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Is the Villa Park pitch really killing Aston Villa’s style of play?

Villa’s pitch might be holding them back, according to Steve Bruce.

Aston Villa v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

After a gutsy comeback to scrape a point against a battling Preston North End, Villa’s manager, Steve Bruce - had a lot to say about certain circumstances at Villa Park that may have played a key factor in Aston Villa’s direct style of play, which lacked their signature press and quick break. These circumstances? They revolve around the current state of the Villa Park pitch.

Bruce was quoted by the Birmingham Mail:

“All of a sudden we’ve got a very difficult Villa Park pitch, I’ve never seen it the way it is at the moment. We’ve gone a little bit more direct, a bit more basic.”

The Aston Villa pitch is regarded as one of the best playing surfaces in England, and of course, the AVFC grounds staff have won plenty of awards for their work. Just last season, in the Championship, Villa’s team were awarded the EFL Championship award for their work on the Villa Park pitch in 2016 and 2017:

‘In the Sky Bet Championship, our very own team – led by Karl Prescott and assisted by Ian Hipkiss and Matt Jupp - won the award for producing a perfect pitch at Villa Park this season.’

This isn’t new. Villa’s staff won the Premier League award back in 2015, their ninth straight year in a row.

If these awards went under the radar for Villa fans, then we can look back to the first words of a new signing at AVFC. In Albert Adomah’s opening interview with Villa, the Ghanian winger noted that the Villa Park surface was “one of the best pitches I’ve seen. It’s like a carpet.” Albert is of course referring to his appearance against Villa, for Middlesbrough in the final fixture of their 2016 pre-season, days before he made the move to Villa.

What this means, is that the playing surface at Aston Villa has rapidly deteriorated from award-winning, to ‘badly affecting the performance of my team’ in less than a year. Pitches are usually tested in February if an award is applied for by the team. A set of scientists from the Sports Turf Research Institute turn up on behalf of the footballing organisations that run the competitions that the team is competing in, and provide reports, based on how the pitch deals with fixtures and rainfall, among other things. Nutrients, management and an array of metrics are taken into consideration.

The pitch was assessed by the STRI in February 2016, and was noticeably falling apart in January 2018, when Villa fans commented about its look before an FA Cup clash with Peterborough. Steve Bruce’s comments after the Preston North End match is the first high-profile account of what the once award-winning pitch is now doing to the team.

So, what’s happened?

Well, for a large part, the Groundskeepers haven’t seen much attrition and it looks like near-enough, that the same team is in place at Villa Park. We can’t blame cutbacks on staffing for this issue right now.

The Birmingham Mail is running with the line that the pitch is simply old. Which is reasonable enough. Natural beings - like grass, it’s a living thing - generally deteriorate very quickly. The pitch at the stadium was installed just before, or after, Randy Lerner completed his £63 million takeover of the club from Doug Ellis. Either way, it’s been in place since 2006.

Like the best playing surfaces in the world, the pitch is NOT built from the ground up with grass seed. It actually has a small percentage of what amounts to ‘carpet’ within the compound of the grass. This is known as DESSO and it’s man-made fibre. With a close to the ground trim, Villa’s pitch can become exactly like a carpet when maintained correctly. As it is being. Ironically, a fully DESSO pitch would last for a very long time. However, artificial pitches are not perfect footballing surfaces and can create friction.

A quick Google search doesn’t reveal much detail about turf - but in general, it needs to be maintained almost daily, and fed with the right nutrients and water. No matter what you do, it will need to be relaid. At this point, we simply have to blame the age.

But is it affecting Villa’s style of play? Villa have thrived in 2018 from a cut-throat style of play based around the talents of Jack Grealish, Robert Snodgrass and Albert Adomah. With all of those players missing all, or at least half of the game against Preston, we also have another reason as to why Villa adopted a fast-track approach to scoring goals. Like it or lump it, Villa lack identity without their three key forward players - when they are missing, a natural gameplan will be adopted and that usually means hoofing it towards goal. I’d be more inclined to say that mass rotation in a short space of time, along with tight fixture scheduling has meant that Villa are changing up.

To check this out - I went over to WhoScored and compared Villa’s long-ball stats over the last four games. If Bruce is correct, we should be playing direct at home, and it should stand out.

Over our past five games, we’ve played 360 long balls. I won’t mention the accuracy stats of those long balls. They are not good. Still, that works out to 72 per game. Over the course of the season, that’s over 3,000 long balls. An absurd amount. There isn’t much of a gap between Villa punting it long between home and away games. Players like Sam Johnstone (naturally) and Ahmed Elmohamady love a punt and combine for nearly 40 long balls a game.

Basically, it doesn’t seem to matter where they play. They are hoofing it. The success of these passes largely depends on individual talent and off-the-ball work. That doesn’t happen when you’re missing your best players.

Can we fully blame the pitch? No. However, it won’t suit a ground game if it’s in terrible condition, however, Villa did look GREAT when they played the ball on the ground against Birmingham and Preston, so it can’t be that bad. Can it?