Three losses in eleven games. One defeat in seven. Put that way, those statistics make it seem like the Villans have had a decent start to the season. Of course, in reality, there has also only been one win and the lacklustre defeat to Preston North End at the weekend has only confounded what has been a totally underwhelming start to life in the Championship.
It proved a bridge too far for the board and Roberto Di Matteo is now consigned to the history books.
Last week, I tried to fight Di Matteo’s corner. I highlighted that the original plan was to secure promotion within two years and I suggested that we shouldn’t press the panic button at this stage. While I am still not convinced that sacking a manager so soon was the right course of action, Saturday’s game at Deepdale certainly made it more difficult to back Di Matteo.
I still believe the football we had been playing was largely positive, with the exception of the Preston game. It wasn’t evident in the last couple of games but Di Matteo’s men had been creating more than enough chances to win games. I’ve lost count of the number of time we hit the woodwork.
I can’t help but feel that the players have really let Di Matteo down. If they had converted even just two or three of those glorious chances then things would be very different. Ross McCormack hit the post from two yards out against Nottingham Forest, for example, so I find it hard to lay the blame squarely at Di Matteo’s feet.
Similarly, at the other end, the sloppiness that contributed to those five different goals conceded in the last five minutes of games is difficult to attribute to Di Matteo. If Pierluigi Gollini slices a clearance, or thunders the ball at an opposing player which bounces into an empty net, that cannot be the manager’s fault.
These things have been costly. Mistakes at the back combined with poor finishing up front have meant that no momentum (or points, for that matter) has been gathered and a similar mentality to last season has set in. Apprehension, a fear of not winning and so much pressure sound familiar.
It’s all very well Tommy Elphick banging on the goal-posts and Ross McCormack saying how much he realises that this club must get back to where it belongs. We are supposed to have a team of leaders but, frankly, I haven’t seen or heard much in the way of leadership going on in the last few weeks. I haven’t heard Mile Jedinak taking responsibility. The players have been very quiet indeed and happy to hide away. It’s a concern.
That said, it was clear that a certain degree of desperation had set in over the last few games. Formations had been chopping and changing wildly, switching between an experimental 3-5-2, a 3-4-3, a flat 4-4-2, a 4-5-1 and even a 4-2-3-1. I’m all for a manager trying new ideas to get results but changing system from one game to the next is never going to bring results. It felt like a scattergun approach, hoping to stumble upon a winning formula.
Team selection has been fairly erratic and unsettled also. It is clear that the squad is unbalanced. We are top heavy on attacking talent and short on midfield quality. Whilst the back four selections have been fairly consistent, apart from the still troublesome right back position, each game brings new pairings in the centre of the pitch while trying to shoehorn our attacking talent into some sort of workable formation.
Injuries haven’t helped but Mile Jedinak hasn’t had a great start to life at Villa Park. Ashley Westwood continues to divide opinion and, to me, offers very little. Aaron Tshibola seems the most promising option but has had a couple of knocks. Gary Gardner has completely failed to take his chance and seems destined not to fulfill his potential.
Up front, Jordan Ayew is doing his best whilst being played out of position and has recently won the League’s player of the month award. Ross McCormack, Rudy Gestede and Jonathan Kodjia are all vying for a position up front, while Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah also need to be accommodated.
It’s clear that Di Matteo was unsure of his best starting line-up. Judging by reactions on social media, supporters’ preferred line-ups differ also. To be honest, I struggle trying to come up a system that accommodates our attacking talent. However, some points are clear when trying to pick a team:
Alan Hutton must be nowhere near the starting eleven;
Mile Jedinak and Aaron Tshibola are our best pairing in midfield;
Jack Grealish is much more useful playing centrally rather than out wide;
As he always has done, Ross McCormack works best in a two up front with a big man, namely Rudy Gestede;
Jonathan Kodjia is our only direct striker with pace and must start games.
The last two points contradict each other – and that may be the beginning of our problems. Have we simply brought in players because of their goal-scoring records rather than with any insight into how they would fit into a system?
The defeat to Preston was our worst performance in the Championship so far. That alone has probably pushed the board into action, especially after the backlash from the once again incredible travelling supporters. Still, it seemed harsh to sack Di Matteo at this point.
After eleven games, we’ve lost just three of those. Of course, the crux of the matter is that we have won just once. It isn’t good enough but, after allowing Di Matteo to invest so heavily, surely he could have been afforded a stay of execution. The one hundred and twenty three day reign of Di Matteo is the shortest of any permanent Villa manager. It does not sit well with me.
It also doesn’t reflect well on Tony Xia at all. Di Matteo was his choice and it shows a lack of footballing insight at the very top of the tree, which is something that we’ve endured year on year previously under Randy Lerner. Di Matteo’s Champions League win with Chelsea was a huge draw for Xia. Did marketability in China come at the expense of choosing a more suitable candidate? It seems so.
The next appointment involves a huge decision for Xia and will tell us a lot about him and his board. The talented players are there. We have obviously overspent to bring in Di Matteo’s targets so it seems stranger still not to give him slightly longer with them, although those same players have played their part in seeing the man who brought them to Villa Park losing his job.