In preparation for the Premier League’s resumption, Aston Villa have played two warm-up games before the race for survival gets back underway. Whilst hosting another team without fans in seats is little more than simply playing at your home stadium, Dean Smith’s side will have to find a way to replace their 12th man on a matchday.
A roaring Holte End opposing the scattered claret and blue shirts waving Project B6 flag’s to welcome their Villa heroes – it was a scene to behold as the ferocious Villa Park faithful drowned out an intimidated away following.
Villa Park won’t be packed to the rafters until at least next year, as reports of restricted fan allowances surfaced last week. For now, Villa will have to navigate Premier League survival without a home backing or an equally impressive away support.
You wouldn’t be wrong to think that Villa might be adversely affected by the new normal within football stadiums up and down the country due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In the lead up to football’s impending return, Villa drew 2-2 with Championship leaders and West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion before winning and losing in two separate friendlies against Leicester City.
It must be stressed that warm-up results are to be no indication of fitness levels or form. With three months out of competitive sport, any athlete will need a couple of Premier League games to get back up to scratch. But as the odd video of the games came through on social media, we got our first snippets of action from Villa Park behind closed doors.
The sheer size of the stadium we flock to every other weekend is really put into perspective from the TV cameras – the place we call home is a centrepiece of English football heritage. Scrolled across 7,000 pastel blue seats ‘The Holte End’ catches the eye like Jack Grealish, weaving in and out of defenders en route to goal.
The audacity to jink between a couple of Baggies before effortlessly clipping the ball above a backpedalling ‘keeper without a sniff – it makes you think how good Jack could be without the pressures of 40,000 demanding Villans which would allow him solely concentrate on his, at times, unplayable game.
How Villa can use stadium closures to their advantage
Allow me to add some meat to the bones.
This doesn’t quite lend itself to Grealish, being a player who is clearly confident in his own ability with shin guards smaller than new his top not – he oozes class and doesn’t half back it up.
For a group of players so inexperienced in the English top-flight, brought into an intense environment, us fans must learn from 2016 that there might just be some gems amongst a team that hasn’t quite gelled to quickly.
Looking at the likes of Adama Traore, Jordan Veretout and Idrissa Gueye, at Villa, they were simply shadows of the fully-fledged players they are today. Villa clearly has some very talented footballers despite their lowly league position, Douglas Luiz, Frederic Guilbert and in shades this season, Trezeguet have all shown glimpses of potential.
Here, we can speculate that an adapting period at Villa Park was made that degree harder with the demands of an instant impact required by most at the club. This can lead to severe amounts of stress and anxiety on a player who hasn’t acclimatised to his new surroundings in order to play at an optimum level.
At least from the outside, many Villa players look to have introverted personalities, with language barriers and general anxiety being a by-product of moving your family to a different country. Record signing Wesley and Brazilian teammate Luiz had both struggled to speak fluent English upon arrival at Bodymoor Heath, as well as Guilbert who made the switch to Villa in the summer.
A theoretical approach
Personality types, as theorised by John Fazey and Lew Hardy can be a huge factor cause for performance anxiety and ultimately a reduced performance because of specific triggers.
They coined the ‘catastrophe theory’ as a model to describe how certain performers may encounter a sudden reduction in their control of performance if their arousal levels exceed a moderate level. For Villa players who are prone to anxiety and nerves before heading out to a baying Villa Park cauldron, playing in front of no visible fans in the stadium might just benefit their output.
Their theory takes into account two types of anxiety: somatic anxiety and cognitive anxiety. Both types of anxiety can be crucial in determining the player’s reactions to high levels of stress. The catastrophe theory is a complex multidimensional model which concludes that increases in levels of cognitive anxiety will help performance if somatic anxiety is low.
So if a Villa players’ body is relaxed but they’re still feeling anxious, then this anxiety can help to improve performance. With some crunch games yet to play, no doubt nerves will be naturally high but the calming state of the environment in which Villa must perform in could well turn out to be a huge advantage.
Ideally, players who haven’t quite hit the ground running in a Villa shirt, like Trezeguet, Jota and Luiz can channel a ‘peak flow experience’, whereby an athlete achieves optimum performance levels. Most arousal theories associate with the phrase peak flow experience that suggests performance levels are related to the number of inner drives and self-motivation that the player holds before competing.
Identified as high trait anxiety by Charles Spielberger, players with this type of anxiety trait will experience greater anxiety levels in stressful situations rather than simply using a crowd to improve motivation and performance levels, for instance, Grealish, Tyrone Mings or John McGinn for instance.
Judging by the type of characters these players are, accessing their ‘zone of optimal functioning’ will be no issue despite arousal levels taking a longer time to reach without fans within the stadium.
What it’s meant for Villa so far this season
With bums on seats and fans in full voice, Villa have this season struggled to control performance levels, with only the fleeting cameo from players offering a glimpse of the potential from this young squad. According to Eysenck, introverts dislike high arousal conditions because their reticular activating system – sensory stimuli – is already stimulated, rather than a player who needs arousal to reach optimal performance levels during a game.
Achieving this state is difficult for most introverts perfuming on the big stage, especially for those without the experience of Premier League atmospheres or big money stake football matches. But without fans, there are fewer irrelevant cues in a player’s immediate vision. Focusing on relevant cues otherwise known as effective cue-utilisation, Villa players can concentrate on their motor skills and advanced, tactical requirements that Dean Smith asks of them.
The summer acquisitions of Luiz, Trezeguet and Wesley looked like steals considering their highlight reels on social media, from outside of the boot, Quaresma like worldies from Trez, and Champions League goals from Wes. In a Villa shirt, Luiz has scooped and slalomed – the skill acquisition of the eleven or so new players has for the most part been very encouraging.
Feeling more relaxed and in control of their performance is certainly a benefit for Villa who’ve missed a consistent flow of quality from the first until the last minutes of games, both home and away.
Villa will play six games at an empty Villa Park, as well as travelling to Newcastle, Liverpool, Everton and West Ham – three of which you’d assume Villa would like to take points from.
Including the trip to Anfield, all four away trips will be against teams likely playing for very little in terms of European places and relegation providing that West Ham save themselves by late July. This further reduces the stress placed on Villa player’s to reach the levels that don’t require a spike in anxiety to reach optimal performance – with this in mind, Villa should see a drastic improvement on away form compared to the two wins taken from the 15 away games before now.
Villa’s sweeping move against a Leicester City 11 that included Jamie Vardy and Dennis Praet was a brilliant passing sequence, and the finish applied by Trezeguet goes some way to proving how players of his ilk may benefit from stadium closures.
Up until now, fixtures have been re-arranged, players have come back from injuries and the Premier League has paused for more than three months during a global pandemic, whatever happens, it’s been an interesting return to top-flight football for Aston Villa.