The promotion target is looking a long, long way away. Aston Villa now sit ten points off the play-off positions, thirteen adrift of the top two and, most concerning of all, only two points above the relegation zone.
This week, in my view, should have been the week when we got our season back on track with our away trips to Barnsley and Preston North End.
As we know, the game isn’t played on paper but the facts need to be considered here: Aston Villa reportedly spent in the region of £49 million in the summer transfer window whilst the total sums paid by Barnsley and Preston North End combined were around the same figure as we spent on our least costly signing, Ritchie De Laet.
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Given their shoestring budget, Preston North End finished a very respectable eleventh position in the league last season but this season the Lilywhites have found life in the Championship more difficult. Prior to our visit to Deepdale, they were on ten points along with us.
Barnsley, promoted from League One last season through the play-offs following a sixth-place finish, have played beyond expectations to find themselves towards the right end of the table in the Championship.
The Villans, on the other hand, prior to these two fixtures, had recorded just one win this season and the chance of back-to-back victories would have given us a huge push back into the promotion picture. I saw this as a genuine opportunity to kick-start our season and record our first wins on the road in almost fourteen months. We have been told that the new players just needed time to click and that the goals and the wins would follow.
Fast forward and we have recorded one point from the six available after an all too familiar late equaliser against us at Oakwell followed by a 2-0 defeat at Deepdale.
Before the games, newspaper headlines suggested that a win was needed in at least one of the games for Roberto Di Matteo to keep his job. It remains to be seen whether this was the intention of our owner Dr. Xia. If it is his intention then surely the sooner Di Matteo goes the better in view of the two week international break that is now upon us.
I see myself as someone with patience who recognises that there in no such thing as an instant fix in football. Nevertheless, in my opinion, considering the squad overhaul that Roberto Di Matteo has overseen and the amount of Championship experience and quality available to him, more than one win and ten points should have been achieved by this juncture.
With the forward players available for selection including Jonathan Kodjia, Rudy Gestede and Ross McCormack, who have all scored twenty goals in seasons gone by, the last thing I thought was that we would find goals difficult to come by, especially considering Di Matteo’s preference for open, attacking football. This has not been the case, with our team only finding the net on ten occasions so far this season and those players highlighted scoring a total of six combined as we approach the end of the first quarter of the season.
The lack of goals has cost us more than anything. Although late goals are of course a symptom of what has led to our downfall, the root cause is the number of times we have failed to make our chances count. Numerous times this season we have given teams hope and the belief to come back against us. We have not killed them off when we had the opportunities to. Had we scored more goals by being more clinical and less cautious then pressure would have been removed from our defence and confidence drained from our opponents.
The number of times we have failed to take our chances and conceded late goals points to the fact that improvements are not being made on the training pitch. There is no evidence that Di Matteo knows what his best eleven is or even in what formation they should be played. Perhaps it is the case that he has signed too many players in the forward areas and not enough in midfield.
Some, including the manager, have pointed to the confidence levels being one of the reasons for our displays and he has referred to our previous seasons as a reason for this. I am struggling to buy into this. In our starting line-up against Barnsley, for instance, only four players were part of our disastrous campaign last year, with the other seven having on the whole experienced good seasons last time around elsewhere before their moves to Villa Park. Apart from the new players, there is little hangover from last season with a new manager, a new coaching staff, a new owner and, in my opinion, reinvigorated fans.
Our fans have remained fiercely loyal and deserve better, especially the thousands who have spent their time and money following the teamon the road.
If there had been evidence of improvement under the leadership of our Italian manager I would probably have been in the ‘give him time’, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ or ‘we cannot keep changing managers’ camps. However, given where we are and the money and support he has had his position is close to being untenable.
I have seen some say that we shouldn’t change managers because there are no outstanding candidates available. We cannot use this as a reason for keeping our manager. Despite his previous affiliation with those down the road (we all make mistakes) Steve Bruce, who took Hull City up last season, is an outstanding candidate, and there are others out there who could do better than Di Matteo has done with the talent at his disposal.