So back we went, my son and I, walking out of the stadium, towards Wembley Park with its crowd control measures and onward to a short tube journey to Stanmore, and then to find our car, parked hurriedly in a residential area several hours previously, to start the drive back up the A1 on a chilly Sunday evening.
Villa 1, Manchester City 2 in the 2020 League Cup Final is the fourth consecutive domestic cup final I’ve seen Villa lose. Two of those finals I’ve attended in person (circumstances meant I watched the frustrating 2–1 2010 League Cup loss to Manchester United and the humiliating 4–0 2015 FA Cup defeat to Arsenal at home on TV). The first I attended 20 years ago. The 2000 FA Cup Final was memorable only for the utter flatness of the match — Villa’s players seemed totally frozen in mind and body by the occasion and lost 1–0 to a scrappy, fortunate Chelsea goal — and for the fact that, because I was there in a professional capacity, I had to swallow my disappointment and congratulate and interview the victors in the mixed zone afterward.
Two decades on, and the end result is the same. On that tube ride, my son and I shared a carriage with a couple of Villa dads, who had three young boys with them, all clad in claret and blue. One of the trio was taking defeat a lot harder than the others. “You’ve got to get used to this when you’re a Villa fan, mate,” said his dad, as we exchanged wry, weary smiles.
As Villa supporters, we’ve become accustomed to defeat and disappointment. Barring the play-off success against Derby on that glorious May 2019 afternoon, Wembley hasn’t been a happy place for the club; let’s not forget the defeat to Fulham 12 months previously.
Losing the cup final was easy to accept. Given the absolute pasting Villa had experienced at the hands of a rampant, ruthless City in January, pre-match expectations seemed to hit a new low. Yet unlike so many other recent Wembley occasions, Villa turned up. They competed well against a stellar City side, stayed in the game and pushed Pep Guardiola’s players hard. It was unusual to see City players conceding tetchy, cynical fouls and hurrying clearances in the closing stages.
The introduction of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva during the second half hinted at a certain level of anxiety from the City camp, and an urgency to confirm the result. And of course, had it not been for the grasping fingertips of Claudio Bravo and the inside of a post, Bjorn Engels’ late header would have taken the game into extra time.
So, Villa fans can find solace and consolation in that decent performance. But losing a cup final is easy enough to accept. Unfortunately, that’s because Villans know all too well that the hurt pales in comparison to losing a place in the Premier League. The prospect of a second relegation in four years is hovering ever closer. With the League Cup Final — the competition that has been a happy, welcome distraction this season — the worry over the weekly fight for league points recommences.
11 games to go; 11 cup finals, if you like indulging in lazy football cliches. While Dean Smith’s squad and coaching staff were prepping for Wembley and escaping the Premier League for a weekend, victories for Norwich, West Ham and Watford dropped Villa from 17th to 19th. The tension cranked up a notch. The margins are tight not just in and around the bottom three, but right up to mid-table; win the game in hand Villa and the club zips up to 15th. The opportunity to preserve Premier League status is still in Villa’s hands—if they can take it.
The admirable performance against City and the post-match on-pitch huddle, led by Smith and involving squad and staff, hinted at renewed determination; perhaps Villa’s players have finally realised the severity of the situation, and Wembley previewed a glimpse of the response to come. But honestly? It’s very hard to call, and predicting what type of Villa performance we’ll see, week in and week out, has been one of the peak frustrations in an infuriating season.
At times, Villa have come within a fraction of achieving an excellent result. They’ve led in both matches against Spurs, away at Arsenal, at home to Liverpool, away at Manchester United. From those five matches, however, the final points return was a solitary one, from the 2–2 draw at Old Trafford. They conceded goals from virtually the last kick (and header) of the homes games against Liverpool and Spurs. Soft goals from set-pieces, naive individual errors, lapses in concentration — this season, Villa have made throwing away points an art form. Villa could, quite easily, have six extra points in the bag. All season, we’ve been waiting for Villa to wise up.
What is especially exasperating about Villa’s play is the sheer inconsistency of performances. Every time this team looks to have clicked, it presents evidence to shoot that down in flames. How to compare pushing the champions-elect all the way before losing to a goal deep in injury time with falling three goals down at home to Southampton just before Christmas?
