Up next are a fully advantaged Burnley, and the pressure is on.
The story so far
It’s like when a small child steps out of line for a second and is instantly met with discipline. Villa ‘stepped’ out of line on Sunday and were met with a short, sharp and seemingly deserved slap in the mouth in the form of Calum Chambers and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. How dare they challenge Arsenal?
That picture of Freddy Guilbert, laying face down and screaming into the dirt is a pretty good portrait of Sunday.
So, the reddened cheeks of Villa hid away in shame, and here we bloody are, bloody again. Fuelled by fresh bloody optimism after beating Brighton’s bloody academy side in the League Cup, Villa now host bloody Burnley at Villa Park.
Sean Dyche’s side have posted a good account of themselves so far, and have tangled well with a number of teams. They brought Norwich back down to earth last weekend and can waltz into this match with little to lose.
Who are ya?
A fool: Burnley can’t play football well. They aren’t stylish. They don’t do it right. They scrape results. They get by. They are conservative. They are vicious.
This is what you’d say if you haven’t watched Burnley play, and simply assumed the idea put out by the general footballing subconscious was correct. It’s not. There is one word I agree with there, however. Vicious. Burnley are vicious.
You have to be, right? Burnley are a big team - with pedigree - but they find themselves outgunned and out financed. They have to pick their moments; they have to be vicious. That means they are wily, cunning, and capable of springing surprises on teams. I have no idea why they are still surprises, but many teams are willing to walk directly into the lions den and get their face chewed off.
It’s paying off, as well. Burnley aren’t great in terms of xG, but aren’t awful at all in terms of xGA (expected goals, and expected goals against) - there’s no dire issue here that will take them down. In fact, there are clear signs of progress on the pitch.
From an outside perspective - it’s a dream.
Sean Dyche deserves plenty of credit - mainly for ignoring critics and sticking to a style of play that has ‘ground out the results’ - and partly for adapting that style and demanding more from his team.
That’s more than most - and many managers will stick doggedly to a philosophy while it sinks the ship. That’s silly, and it’s not a sign of great intelligence. It’s ego. With Dyche, there might be a bit of ego, but he’s smart enough to know when his number is up - and it was almost up last season. Instead of sticking to his guns, he’s guided his team forward, and Burnley 2.0 (and Dyche 2.0) are far better off.
Dyche’s ‘traditionalism’ emerges more from his mouth, than anything his teams do on the pitch. He can be caught dishing out his views on officiating, diving and yes - Villa’s spending. This can paint a portrait of a manager out of touch, and that’s not the case at all.
One to watch
Sean Dyche, Burnley, Barnes - all completely underrated, and that’s the solid truth. Out of that united trio, it’s Barnes who carries the tag with the heaviest burden. He’s done everything for Burnley and he is still - still, in 2019, surprising people.
Barnes is Burnley’s McGinn, and their Grealish, and often their Wesley and Trezeguet and El Ghazi. He can do it all, play across the midfield, strike with lethal precision and pass with deadly accuracy. He’s the player you cannot take your eye off and the magician we are all ignoring. If Barnes is stopped, Burnley are usually stopped as well.
What about the Villa?
Good news for fans of goals and style - Jonathan Kodjia is back in training following an ankle injury. While he probably won’t start many games for Villa, he offers a different approach up-front and will be raring to go. If Kodjia makes the bench, he’ll also be a prompt for Dean Smith to make substitution. Dean has lacked dynamic forward options on the bench, with the superb Keinan Davis offering a like-for-like replacement for main man Wesley.
After battering Brighton, Villa might have found a different approach with their midfield rotation. After a knackered Villa fell away to Arsenal, the Villans might fancy rotating their midfield in-game. After all, why not grab a great forty-five to sixty minutes from Jack Grealish and John McGinn rather than pushing them to carry out their duties for a full match? Villa have so many good midfielders to utilise, so when their main issue is a tiring midfield, why not?
However, can Villa really afford to do without McGinn or Grealish? That question troubles me more than it should. There’s no shame in starting from the bench though, and it’s perhaps McGinn that could do with being parachuted in to win the second-half.
It’s all talk right now though, Villa will run out with McGinn and Grealish, while Conor Hourihane may well have fought his way back into the team after an impressive showing against Brighton in midweek.
