A sobering 3-1 defeat at the hands of Bristol City at the weekend has dampened a generally positive mood amongst the Villa faithful. I must admit that I didn’t envisage losing the game beforehand and, after taking an early lead, I felt fairly confident that the Villans would go on to kill off the game comfortably. However, that all too familiar feeling that comes around 4:45pm on a Saturday afternoon once more reared its ugly head. We had lost in a manner that we have become masters of.
In the Saturday evening gloom, I began thinking about thesignings that we had made so far, especially as Pierluigi Gollini had come in for some more stick. Generally, I am pleased with the players we have brought in. I think most supporters are too. However, a horrible thought swept over me: we also felt like this at the beginning of last season.
The beginning of the 2015-2016 season saw Tim Sherwood in charge. Similar to our situation this year, a squad overhaul was needed and, as the summer wore on, we were treated to a total of eleven new signings. With each new injection into the squad there was more and more excitement.
Micah Richards on a free? Yes please! This guy was finally going to get his career back on track. After all, he was a Premier League winner. There was even talk of a possible chance of exploiting England’s limited options at the back and forcing his way into the Euro 2016 squad with a decent season.
Likewise, another boyhood Villa fan also arrived to form a rock solid centre back partnership. Joleon Lescott was another Premier League winner. Perhaps a year or two past his prime, but what experience we had in the side.
I had never heard of Jordan Veretout, although I clearly remember the various glowing reports from France being bandied about as we signed him. Just for good measure, we also beat off Leicester City to his signature, even apparently offering less money than they had. We certainly showed them what’s what, leaving little Leicester to concentrate on a relegation battle while we finally looked at moving into the top half of the table with our new goal-scoring attacking midfielder…
An opening day bullet header against Bournemouth (still our last league away win) from Rudy Gestede convinced many of those remained doubtful that we had easily picked up a replacement for Christian Benteke. Blackburn Rovers fans had told us that he was a better player than Jordan Rhodes and we were looking forward to twenty goals or so coming from our new hero.
The excitement of signing a Barcelona wonderkid perhaps topped the lot. For a mere £7 million, we had clearly picked up an absolute bargain in Adama Traoré and we had blown his potential suitors Liverpool out of the water in the process. We could not wait to see this kid in action and, in his debut cameo appearance at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace, he amazed everyone with just how quick, powerful and direct he was. We were already fearful of Barca’s buy back clause.
There were others. Jordan Amavi was courted by Arsenal but came to Villa Park instead. Jordan Ayew was also a familiar name, having featured impressively for Ghana in the 2014 World Cup just a year previously. Idrissa Gueye was a relative unknown but a promising pre-season showed us that we had an enforcer. Even the permanent signing of Scott Sinclair was greeted enthusiastically.
We had spent money, more than £50 million, in overhauling the squad. We were surely in better shape than the previous season and could think about looking upwards instead of being worried about relegation.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
My point is that, on paper, we made some great signings back then and we were happy going into the new campaign. Everything looked to have been an improvement on what we had. We appeared to have addressed what we had lacked previously, namely experience at the back, solidity in midfield and attacking promise up front.
This season, we have practically done the same thing – and rightly so. We lacked leadership last season so we have brought in players who have been captains at their previous clubs: Tommy Elphick, Mile Jedinak and Ross McCormack. This trio also helps form the basis of our new spine.
A new goalkeeper was a must after the Brad Guzan horror show ran for almost the entirety of last year. Pierluigi Gollini was on Manchester Untied’s books as a youngster and apparently we nipped in ahead of Juventus for him. This alone gives him credibility, although it is a concern to me that it seems to sometimes be enough for fans to judge players purely on which other teams players have previously been at or which ones have since shown interest in them. We have made this mistake so many times.
We have also added James Chester, Aaron Tshibola, Richie De Laet and Jonathan Kodjia to combat apparent deficiencies in the team. Again, all of these players are ones our supporters seem happy to have recruited and all seem to play a part in adding what we have been lacking. I must admit that they all seem to be solid signings.
All the same, it has still been a largely underwhelming start to the season. Now, this isn’t intended to be a panic piece and I have no desire to get on the back of the team after so few games. I’m just trying to work out why we don’t ever seem to be able to hit the ground running like other teams do. The reason that is given time and time again is that a new team of players needs time to ‘gel’. It is heard so often that we should probably be sponsored by Brylcreem. It always seems to hit us more than other sides. For example, current league leaders Huddersfield Town regularly field a team this season that features at least six or seven new signings made this summer, which is similar to ourselves, and we are talking key areas also: a new goalkeeper, at least one centre back and a central midfielder. They have a new spine just as we do.
This isn’t isolated. Fulham fielded seven new players in their weekend 1-0 win at Blackburn Rovers. Whilst Rovers are admittedly looking shambolic this season, it doesn’t hide the fact that the Cottagers are sitting pretty in second place with eleven points.
Not every team is the same, of course, and there could be all sorts of reasons why it hasn’t yet come together for us. It could be, as suggested, that Roberto Di Matteo’s high energy game means it will take the players some time to achieve the fitness levels it requires. We have been unlucky in some games and I still see positives in our play. Again, didn’t we start off last season saying the same thing and feeling that we had played ok and that our luck would turn and the mistakes would eventually be wiped out?
I’m sure we’re not about to encounter a season like the previous one. I do think the presence of leaders will make a difference to the effort and application of the team going forward. It’s just a slight concern that on Saturday at Ashton Gate we didn’t see much evidence of that inspiration when it was needed. Mistakes are being made and there is even a hint of sloppiness creeping into our play at times; it is imperative that these are stamped out before it once again becomes a habit and tolerated in the hope that it merely will not manifest itself again in the next game.
There is a long season ahead but it is also dangerous to use that as an acceptable reason for dropping points in these early stages. Momentum is everything and this new group needs to get into a winning habit sooner rather than later. We have seen first-hand the effects of a team that gets stuck in a rut.
Whilst my thoughts of comparisons with the hope and promise of last season’s signings may seem far-fetched, hindsight is a wonderful thing and the fact is that we thought we had signed class throughout the team back then. Of course, this time we haven’t signed so many players with no experience of the league or players who can’t speak English, which will also go a long way towards avoiding the same problems. It is admittedly somewhat different but to ignore those similarities would be foolish.
Thanks to the international break, we now more than two weeks before we resume our Championship campaign against Nottingham Forest at Villa Park. With few international commitments, if it is just a case of needing time to gel, the next fortnight will go some way to towards kick-starting our season.