At this point, it likely isn't news that the next month or so is going to be a very difficult run of games for Aston Villa. Before December is up they'll face Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal with trips to the Reebok and Britannia Stadia to face Bolton and Stoke thrown in for good measure. Villa currently sit 8th which isn't too terribly bad, but it's deceptive; there still hasn't been much separation (save the top seven from the rest of the league) and 8th-place Villa's 15 points are just six more than 18th-place Bolton's 9. What's more, there's a growing sense that the parity that led to a relegation battle that at one point involved seemingly every team outside of the top 6 is going to be around for another season at least. What has anyone seen that would lead them to believe QPR is an appreciably better side than Fulham? Or that there's any meaningful gap between Norwich City and Wolves? And whereas last season there was always a sense that Villa had enough talent to distance themselves in the end (which, let's remember, is exactly what happened) there's far less sense of that being the case this time around. There's no Ashley Young or Stewart Downing on the wing, and it seems fair to say there will be no players of Darren Bent's caliber joining up in January.
Shorter version: there's a better chance than not that Aston Villa's winter is going to be equally uncomfortable as last year's. That's not to say I think Villa will be relegated; I really don't. There are far worse teams and Villa are realistically a mid-table side at the moment. But the way things are set up, they could find themselves uncomfortably close to the red-tinted section of the table far too late in the season for anyone's liking, and at that point everything gets a whole lot scarier, the impacts of luck and injuries become amplified and it's just an unpleasant situation for all involved. Ideally, we'd like to avoid this. Easiest way to avoid if? Beating teams like Swansea.
Problem though; winning on the road. Villa hasn't done it yet, with Swansea, Blackburn and Wigan the only other sides with the same ominous mark. And while Villa has had to deal with City and Spurs, they've had a slightly easier road against Fulham, Everton, QPR and Sunderland and have still been unable to finish the job. And we can blame the tactics of Alex McLeish all we want (and we'd largely be right, because they're terrible) but on numerous occasions this season we've seen the better half of this team perform wonderfully while the (if you'll forgive the term) ass-end of the squad has completely cocked things up on numerous occasions. When it hasn't been the defense it's been the midfield. Hilariously (?) the forwards have been quite good when given the opportunity to make some sort of difference, but that's not been often. The tactical approach has been terrible (and counterproductive, which I'll get into later unless Villa somehow manages to not piss me off at some point along the way, which seems a pretty massive longshot) but the players themselves have been pretty terrible in their own right.
And yet somehow Villa has been less than a disaster on the balance of things. It's quite simple; there's a ton of talent in the side (at least in the attacking phase.) Sometimes they even play that way. And given a less conservative (cynical) approach, the better parts of the squad will often shine through. When asked to hold down the fort, things often go awry as Slaky talked about yesterday. When they're attacking the goal and looking to dominate possession, Villa look surprisingly competent. Otherwise, it's a horror show. And given the general (informed) consensus regarding what gives a team the best chance to win versus what we've seen the manager call for in recent weeks, it's really frustrating.
And hey, Swansea aren't the kind of opponent that look likely to make things less frustrating. Villa have shown an ability to go toe-to-toe with the very best Route-One, Get-Stuck-In sides. Against teams that actually know how to pass, build from the back, exercise patience? Less successful. We could get into the reasons why, but they're not especially earth-shattering or interesting. What's more, Alex McLeish isn't going to be changing his approach any time soon, so questions of tactical preference are largely moot. I'm increasingly concerned about execution, because if I don't want to be a miserable sack of crap for the next few years I've got to start looking on the bright side every now and again.
And the execution has been garbage for large stretches of the season. Every bit of it has to get better. Tactically, yes. But also at a more base level. Villa just needs to play better football. They're easily capable of doing so against the likes of Swansea. It's the doing it that's the thing. And a huge part of that is the defense acting as though they've seen a clever ball in their life, the midfield refusing to rush things and holding some possession, the forwards recognizing that they might not get an abundance of chances and converting when the opportunity arises. Just, you know, better. As much as I might dislike Alex McLeish, I can recognize that this team playing his style of football-as much as I might hate it-should win against teams like Swansea.
So I guess this is the acceptance stage of grief. I reserve the right to return to anger or bargaining at some future date. But for now; just don't make stupid mistakes.Play smart football. Get the ball to Gabby and Bent. Just, you know, be better than Swansea. Points! They're awesome! Notice the plural! Because dropping points here is going to make that December mountain a whole lot more imposing. But until Villa can beat a team capable of doing something other than menacingly hoofing the ball down field away from Villa Park, I'm skeptical. And that doesn't give me an especially happpy outlook on the month(s) ahead.