Aston Villa Women’s introduction to the Women’s Super League has been far from inviting as they find themselves fighting for survival in the bottom half of the table – but Saturday’s win over Tottenham, their first league victory at home this season, gave a glimpse of what this side is capable of.
“The last 18 months of this football club has been an absolute meteoric rise, but the WSL is unforgiving and relentless,” Marcus Bignot said, speaking after the game.
“The jump is as big as it’s ever been, so in terms of how the team dominated the ball in the Championship, that was never going to be the case at this level.
“Do we still want to dominate the ball? Do we still want to get to those levels? Of course we do.
“But there comes a time where you have to get that balance between our principles and philosophies and the need to get results.”
In their promotion-earning season last year, Villa won 13 of their 14 matches played before the campaign was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, only dropping points to Durham in a 1-1 draw back in October 2019.
But as Bignot understands, the top-flight of women’s football in England is a different challenge all together and it’s something the team have struggled to adapt to so far.
“In order to get results at this level, when you first come up, you have to be organised, you have to be hard to beat, you have to have a structure, you have to have players knowing their roles and responsibilities.”
“You also have to change their mindset because going from the Championship with win after win after win, to then coming up to the WSL where it can be loss after loss after loss – confidence is damaged.”
“You have to pick that back up and drive their mentality in a different direction.”
There has been an obvious shift in the last couple of weeks following Bignot’s appointment as interim manager, and despite losing 4-0 to Chelsea last week, the signs were already there.
Emma Hayes pointed out in her post match interview that “the days of winning easily at Villa have ended, it’s going to be a difficult place to come.”
WOW— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) February 6, 2021
What a strike from @buchi_mana! #BarclaysFAWSL pic.twitter.com/aino2C2Lyc
Spurs may have beaten Villa 3-1 in the reverse fixture back in December, but as Hayes warned, getting a result against them is no longer a straightforward task.
“Emma Hayes knows the game inside out and after just one day, one game in charge even Emma noticed Villa are now a different proposition and you’ve seen that again today,” Bignot said.
“That’s really pleasing because it’s only been a short two weeks, so to have those comments come from someone like Emma and to back it up with two performances.
“I saw a lot in the Chelsea game, although it looked ‘oh here we go another 4-0’, I saw a lot of that performance come into today and I knew that if we worked on our weaknesses we showed against Chelsea, then it would be a very difficult game for Tottenham today and so it proved.
“They went to their physical maximum today and people talk about the basics of football, like it’s just a given, but it’s hard and the best teams work the hardest.
“The best teams have the mentality and the drive, so it’s reinstalling that back into them, which we’re seeing.
“The difference you’ve seen is a change of mindset, we’re getting them up to their physical max, they’re understanding the process now and what it takes to win a football match.”
With stadiums empty due to the pandemic, Bignot’s messages can be heard loud and clear from the touchline, every phase of play is followed by instruction.
“I hope we get to a stage where I don’t have to be as vocal, but certainly with the position we’re in, a new beginning so to speak, we’re sometimes going to have to be that vocal.
“Us as staff are leaders and we want the players to be the drivers, but during this transitional period us as staff as have got to be the drivers and we’re looking out there now at who’s going to be the leaders and who’s going to be the drivers to take this on.
“I’ve only been in a couple of weeks so I don’t expect that to happen overnight, but certainly in time, I expect my volume to go down and theirs to go up.”
Mana Iwabuchi’s wonder-strike proved to be the difference on Saturday, but that’s two goals and an assist in three starts for the Japanese international and her performances have rightly earned praise from the Villa boss.
“The best players work the hardest and Mana, at the moment, she’s a joy on the ball, although I beat her on two-touch every day in training! She’s not at that level yet!
“She’s a standout player on the pitch, let’s all be honest. There’s a World Cup winner there, endless league titles across the world.
“She’s the talent but what’s really good about her is you can see the other side of her game.
“That’s credit to her, but then that’s us in a nutshell and that’s an example for all these young players that a player of that ability works that hard.”
What a day +3 points & professional debut for the club I’ve grown up supporting UTV https://t.co/Fb739FP3qf— Freya Gregory (@FreyaGregory11) February 6, 2021
A huge collective effort was required to see Villa over the line, but with 10 minutes left to play, 18-year-old Freya Gregory was handed her senior debut as she replaced Jodie Hutton.
“I know Freya from my time at Solihull College when she was with the Birmingham City academy, so I know she has huge potential.
“We had a blow with Shania missing out today, who started against Chelsea, Jodie came in and I thought she was excellent.
“Again, someone who went above and beyond physically, she was only supposed to play an hour and she got up to 80 so that was superb.
“But we always knew that substitution was coming, so Freya came on. We know her ability and high potential, she’s a high grader and there’s a big future for her.”
With Birmingham City away on Wednesday night and the visit from Arsenal next Sunday, Villa will be determined to maintain their improved form and pull further away from the relegation places, to edge that little bit closer to safety.