Aston Villa fans are once again concerned about the team’s ability to survive in the Premier League, after the disappointing defeat at Dean Court in the last match..
Many fans believed winning this match in particular was vital, a must-win game when taking into account the remaining Premier League fixtures. Obviously, a loss is less than ideal, especially against a fellow relegation candidate. But supporters might calm down if they realize the remaining fixtures may be less daunting than they seem on paper.
The ‘Top Six’ really aren’t all that ‘Top’ anymore
With Villa’s dismal solitary point at Old Trafford the only result against the conventional ‘top six’ sides this season, it is easy to forget that many of the once established ‘elite’ clubs are having seasons to forget. Yes, Liverpool have been incredible and without equal. Manchester City and Leicester (after that freak 2015–16 winning season, they’re back in the top six; however, they’re still not part of the established elite) are capable of quality performances as well, with Villa being on the end of heavy defeats to both. However, compared to their historical successes, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United are all teams between a state of transition or in just plain shambles.
Arsenal and Tottenham both had rough starts to the season, which led to managerial changes and resultant stylistic shifts midway through the season. The intense short passing and pressing that had characterised Spurs’ play over recent years is now mixed with a more direct and pragmatic roughness brought by Mourinho’s appointment. Arsenal’s fall under Unai Emery’s substanceless tactics has halted, but although fans welcomed Mikel Arteta’s appointment, he has yet to transform the underwhelming Gunners.
On the other hand, Chelsea and United have inexperienced managers at the helm in Frank Lampard and Ole Gunner Solskjaer. Other thanthe challenge that Premier League football poses, the two former players must also deal with aggravating factors such as the former’s transfer ban and the latter’s boardroom shambles. Chelsea have not been able to replace the talent of Eden Hazard, who had been brilliant for them in previous seasons, and have had to depend on inconsistent albeit talented youngsters. Manchester United may have splashed the cash this summer, but they still don’t look like a coherent squad.
Five years without a ‘Big Club’ scalping in the Premier League
Setting aside the three teams that top the Premier League, the remaining four of the ‘top six’ are weaker than in the period before Villa’s spell in the Championship. Despite this, one of the most frustrating aspects of the squad’s performances this season is the number of points they’ve dropped against these same traditional big clubs. The last time Villa beat a member of the exclusive elite was back in 2015, when Tim Sherwood led the club to victory over his beloved Tottenham. Admittedly, three seasons spent out of the Premier League makes this length of time seem much more disparaging than it is, but the fact remains that Villa were unable to take those points in that dreadful 2015–16 season, and aren’t picking them up in the current one.
Villa are good enough to beat these teams
Unlike the 15–16 season (sorry for mentioning it yet again), at the start of the season, Aston Villa showed they could compete against any team in the Premier League. Yet, agonizingly, the team lost after leading against Spurs, Arsenal and — most painfully — Liverpool. What a triumph it would have been to have spoiled the Reds’ ever-increasing chance of completing the season unbeaten!
In the reverse fixtures, the team that faces these top clubs will be notably different from the start of this season, as serious injuries and and Dean Smith’s change of tactics have altered the identity of this Villa side. Tom Heaton and Wesley, both key players before their anterior cruciate ligament injuries, are out, replaced by January signings Pepe Reina and Mbwana Samatta.
John McGinn will miss the game against Spurs, but should be fit for the remaining ‘top six’ clashes set for after the League Cup final. The Scotsman made a big impression against these same clubs in the opening weeks of his first Premier League season, with goals in the losses to Spurs and Arsenal as well as an assist against Liverpool.
In addition to the changes in personnel, it will be interesting to see how Villa’s formation shift fares against these teams. Hopefully the squad will be able to replicate the three-at-the-back system that worked so effectively in the League Cup victory against Leicester, as opposed to the ineffectiveness seen in the 6–1 loss to Manchester City in the Premier League.
The squad is more resilient and should be encouraged by the success of others
In all the matches in which Villa found themselves ahead against the bigger teams earlier in the season, the team then capitulated in the later stages of the match and wound up losing each game. Despite that defeat to Bournemouth in their last match, Villa have shown signs of building resilience since the New Year.
