The summer of spending which saw a wave of optimism sweep through Villa Park is slowly giving way to an autumn of apprehension as we begin to make inroads into our first season back in the Premier League. There have been some positives though, one of those being our defence.
The 0-0 draw with West Ham last Monday evening felt disappointing, with our captain Jack Grealish even admitting that the result felt like a loss. Being unable to take advantage of Arthur Masuaku’s sending off after 67 minutes certainly made it harder to see the result as a point gained as Villa struggled to capitalize on the man advantage.
Lack of ideas
The concern is that Villa simply seemed bereft of ideas on how to take advantage of the situation. The fact that West Ham didn’t exactly sit back and park the bus after going down to 10 men is perhaps the most worrying thing. There was plenty of space to be exploited and we just didn’t even look like knowing how to do it.
For me, we looked so narrow. We made it easy for West Ham to keep their shape, instead of pulling them out and creating space. Anwar El Ghazi did not stay out wide anywhere near enough and Jota, whilst technically very good, is not the type of player who is going to stretch defences. Ahmed Elmohamady’s introduction didn’t exactly set pulses racing or achieve the desired effect of pulling the West Ham defence out of shape. Dare I say the pace of Andre Green would’ve been useful in the situation?
The truth is that we are light in options in the final third. Our bench on Monday featured three central midfielders and only Keenan Davis as a genuine alternative attacking option. It isn’t enough to really harbour hopes of being competitive in the way that many have hoped.
Trezeguet has been lively in his showings so far and was missed yesterday and will be a welcome return. Jonathan Kodjia should also be back in action before too long. But we are sorely lacking a player with a real killer instinct and some extra pace wouldn’t go amiss either.
Wesley is a tricky one to work out so far. There are moments when he looks unstoppable, holding up play and releasing the ball before powering forwards and getting into good positions. Against Everton in particular, he bullied Yerry Mina. Other times it seems the opposition is really able to get into his head and he looks unsure of himself. It seems that he will be a player who plays well in patches this season.
But we have to remember; this is all a work in progress. The players that Dean Smith has bought in are young and learning and the plan is that they grow as a team and learn to play in a certain way.
I think there are plenty of positives though. Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels look absolutely brilliant together. And with Tom Heaton looking steady after his moment of madness against Bournemouth, we should at least prove difficult to breach more often than not. That in itself always gives us a fighting chance in each game.
Indeed, clean sheets at home to both Everton and West Ham is not to be sniffed at. Both clubs are expected to challenge for a top 8 spot this season and shutting both of them out is decent. 4 points from a possible 6 from those two games isn’t bad at all.
And we can extrapolate this further and say that since Harry Wilson’s deflected strike for Bournemouth, we have now conceded just one goal in the last 348 minutes of Premier League action. We have the joint fourth-best defence right now in fact. And no team in the league has kept more clean sheets than us. That’s more than decent.
We all know that we were robbed of a point against Crystal Palace. And that we made silly mistakes against Bournemouth. That has cost us.
Where will the goals come from?
Goals do look like they’re going to be fairly hard to come by though, at least until January. One way to try and combat this may be to set up the midfield slightly differently.
Wesley is isolated way too much and needs someone nearer to him. Grealish is the obvious choice to push further on and I wrote about this possibility last week. I think a slight system tweak is definitely worth trialling. The one area we do have options for is central midfield.
Two holding midfielders have been suggested, but seems overly cautious, especially with the ubiquitous John McGinn having the energy and work ethic to add extra cover when needed. A switch from 4-3-3 to a 4-1-4-1 is subtle enough but could make all the difference in giving extra support to Wesley.
Regardless, there feels real desperation seeping in to get points on the board even at this early stage. This is probably confounded by potential relegation rivals such as Norwich and Sheffield United picking up plaudits for playing attacking football, which despite Dean Smith’s promises, we haven’t really seen it at Villa as yet.
In reality, though, those teams are still very much within striking distance and not much better off than we are. As are most other teams. And despite a lack of goals, we are creating chances in most games. Even against West Ham, we created good chances; Wesley’s header and Grealish’s chance at the end of the game both could’ve been converted on another day.
A trip to Arsenal this coming Sunday looks tough on paper, but a brave showing and having a real go could easily see Villa trouble a pretty substandard Gunners defence. The following games against Burnley, Norwich and Brighton are crucial however and those are the games which will really define the start to our season.
It was never going to be plain sailing after coming up through the backdoor of the playoffs. It was never going to all click into place straight away and this squad is still going to be built over the next few transfer windows.
Maybe we can play better, and maybe we’ll struggle to score goals. Right now, I’ll take being solid at the back as a good basis to build upon.