Another game that sees Aston Villa substandard and defeated, which will leave the fans with plenty to talk about this week.
Here are the three main talking points from a 4-1 home loss to David Moyes’ high-flying West Ham United.
A lack of identity
With the frequent change of formations and lineups, it has been difficult to identify the way at which Dean Smith wants his team to be playing this season.
This is a contrast on last season, for me, where I feel you could pinpoint the game-plan, and whether it worked or not; the ideologies that Smith was trying to execute was clear for everyone to see.
You would see a persistent press from a defensive point-of-view where the attacking midfielder would partner the striker, forming a 4-4-2 out of possession, and the pair who press the opposition back-line, with the wingers pushing up on the fullbacks and the two centre midfielders keeping close tabs on their midfield counter-parts.
In attack, there was of course an accentuation to get the ball to Jack Grealish and have play stem from his feet, with Targett supporting the winger on the overlap and midfield runners in-behind — this way of playing was successful for Aston Villa on a reasonably frequent basis.
This season, however, I am struggling to see the head coach’s primary approach at both ends of the pitch. Of course losing captain Jack was a big one, and there does seem to be a Grealish-shaped hole in the attack at the moment. So far, there has been a shortage of consistent creativity in the side — we have seen glimpses, but only on a few occasions have we seen the team dominant and mount attack after attack. We are yet to see Emi Buendia really step-up and be the focal point in that forward-four; a prospect many fans were hopeful of this season.
Losing important staff in John Terry and Richard O’Kelly would have been difficult also, and this is evident on the defensive side in my opinion. The back-five last season (Martinez, Targett, Mings, Konsa, and Cash) were impressive and consistently solid, but unfortunately that is not the case ten games into this campaign. Leaking nineteen goals already and only keeping three clean sheets is quite the difference from last season, and it has to be amended sooner rather than later.
When Martinez had the ball, he did one of two things:
- Lump it up the pitch to the often helpless front-line, who couldn’t cope against Ogbonna and Zouma, both aerially and physically.
- Play it short to the centre-backs, who themselves would proceed to send a long ball forward.
The defense seem reluctant to play out from the back and retain possession of the ball. This was a big concern from yesterday’s game for me.
I believe we missed Douglas Luiz — someone who would drop deep from midfield and get the ball moving along the floor to start an attack. Watching Declan Rice in the holding role for West Ham really signified to me that we lack that enforcer who would get on the ball and drive at the opposition. It was all too safe from Villa yesterday — hoofing it clear and away from the danger of the pressing West Ham players or playing it side-to-side without any real attempt of breaking the lines with a quality ball-through.
Does Dean Smith have a primary play-style for his side and it just hasn’t worked yet? Or are his tactics unsuited to the players he has at his disposal, and a change is therefore needed?
Time will tell, but this is the real problem area for me. We have to see a reaction against Southampton on Friday, in both result and performance, or the pressure really will be for the head coach.
A substitution that stumped
After Jacob Ramsey fell to the floor and minutes later limped off, spelling the end of his day after just 15 minutes, fans’ heads turned to the dugout as they awaited the arrival of his replacement.
To many people’s surprise, it was Ashley Young who took his bib off and headed towards the fourth-official ready to enter the pitch.
We have of course seen Young play in a similar role earlier this season, in the 1-1 draw to Brentford, teaming up with Chukwuemeka and Luiz in a midfield three. However, to my knowledge, he didn’t play the role particularly well to warrant a second go, especially in such a big game and at a critical time in the match at 1-0 down. Experimenting with positions like that has to have you questioning the game management from Dean Smith on this occasion.
Surely turning to Carney Chukwuemeka or, Jacob’s younger brother, Aaron Ramsey would have been a smarter call? Whilst both are reasonably inexperienced still, they play the role that needed filling on regular occasions for the youth sides, and are therefore clearly for more suited.
Of course, Ashley Young is now 36 years-old and naturally players who having previously played on the wings drift inside as they age, and take up more central roles, but he is seen as a more defensive player, and this change affected the balance of the midfield as a result. The number 18 would have and did struggle to ever pick the ball up and run directly at West Ham. This is something Jacob Ramsey would have done had he still been on the pitch, and may have been something the two lads on the bench would have done had they been the ones chosen to come on.
Young simply could not keep up with the West Ham midfield on the physical side of things, with Soucek, Rice and Fornals breaking through the midfield far too easily all game long.
This change was certainly one that puzzled the 38,000+ Villa fans inside the stadium, and the many watching at home. We have seen poor decisions from Dean Smith in the past, that have proved to be significant, and I believe this one also falls into that category.
The red card incident(s)
Probably the most obvious of talking points, that sees VAR intervening and hitting the headlines once again at Villa Park, where Ezri Konsa sees red after allegedly denying Jarrod Bowen a ‘clear’ goal-scoring opporunity.
West Ham were breaking through the home side’s midfield far too easily throughout the game and found themselves doing it once more early into the second half. In a passage of play that left both Pablo Fornals and Bowen on the floor, referee Chris Kavanagh had a big decision to make.
Bursting through, Fornals outwitted Kortney Hause with the centre-back getting a nick on the ball, but also delivering a “forearm smash” - as described by Sky Sports commentator Andy Hinchcliffe, into the face of the Spaniard. This challenge seemed deliberate and most would say the 26 year-old was lucky to have remained on the pitch.
It would be his centre-back partner who would receive the dismissal after the ball lands into the West Ham winger’s path beyond the defensive line, Bowen manages to direct the ball towards the Aston Villa box with Konsa approaching. With momentum carrying the number four, despite his best attempt to avoid contact, he catches the legs of his opponent and is consequently penalised.
Originally, Konsa was only booked, but the interruption of the officials at Stockley Park had Kavanagh taking a second look at the incident. After a couple of minutes of discussion among referee and VAR team, they felt there was a ‘clear’ denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, and Villa were left with ten men and an even bigger mountain to climb for the remainder of the game.
Many believe this decision was harsh and a bit unfair on the defender, and feel as if Hause’s challenge moments earlier was more severe and deserving of a sending off.
This controversy was a huge turning point in the game of course, and made the night even more difficult for the claret and blue side. Having started the half somewhat better and arguably on-top, all would be diminished quickly as West Ham asserted their dominance on the game, recording a possession statistic of 73% for the second 45 minutes.
Tyrone Mings was brought on in place of a frustrated Emi Buendia who opted for the changing room as oppose to the subs bench, indicating his anger at the decision.
West Ham, despite not playing incredible all game, were by far the better team regardless, and whilst the scoreline maybe flattered them slightly, deserved of the three points.
A Konsa-less Aston Villa side head down south to the St. Mary’s stadium as they take on Ralph Hassenhuttl’s Southampton side who, like West Ham, are in good form of late, taking seven points from their last three games in the league. The Saints are a place above Dean Smith’s team in 14th, so Friday’s fixture is certainly a big one for both competitors, as each look to climb up the table and out of immediate danger.
It feels like a must-win game for Dean Smith, and if he gets it all wrong again, losing five in a row, could it be curtains for the boss after a three year tenure at the club?
The next few weeks will be massive.