesday, fouled his marker several times.
O'Neill said in jest that he had asked his flyweight winger to lead the physical assault that Wenger evidently anticipated. "I thought that we should rough them up and I'd ask Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to do it for us," O'Neill said.
"We haven't got the capability to rough teams up. But we can close them down. Every single team in the Premier League tries to close teams down when they haven't got the ball. I think we're improving as a football team. We still have a way to go but the players are going out and expressing themselves."
Nigel Reo-Coker has suffered a stress fracture of the ankle that will sideline the Villa midfield player for up to three months, while Stephen Warnock, the defender who is struggling with a shin injury, could also miss next month's Carling Cup final with Manchester United at Wembley.