Whether it be the last-kick comeback against Watford or the last-minute winner against Leicester in the League Cup semi-final, the squad’s character is growing; however, the question does remain as to whether they can harness this resilience and fall back on it in more of the important matches.
Despite recent changes to the side that previously came close to beating the Premier League’s elite, Villa still have a considerable amount of talent in their current squad — some new, some seemingly emerging at just the right time — so it’s not unreasonable to expect positive results from a few of these fixtures.
Newcastle are not very good at football, nor is Steve Bruce an inspired, revolutionary coach. Their ‘performance’ at Villa Park was one of the only times this season that Villa dominated for the majority of the match. With the Magpies bereft of ideas, Villa cruised to a 2–0 win in the November fixture. Yet, bewilderingly, Newcastle have beaten Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham and taken points from Manchester City. If Newcastle can do it, Villa — with their growing character and resilience — certainly can as well
Tottenham’s visit is yet another opportunity to take advantage of the strange state of the ‘Top Six’
Spurs have experienced the biggest changes of the top six teams this season. In hindsight, Tottenham’s defeat in the Champions League final last season signaled the end of the project for Mauricio Pochettino, who oversaw an impressive but ultimately trophy-less period at the North London club. Injuries, key players wanting to leave and a general lack of form led to the subsequent appointment of José Mourinho, who has yet to rectify the side’s inconsistent season.
Their win against Man City last match is impressive on first glance, with Spurs capitalising on a sending off in a way that would be wildly uncharacteristic for Villa (who have consistently failed to beat 10 men this season). However, this was no vintage Mourinho shutout masterclass. Despite being a man up for a third of the game at Tottenham Stadium, Spurs were lucky to profit from a dominant but extremely wasteful Pep Guardiola side.
According to Whoscored, Spurs this season have been almost Villa-like in their inability to protect a lead. Mourinho’s side are also vulnerable to conceding free-kicks in dangerous areas and attacks from the flanks, and are weak at aerial duels.
This should be encouraging to a Villa squad gifted with a couple of quality set-piece takers such as Conor Hourihane, whilst their tendency to concede from wing play may prove profitable for the heading skills of new signing Mbwama Samatta.
The exit of Christian Eriksen, who proved so effective in the reverse fixture, the injury to Harry Kane, who scored both last-minute goals last time, and the now-rebranded ‘Humble one’ José Mourinho’s poor record at Villa Park should give the Villa faithful more confidence about this particular fixture.
So, the fixture list isn’t that bad after all?
In short, Aston Villa’s remaining games are probably not as bad as they seem, provided Villa finally take advantage of the weaknesses of those so-called ‘top six’ teams. However, fans likely need to wait and see how this squad handle Spurs’ visit to determine how they might capitalise on the inexperience of Chelsea and United, face off against Arteta’s possibly revitalised Arsenal squad, and even consider if they’ll concentrate on picking up points at Liverpool, considering it’s the only elite team that’s not visiting Villa Park (oh, and they’re invincible, so maybe this one gets a pass?).
One of the many appeals of being back in the Premier League, for players and fans alike, is the opportunity to compete against elite teams again. However, neither the players nor the fans want to simply gaze in awe at a perfect set-piece or the way a ball passed out of the back can make it into goal. They want to beat these teams, these ‘names’ that dominate the headlines — and the top of the table.
No wins against these teams in 2015–16. No wins in the first half of Villa’s return to the Premier League. The need to break this streak is crucial, as other struggling clubs, near Villa at the bottom of the table, have managed to pick up points against these teams. A big win against a struggling giant may just fire up the team enough to build a run of results that can move Villa further away from the drop zone.
If the team can achieve the result at Villa Park that so cruelly slipped out of their hands at Tottenham at the start of the season, it would put an end to a record that has run for too long. But more importantly, it would tell us something about the talent, character, and determination of a side that’s much changed from earlier in the season.