Aston Villa’s season is already nearly a quarter of the way through. On pace for a grand total of four league wins — hey, that’d be one more than last year! — things haven’t gone particularly well for Roberto Di Matteo and his team in this 2016-17 term.
So as we hit the international break that precedes the true quarter-way point — halftime against Wolves in two weeks — and Villa are mired near the bottom end of the table, it’s worth analyzing why the Claret and Blues are where they are. And perhaps, more importantly, what can be fixed against what cannot be fixed as Villa look to move forward and salvage the rest of the season.
Before I dive deeper, though, I want to operate under a truth: That performances like the ones Ipswich and Preston are going to happen, irrespective of how good a team is. There’s a reason English football has only seen two unbeaten top-flight champions. Even the best teams are “off” their game from time to time. It is concerning when they happen, of course, but to expect Villa to show up and boss every game isn’t really how it should work anyway.
That said, I think there’s three things currently hampering Villa more than anything else. Unfortunately, only one of those can be settled now — and I’m not sure changing it would do a damn thing. So let’s dive in…
Let’s be honest here. Even the biggest critics of Di Matteo have to admit that the side have been a little unlucky this season. Going back to Pierluigi Gollini’s errors against Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town, through the incredible Nottingham Forest result and the recent Barnsley draw (corners have about a 3 percent success rate), Villa haven’t had the best of luck in matches where they otherwise “should” have seen out three points. Just take those four results, add back seven points, and the Claret and Blues are sitting ninth, three points off sixth — and nobody’s calling for Di Mattteo’s departure. Sure, it’d still be a little frustrating, but much better than where we are now.
The other evidence of luck is that, coming into yesterday, Villa had led for longer than 19 of 23 Championship sides and trailed for shorter than 21. Genuinely, on the run of play, Villa have been a good football team this year. A luck-based approach would indicate that, in the long run, results would start to better match the game states data.
At the same point in time, Aston Villa’s squad is simply not well constructed. When Ashley Westwood, an average Championship player at his best, gets playing time over Rudy Gestede and Ross McCormack, two 20-goal strikers in this division, something’s screwed up in your setup and priorities. Yes, playing Aaron Tshibola over Westwood would likely help, for instance, but if a midfield trio is desired, you’re dealing with having to play Westwood and sit someone who’s amongst the five best players at the club.
When Aston Villa signed Jonathan Kodjia and Albert Adomah at the close of the transfer window, I felt both were good signings — if the club was already set everywhere else. But at the end of the day, the club isn’t set everywhere else, because the midfield — time and time agains — continue to let the team down. Villa, with the personnel they had on 25 August, had forwards capable of playing 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2.
But instead of getting the midfield to let the club play all those tactics — a small arsenal, sure, but one that should be effective enough given your talent — the club shelled out to purchase forwards to let them play any formation in the book. Except, you know, there’s not the midfield to support it.
It’s the catch 22 Di Matteo, or whoever replaces him in the event of a change, has right now. Sure, you can play a three-man midfield like everyone wants. But that means giving Westwood more playing time over guys like McCormack, who are much better footballers. You’re sacrificing promotion-winning talent for a promotion-winning formation.
Aston Villa cannot have both right now, and it’s a key part of why they keep dropping points.
Go back to “luck” and you can pretty much regurgitate this here as failures of Di Matteo’s time so far as manager. Against Huddersfield, he didn’t make the right adjustments to see out the win; he didn’t do it earlier against Luton; he didn’t need to be so attack-minded after going 2-1 up against Forest. A certain extent of Villa’s lack of success so far does boil down to luck, sure, but the adage that you make your own luck seems particularly applicable to Aston Villa. The endgame tactics have been poor, and they continue to put Villa in bad spots — the types of spots that result in incredibly frustrating dropped points.
That was, more than any other time this year, on display Saturday at Preston. Down 2-0 at the half, Di Matteo went to what was, properly, a 4-1-5 formation — at least in personnel. It was a move reminiscent of Paul Lambert’s Bradford City moment. Of course, it highlights the above issue — that Villa don’t have the personnel to play actual formations at a high level — but it also highlights his tactical problems.
Enough of what we’ve seen from Di Matteo is — dare I say it? — Tim Sherwood-esque. Around a year ago, I supported sacking Sherwood, not because Villa were playing particularly poorly (they really weren’t one of the three worst sides in the league yet), but because Villa were dropping points when Sherwood was outmanaged week-in, week-out. To a certain extent, yeah, that feels like it’s happening today.
On luck: Wait things out. There’s no better way to explain this other than that. One of the things that hampered Villa last season was that the form fell off a cliff before the luck turned around — something I wrote about last month. Villa, on the whole, need to continue playing well if this is going to sort itself out.
On personnel: Unfortunately, there ain’t much you can do right now, unless you think Jordan Lyden is your messiah in midfield. The squad imbalance is going to continue to propagate until January, and if Villa haven’t turned things around by then, you’re buying someone to avoid League One, not to win your way to the Premier League.
On tactics: Here’s the one, to a certain extent, you can change. Sack Di Matteo, bring in whomever you can get, and see what happens. Right?
In a perfect world, it’s that easy. But we don’t live in a perfect world. If you take RDM out of the gig now — and if you think you want to do it, just get it over with at the international break — he’s going to inherit a squad with the same problem of “no way to win other than 5-3.” If the new manager wants to play three in midfield, he’s playing a subpar midfield. If he wants to go three at the back, well, that’s probably going to be too negative, no?
And that’s why, at the end of the day, I find it hard to throw ardent support behind the movement to sack Di Matteo. Because while some of the problems are his own doing, that doesn’t change the fact that his prospective successor can’t fix them for three months. Are you just bringing someone who’ll be setup to fail? And if you run away from Di Matteo after just a dozen matches in charge, who are you going to recruit to Villa Park? He’s a Champions League-winning manager who’s done the job in this division before. Do you really think any proven manager is going to take the position if he knows he could be back out of a job at Christmas?
Sacking Di Matteo requires getting the next appointment absolutely correct. Because otherwise, you’re throwing someone into the same situation you did 12 months ago with Rémi Garde. And that didn’t really go too well.
So in short: I don’t know if you can fix this either right now. Ain’t that fun?