Aston Villa’s 3-2 surrender to Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday evening prompted a wide range of emotions, theories and outbursts from Villa fans on social media after the game. Obviously losing a game in that fashion is always going to create heated opinions in the immediate aftermath and as fans, we didn’t disappoint. But should Villa look at our mental weakness and possible fitness issues?
Sunday was particularly frustrating though. Being 2-1 up, with 10 minutes of the game remaining, against 10 men, yet still somehow losing the game is only ever going to spark off a meltdown.
Opta released a great stat which noted that Arsenal’s resurrection was only the ninth time in Premier League history where a team that is down to 10 men have come from a losing position to win a game.
It shouldn’t have happened
The rarity of the occurrence puts into perspective the magnitude of the capitulation; frankly, it shouldn’t have happened.
As I mentioned, Twitter was a melting pot of emotion and everyone appeared to have an opinion on what was the appropriate reaction to have.
I personally didn’t see anyone calling for Dean Smith’s head. But I did see plenty of people threatening to block anyone who had that view or had anything negative to say about our manager.
Others tried to keep their heads and offer a comparison to our situation twelve months previously and to focus on how far we’ve come. Others were keen to point out that we were pretty much toe to toe with Europa League finalists on their own patch and we weren’t expected to win anyway.
I’m all for a bit of realism and taking a step back and seeing a bigger picture. But for me, I hate the ‘free hit’ mindset. Any allowance being made simply because this was Arsenal at home seems to be a dangerous approach to have. Would we want our players to think like that?
But I also think that hoping it will just all come together due to some signs of encouragement is a perilous outlook to have also. I absolutely agree with not getting on the back of the team but at the same time sweeping the flaws we have under the carpet helps no one either.
Of course, anyone suggesting that Smith should be sacked after six games are talking absolute nonsense. But that doesn’t mean the gaffer isn’t exempt from scrutiny.
There is clearly something not quite right. And right now, the tactics and the player’s mentality deserve to be questioned.
We have played some great stuff already this season. We were the much better side in the first half against the Gunners and looked a real threat. In fact, it’s really only the game against Crystal Palace where I’d say that we haven’t turned up at all so far.
Sloppiness has been an unwelcome blight on our season, however, with most of the goals we have conceded coming from our own mistakes. Is that happening because the players have run themselves into the ground trying to play Smith’s pressing style of football?
It definitely seems to be a contributing factor. We are blowing hard around the 70-minute mark. Six of the nine goals we have conceded so far have come on or after the 73rd minute. So, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
It’s a concern that having bought in most of his players nice and early this summer, Smith doesn’t yet appear to have them fit enough despite a full pre-season. After six games to achieve match fitness also, we should be seeing more rewards than we are doing.
Smith’s substitutions have also been questioned. There seems to be a pattern of subbing off a winger around the hour mark (Trezeguet, in particular, seems to be struggling to last any longer than this) and then a switch in whoever is playing the holding midfielder role will occur with around ten minutes to go.
Being honest, we are limited by the choices we have on the bench. But with players tiring, the change in centre midfield needs to sometimes happen sooner. It is one area we do have options. Against Arsenal, we had conceded the second and third goal before Conor Hourihane was bought on for Marvellous Nakamba. Too little too late.
Mental strength has now also become such a huge part of this though. And that needs to be straightened out, pronto. We cannot let this fester and become what defines us. We’ve seen the consequences of it before.
In our last dismal Premier League season, our opening matches saw a narrow 1-0 loss to Manchester United before surrendering points against Crystal Palace, Sunderland and that infamous 3-2 defeat at Leicester. We thought we were doing enough for things to turn around then as well.
Whilst I’m convinced we are a much better side than that awful team, the patterns of dropping points and the mental effects of doing so are worryingly similar.
John McGinn alluded to the problem possibly being ‘a lack of belief’ which is a concern. Smith has to find a way of rectifying that. Because if he doesn’t, every game is going to be a nervy affair and mistakes are going to continue to happen.
The home match with Burnley this coming weekend now has huge pressure associated with it. The fear factor is going to start creeping back into things before too long. And after taking three seasons to rid Villa Park of that particular stench, we cannot afford to let it cultivate again and permeate into the fabric of the club again.
The supporters have a huge part to play in that. But it’s up to Smith and the players to find a way of successfully playing in the way he wants them to and also becoming bullish enough to believe they’re better than the opposition.