When Tony Xia took over Aston Villa back in 2016, one of his visions included building a theme park for the club. Whilst those outlandish plans were never likely to come to fruition, Villa Park is nevertheless gaining a reputation for giving supporters a rollercoaster experience.
Villa’s unlikely 3-3 draw with Sheffield United last Friday was the latest in a growing list of bizarre scorelines seen in B6 this season. It isn’t even the first 3-3 draw that we’ve hosted, with Preston being the visitors on the fateful night that one supporter threw a cabbage at then boss Steve Bruce.
Incredibly, there have also been four 2-2 draws on home soil alone, with ‘Desmonds’ (Tutu!) coming against Brentford, Stoke, QPR, and Hull. There have also been thrilling victories, including an injury time 3-2 win over Wigan and of course a memorable 4-2 triumph over Birmingham City. And we’ve also seen devastating losses such as the last gasp 2-3 defeat to Leeds.
The pièce de résistance undoubtedly though, in terms of madcap mayhem, was the absolutely screwball 5-5 draw with Nottingham Forest.
We’ve thrown away leads. We’ve scrambled and won points. It may be frustrating at times, but it certainly hasn’t been dull.
All this means that Villa currently holds some records of extreme peculiarity. At the time of writing, no other club has scored more goals at home than we have (37 in 16).
Similarly, it may not be a shock to learn that Villa also holds the worst defensive home record, shipping 30 goals so far. By contrast, the bottom of the league Ipswich has conceded just 20. It’s such a bizarre curiosity to be leading in both the for and against columns.
Amazingly, despite shipping so many goals, Villa can also boast the most robust home record in terms of losses (along with Derby and Birmingham), by succumbing just twice so far.
These are severe inconsistencies that are rarely matched. Obviously scoring loads of goals and not losing very often is extremely encouraging and a good base to build from. And the entertainment value was something we all craved at times under Bruce’s football.
Mountains to climb
Villa are leaving themselves mountains to climb each week and those peaks are not being conquered anywhere near enough.
A fightback from 3-0 down with 8 minutes of normal time remaining is an incredible feat. But many supporters are preoccupied with the bigger picture concerning the state of our defending and being in that position in the first place. And it is more than understandable to have that viewpoint due to the way we are leaking goals so regularly.
First of all, though, it’s important to remember that this was a very good Sheffield United team. Boasting a striker in Billy Sharp that has currently scored even more goals than our own hotshot, Tammy Abraham. They were also playing for a chance to go top of the league; the game was far from a gimmie. A draw even before kick-off wouldn’t have been a disastrous result.
Furthermore, Sharp’s second goal shouldn’t have been allowed to stand. Apart from being offside, the ball was clearly kicked out of Lovre Kalinic’s hands. That said, we were bullied by the Blades for large parts of the game. And we still look far from solid at the back.
Everyone could see the state of the defence that Bruce left behind. Axel Tuanzebe and James Chester were our only recognised options at centre back. Even allowing for Bruce’s persistence in using Mile Jedinak as an additional central defender (laughably, ahead of Tuanzebe in fact). Allowing Tommy Elphick to depart on loan to Hull despite having no other cover was totally negligent.
With Chester carrying an injury for the most part of the season, which clearly hampered his usually reliable performances, we were always likely to be on the leaky side until we had the chance to strengthen in January. Even more so once Tuanzebe was sidelined with an injury.
Upon Dean Smith’s arrival, I would say that it was a pretty unanimous agreement that attack had to be our best form of defence. We had the firepower to blow teams away and we had been crying out for Bruce to unshackle this team. Smith granted that wish and at times it has been fantastic to watch us going forwards. I don’t think anyone expected us to concede at the rate we have done, however.
So now January has come and gone, can we expect our defensive frailties to be curtailed? The evidence in the game against Sheffield United suggests not. However, it’s still early days and there are still partnerships to be formed. Tyrone Mings has come in and quickly endeared himself to the Villa faithful. Elphick has looked confident upon his return to the club and clearly has the support of Smith instead of the scourge of Bruce on his back. Chester is being allowed time to recover from injury and Tuanzebe shouldn’t be a million miles away from fitness either. Another signing Kortney Hause looked well off the pace during his debut against Wigan and is working on his fitness.
More importantly, at least there are now options to work with. For me, Chester and Tuanzebe are still the number one pairing. Mings could potentially keep a place at left back when the time comes, despite Smith insisting he has been brought in to play at centre back. Elphick will be keen to keep his place for as long as possible. Hause appears to be the bottom of the pile and, in my opinion, will be lucky to get much game time once everyone is fit and firing but it’s important to have the depth if needed.
Fullback positions are still concerns of course. But at least movements have been made on the right side with the capture of promising Caen right back Frederic Guilbert for next season. I would imagine that a left back will also be on the radar during the summer transfer window.
Kalinic is a crucial acquisition also and his arrival hopefully can signal a spell of sustained dominance between the sticks without the chopping and changing that we endured at times this season. Importantly, he is ours outright. We don’t have to worry about the end of a loan period and having to rebuild yet again in this vital position.
15 games to go
With 15 games still to play, this season is far from a write-off. The imminent return of Jack Grealish will be a huge boost. With Tammy Abraham already becoming the first Villa player to score 20 goals in a season since Peter Withe back in 1981, the goals should continue to flow.
Smith’s task is to now balance risk and rewards a little more. My guess is that as the defence settles, the astronomical scorelines will become less and less regular. Smith’s tactics will become less gung-ho in trying to compensate for the defensive crisis which he inherited.
There are seven home games left. Despite our crazy stats, the one that matters is that we’ve won just six games at Villa Park. It is far from being good enough for the aspirations we have. It’s time to put that right and turn the draws into victories.
It’s been a crazy season so far, but Smith now has the tools to really start getting some results. It’s been fun and entertaining for sure, but I think we’re ready to swap the rollercoaster for the more stable cups and saucers ride instead!