Call me pragmatic, but my first thought when watching the Europa Conference League draw was “how far are we going to have to travel?”. Luckily, Aston Villa avoided a gruelling trip to Kazakhstan to play Astana, which provided me with some comfort. Still, despite this, the amount of travel we will have to complete is significant. Below details the remaining UEFA Europa Conference League group stage matches and the round trip distances that Villa will have to travel:
- October 5, Zrinjski Mostar (H)
- October 26, AZ Alkmaar (A), 680 miles
- November 9, AZ Alkmaar (H)
- November 30, Legia Warsaw (H)
- December 14, Zrinjski Mostar (A), 2,630 miles
Including the trip to Warsaw, Poland (2,116 miles), that’s 5,426 miles for three games; this just for the UECL! A mixture of Premier League and domestic cup matches take place in between these fixtures.
After travelling to Warsaw and suffering the ignominy of defeat to Legia, Villa beat Chelsea on their own Stamford Bridge turf, lost to Everton in the third round of the Carabao Cup, and produced a statement win against Brighton & Hove Albion at Villa Park on Saturday.
Following our home match against Zrinjski, Villa take the short trip to the Black Country to face Wolves, but what happens next is particularly alarming.
The October international break, the second one of the season that nobody really wants comes into effect. Villa can expect 12 players (possibly rising to 14 – looking at you, Gareth Southgate) to jet off around the globe to play for their countries. For example, Emi Martinez is facing a minimum 14,000-mile round trip for Argentina’s two games and Leon Bailey will travel a similar distance for Jamaica’s CONCACAF Nations League matches. Both are important players for their respective national teams and for Villa. All the other internationals will play across Europe. Wishful thinking, but might we see Ezri Konsa in an England shirt? I am certainly hoping so!
Back from the break we have two, three-game weeks, including the visit of a resurgent West Ham United side on October 22nd. Another international break (yawn) follows this and then we reach December…
I am christening this period as “December Mayhem”. The usual furore around fixtures in the festive period is a staple of English football, but no team has it worse than Villa. From November 25nd to January 6th, Villa are guaranteed 11 matches. In this time, we face four of the “Big 6” (no longer “Top 6” after last season), with a particular “highlight” being back-to-back home games against reigning champions Manchester City and runners-up Arsenal. In addition, a visit to Brentford is always a tricky place for us. All of this doesn’t take into account who we draw in the FA Cup!
So, why am I ranting about all of this?
I am concerned about the effect that such a large amount of travel could have on our players and how that could impact success on the pitch this season. We have all experienced jet lag or tiredness after long journeys, right? Imagine that happening regularly; it’s bound to have a lasting effect on your awareness and sharpness. I am worried that having such a small squad, with so many internationals could harm our performance this season, especially in the premier league. I don’t think we will see a dramatic drop off – a la West Ham last season – but we can expect a few more sub-par performances.
I, personally, would love to see the likes of Ollie Watkins, Ezri Konsa, and Moussa Diaby get call-ups for their national teams, but I can’t help but think of the impact it could potentially have on Villa’s on-pitch play. To see more consistent success, I feel that we may need a couple more bodies through the door in January or heavily lean into squad rotation, similar in vein of one of my favourite football colloquialisms: “Pep roulette”.
I will, however, end on a positive note. Our squad is much stronger than it was at this point last year. Jacob Ramsey has returned from injury and Alex Moreno is nearly back in the picture as well, Youri Tielemans could run rings around Morgan Sanson, and hopefully Clement Lenglet can re-discover at least a fraction of his form at Sevilla. Players will be called upon; Robin Olsen and Leander Dendoncker could become semi-regular fixtures in the starting 11, particularly during “December Mayhem” (I’m sticking with it!). Additionally, don’t be surprised if young Omari Kellyman is involved in the UECL matches.
All in all, while I have raised concerns regarding travel, I believe that Unai Emery 100% knows what he is doing. He has won four Europa Leagues, after all!