Matt Targett may be in line for a league debut after a good showing in that game as well, and could help freshen up the flank. He’s shown a good combination with both El Ghazi and Trezeguet and isn’t scared to attack the box directly.
Keinan Davis may be in for a start soon, but Wesley will keep his position and will be looking to add to his two goals. Trezeguet may want to carry on his fairly good form, and El Ghazi is Villa’s best option out-wide for now.
Tom Heaton will meet his former-club, while Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels look to bounce back from a tough outing at Arsenal.
Nobody on this Villa team should take Burnley for granted though.
Villa’s defence can’t let up - because Burnley are a danger from open-play and from set-pieces. The Clarets’ first goal against Norwich came from an Ashley Westwood corner, of all things. Westwood’s delivery was sound, and the header and movement of Chris Wood was impressive - but it was a momentary lapse of confidence from Norwich as the ball was played in that saw them concede:
Chris Wood starts his run from behind the goalkeeper, arrives at the near post and nods it in - almost without a challenge.
Wood heads past Tim Krul, and beyond everyone. On this occasion, the ball into the box and the timing of the run were inch-perfect. Burnley cannot deliver that on every corner kick, but the chance will always be there. Norwich moved towards the ball, but were unable to play it as Wood made the space for the header. In retrospect, Wood is always going to connect - but there is no pressure on him and he is able to complete his move without the positional questioning and the rough escort of a defender. With all due respect, it’s easier to score when there isn’t a 6 foot-tall chap breathing down your neck.
It’s also easier to pass the ball when you’re not being rushed - and Norwich found that out a shortly after conceding their first goal.
As Norwich played out from the back - with the aim of progressing up the pitch - Burnley triggered a high press via the medium of Ashley Barnes. Barnes doesn’t do much here - except sprint - and Norwich lose the ball, in their own-half and with a full-back caught out. Barnes’ press has left him with a clear canyon to run into, as well.
Well, that’s what usually happens. Norwich respond well as Dwight McNeil is played in, but their defensive chase isn’t enough and McNeil stabs it across for Chris Wood. Wood buries it and it’s game over for Norwich. The team that had impressed the world by catching out Manchester City in a surprise victory had deployed the same positive ideas against Burnley - catching a slap for their troubles. Norwich perform as well as they can here, and shorten Wood’s striking angle, but it’s still not enough.
Burnley’s press is akin to a mugging. It’s triggered by a moment of vulnerability - a casual stroll up the wing, or a burst to catch a stray pass - and it comes out of nowhere. Burnley will not press a team for an entire match, but when it does happen, it’s hard to escape and it doesn’t allow for mistakes. It’s a smart, effective and violent press. Against Norwich, Burnley targeted a few players - and when their time came on the ball, they burst forward. Burnley didn’t let Norwich play it short without their presence being noted.
This goes without saying, but letting Burnley score first is a bad, bad idea. Aston Villa should play forward, and play smart - and that doesn’t always mean that they should play it on the floor and out from the back. Villa should challenge Burnley, and should respect them. A casual stroll up the pitch might result in disaster for the Villa.
Most importantly, they need to get into Burnley’s heads and force players to second-guess themselves when the usual pressing trigger occurs. Atmosphere will be vitally important to this, and the noise could help - if Villa Park is annoyingly loud, it will set players on edge. It’s a small, small benefit in the big picture, but if Villa can avoid the timed press because of player errors forced by a hostile atmosphere, it might be the difference between a win and a draw on this occasion.
It’s all about concentration and who can avoid lapsing during the game. It’s sport though and as their lungs exhaust themselves and as each breath begins to burn as it leaves the body, players might find it hard to focus to their full capability. That is when the game will change.
Aston Villa fans expecting to see Burnley’s low-block might be in for a surprise. Sean Dyche has shown he is willing to assist his side in their transition to a fluent attacking team with a high press. Burnley will be defined this season by wing combinations and forwards who are willing to defend from the front. However, as they head into their 7th game, lacking an away clean sheet this season, they may be prepared to drop deep.
Either way, can we be fully confident that Villa can deal with Dyche’s team?
It’ll be a 1-1 draw. Probably - and usefully. Villa will want a win, but a draw isn’t an awful result as long as people keep clear heads.