How can this Villa take six points from Norwich this season, Villa have made throwing away points an art form one of those victories a resounding 5-1 win — but give up six points so tamely to Bournemouth? How can Villa score twice at Old Trafford and the Emirates — yet struggle to get out of its own half for virtually the whole of the game at Bramall Lane?
No doubt these frustrating swings in performance have interrupted Smith’s sleep in recent months, or at least occupied his mind during those early morning dog walks. Sure, there are mitigating circumstances. For a newly-promoted team, the injury situation has been particularly cruel; not in terms of numbers but certainly in terms of players. First-choice goalkeeper Tom Heaton, one of the few players in this Villa squad with genuine, proven Premier League experience and quality, out for the season from January 1. So too £22m centre-forward Wesley, injured in the same match. John McGinn, Villa’s energetic, goalscoring midfielder, out since before Christmas and only now edging towards a late-season return.
Take these kind of players out of any team in the bottom half of the table and it’s fair to say there’d be a medium-to-high level of disruption. Excuses? No. In Villa’s case, the consequences of these injuries have been clear. Not only did the loss of McGinn deprive Villa of one of their key players, it triggered a change in formation and style — his high-pressing and running beyond the striker into attacking positions has been sorely missed and proved impossible to replace.
The injuries also forced a change in approach during the January transfer window, with the club required to recruit replacements for absent players rather than squad reinforcements. Villa certainly wouldn’t have signed Pepe Reina or Danny Drinkwater had Heaton and McGinn been fit; and may have waited until the summer to pick up Mbwana Samatta if Wesley hadn’t succumbed to that knee injury.
It’s worth noting, too, that the talismanic trio of McGinn, Tyrone Mings and Jack Grealish have not played together since December 4 — and then only for the first 23 minutes against Leicester before Mings left the field, injured.
Established Premier League clubs may be able to cope with such situations, but one freshly promoted from the Championship simply cannot. Smith has had to change his approach more than he would have liked and there’s a suspicion that the Villa head coach has reluctantly moved away from his preferred set-up since Christmas. Playing three central defenders since January 1 didn’t really feel like something Smith would choose to do in an ideal world. It was a short-term, needs must solution that achieved a couple of decent results but stalled Villa’s attacking, front-foot momentum and didn’t resolve the defensive issues which have troubled them all season.
At Wembley, Villa were back to the flat back four shape they deployed during the first months of the season, and Engels and Mings were restored as a centre-back partnership for the first time since November 2. There were signs of promise in the way those two coped with City’s forward play, in the way Marvelous Nakamba conducted himself in that defensive midfield role, and the manner in which Villa stayed in the game right until the end, which should be encouraging to fans.
But there remain doubts over the fragility of this team, and what Smith’s strongest team actually is. The challenge remains the same: to find a way of preventing the opposition from racking up a high shot count while also posing an attacking threat themselves. It’s a balance Villa have struggled with all season. The position and role of Grealish, who looked fatigued at Wembley and faded after a bright start, and the return of McGinn, are crucial factors. Villa could likely increase their chances of winning games by pairing Samatta with Keinan Davis, and four midfielders behind — switching set-ups to suit matches (4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-1-2, etc).
The final set of fixtures might be kinder to Villa, even if it doesn’t seem like it, given six of the current top eight are to come, starting with a visit to Leicester. Still, four of those games are at home, and Arsenal and Palace will also come to Villa Park. No matter which fixtures might look more ‘winnable’ on paper, the cold reality is that Villa will need to beat a couple of those higher-placed clubs. We’re looking at a minimum of four wins to stay up, while five would help us breathe much easier.
Relegation would hurt. It wouldn’t be a disaster; we’ve been here before and we know there’s a still a club to love, and a team to support. Personally, I didn’t enjoy watching Villa in the Championship any less than in the recent Premier League seasons. For the club, however, it would be a large step back after such significant strides forward in the last 18 months. Get through this season and Villa can properly start moving upwards again. Fail, and the rebuilding and resetting continues.
This isn’t the season we Villa fans longed for. We might have ‘taken 17th right now’ before a ball was kicked in August but we all secretly hoped Villa might bob along pleasantly in lower mid-table, without causing so much angst. As it is, each week since the arrival of winter has felt an exercise in managing stress. Then again, when you’re a Villa fan, you’re used to it.