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Villa Women Weekly: Is the curse of a 5th-place finish coming true for Aston Villa?

After a strong end to last season, Villa Women have played 4 and lost 4 to start the 2023-24 campaign.

Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays Women´s Super League Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Finishing fifth in the Women’s Super League has been more of a curse than a blessing.

Teams such as Everton and Spurs had also previously finished in fifth place and the following season had dropped dramatically in the table, even to the point of being at risk of relegation. Aston Villa Women manager Carla Ward commented on this in pre-season, saying that “finishing fifth again was progress, as it shows it’s not a fluke.”

So far this season, though, Villa haven’t succeeded in being among the top four, as was predicted by many at the end of last season.

After a last-minute defeat at the Emirates in their previous fixture, Villa were finally playing a match at home, but against a much improved Tottenham Hotspur side. They knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

Both teams released a very strong starting line-up and within five minutes, last season’s Golden Boot winner, Rachel Daly, had slotted a penalty kick into the bottom left-hand corner.

Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays Women´s Super League Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Finally! It seemed like Villa’s luck was changing.

However, Spurs were not the same side as last season. Instead of hanging their heads, it seemed as though they switched into a higher gear. For the remainder of the match, it was box-to-box relentless pressure, and as fans, our hearts were in our mouths the entire time.

After the opening goal had settled a few nerves, it seemed as though Villa needed one more to at least build back the confidence that had been decimated in the previous fixtures. However, that never came and Villa’s solid line of defence, which had seen them stand strong for 75 minutes against an elite Arsenal squad, only held for a further half an hour before Spurs’ star signing of the summer, Martha Thomas, equalized from a sloppy clearance by Villa skipper Rachel Corsie.

That wasn’t to be the only gifted goal of the match either, as a lack of clinical finishing and sloppy ball control seem to be consistent in Villa’s gameplay at the moment.

All was not lost, however, as the home side had moments of quality link-up play and creative opportunities that almost allowed them to take the lead. Shots on goal by Ebony Salmon, Adriana Leon, and Jordan Nobbs, to name a few, all went just wide of the post. It begs the question, if one of those shots had gone in, would that have been the turning point in the match for Villa?

Consequently, issues with playing out from the back and a tendency to pass backwards instead of push forwards lead to a lot of moments where Spurs could easily win the ball back and attack on the counter. Gifting goals to the visitors came again in first-half stoppage time as a lovely cross from Jess Naz found Ashleigh Neville in the box, who easily headed the ball home and gave the Lilywhites a 2-1 lead at the break. Villa had been in this position before and thankfully came out in the second half fighting for at least a point.

Overall, Aston Villa were definitely showing more quality in the first portion of the game and didn’t deserve to be losing on that basis. But Spurs are now a team that will punish you for your mistakes and as Thomas slotted goals three and four into the back of the net to complete her hat-trick in the 64th and 72nd minute respectively, you couldn’t for one minute question her quality. If only she was in claret and blue — what a player!

Our own star striker, Daly, was kept very quiet and is suffering from a lack of service from the Villa midfield, a key area that needs serious work and analysis over the international break.

While it was great to see Salmon and Leon starting, it’s the latter with Lucy Parker who have been the star signings so far for Aston Villa. They have played for their lives (alongside Lucy Staniforth) every single second they have been on the pitch and as fans, we couldn’t have asked any more of their dogged determination, fiery passion, and even taking a yellow for the team when required of them. Parker got a goal to cap her performance, scored in the 96th minute, but it provided Villa with a small consolation prize in terms of the football club’s goal difference.

Arsenal FC v Aston Villa - Barclays Women’s Super League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

It’s heartbreaking to watch the team that was ‘best of the rest’, who were happy and confident at the end of last season, look so downtrodden and lacking that clinical edge now.

This then leads us to the issue of the timing of the international break. Has it come at a good point, so the team and staff can regroup, recharge, and come back fighting for the next game against Chelsea? Or is this the worst possible time as Ward and the players want to fix this performance as soon as possible and show they aren’t just a ‘fluke’ team but serious contenders in this league?

Although Villa had moments on the ball where they looked like the Villa of the end of last season, with Staniforth stating that she felt those moments in her post-match interview, the second half of the match just slipped away from last season’s dark horses. Ward herself called the performance “unacceptable” as the team looked to be a shadow of themselves by the end of the match.

As it stands, Villa Women sit 11th out of 12 in the WSL table with zero points, despite having scored the opening goal in three games so far this season. Only Bristol City (newly promoted from the Championship) sit below them on goal difference.

After an arguably bad run of fixtures against the top teams, this unfortunately isn’t over yet as Villa are set to host Emma Hayes’ defending WSL champions Chelsea on November 4 after the international break.

Hopefully, Kirsty Hanson and Kenza Dali, the two missing creative pieces in the puzzle, will be back fighting and ready to go to get those first points on the board and finally get the season started, as hardly anything separates the bottom five teams in the division.

As Villa fans, we need to remember that it’s in Carla we trust and it’s just a rough patch, not a rough season.

Up the Villa!