With the season's halfway point rapidly approaching, it's become increasingly clear that Aston Villa's promising start was at least something of an illusion. There's been a very slight improvement in terms of points over last year, and a very slightly larger improvement in terms of Villa's position to the teams at the bottom of the table, but a slip in November followed by what has to this point been a poor December has knocked the shine off what once looked like a season of great promise. Given that last season's squad didn't really go off the rails until the beginning of the festive period, there's still a very good chance that come summer this year will mark a legitimate step forward. But for that to happen, Villa need to start performing up to expectations against teams like Crystal Palace.
Until November rolled around, Villa's losses on the season came against Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, Spurs, and Everton, all sides currently in the top 7 and in the Champions League mix. November was marked by uninspiring draws to clubs such as West Ham, West Brom and Sunderland, teams that Villa were at the time favored to beat. But in December losses to Fulham and Stoke City-the latter being arguably Villa's worst performance of the season-have brought some familiar doubts back to the forefront, with Villa looking incapable of unlocking defenses and prone to the kind of frustrating lapses at the back that once seemed to have been largely exorcised.
In short, Villa appear to have regressed over the past two months, and especially over the past three games; even the win against Southampton seemed incredibly lucky, something that wasn't really true of the club's wins earlier in the season. It's entirely possible that the quality of their play earlier in the season was a momentary blip, and that what we've seen the past few months is closer to their actual talent level. That's become the prevailing narrative among Villa fans, and for somewhat understandable reason; despite ending the year on a high note, it seemed a bit tough to believe that a club that made marginal additions over the summer window would all of a sudden be capable of pushing for a Europa League spot so soon after being mired in the relegation battle.
Of course, it's also possible that it's the past six or so games will end up being the outlier. Villa's had some pretty significant injury struggles, with Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann, Gabby Agbonlahor, Ron Vlaar, and Antonio Luna all missing time in recent weeks. Injuries are very seldom a reasonable excuse for prolonged runs of bad form, but they very well can be a contributing factor. And though they haven't been playing well, all teams hit rough patches. It's just that given Villa's recent history and their somewhat unrefined style even when they're at their best, it's understandable that some have been alarmed by their recent displays.
In truth, Villa probably isn't as good as the team they appeared to be in August and September, and they probably aren't as bad as the team they've appeared to be so far in December. But no matter the case, they need to win games against teams like Crystal Palace. Assuming the worst, they'll need full points from games like this one in order to survive the relegation battle. Assuming the best, they're far too good not to win games against bottom table sides. And assuming anything in between, well, they're still too good not to win games against bottom table sides. Crystal Palace are, to be frank, a pretty bad Premier League team; Aston Villa may be shown to be the same, but at this point they still look to be at least a notch or two ahead.
And that's the standard to which they ought to be held. Getting stomped by United isn't fun, but it isn't a sign that the bottom has dropped out either. Even an interminable grinder of a loss to Stoke isn't the end of the world. But home against Crystal Palace is a game from which Villa ought to be expected to take three points. This is a crucial period in Villa's season, that could come to define it the rest of the way; anything less than four points from the next three games (which will all be completed within the week) would be a severe disapppointment. And of those three, Palace looks the most promising to deliver a win.
Narratives are often lazy and misleading, but results are results. And if Aston Villa want to avoid the narrative of this season from looking much like that of the past few, need positive results from games such as these. The margins are just too thin to leave points on the table, and the six point cushion over the relegation zone that Villa currently enjoy can disappear with alarming quickness. Everyone's hopeful that the squad will be strengthened come January, but there's no guarantee that will actually help all that much. This team is good enough to win these games. They just need to remember that.