By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Crystal Palace
With four games to go, Villa sit in 19th spot, now seven points adrift from safety, after both Watford and West Ham won their weekend games. While the season may not be over mathematically, only a fool would bet on a team winless in their 10 games to pull off winning their last four games to have a shout of survival.
As well as Villa’s Premier League status being on the line, Dean Smith will know his position at the club will come under increased scrutiny. The sentiment of him being a life-long Villa supporter maybe have helped him get the job and win fans over, but he’s in a results business and they have been lacking.
How Villa react in these final four games will go a long way to determining whether he is the man to inspire and lead the team next season, even if Villa drop. If the winless run and lacklustre performances continue, then they’d be little surprise if Smith was shown the door, as soon as Villa are mathematically down.
The short turnaround before the 2020/21season sparks up, would be a reason to keep Smith, if continuity is seen as the answer to rectifying this current mess. A win over Palace certainly could help stir thinking that way and keep Villa alive for another day.
Aston Villa – L D L L L
Crystal Palace – W L L L L
Dean Smith on team confidence
“The belief is there, that’s for sure. I can see it in their eyes when they step out to play.
“I can see it on the pitch and I can see it in the meetings we’re having. There’s definitely a belief.
“We’ve just come up against two top-quality teams in Manchester United and Liverpool.
“You can put Chelsea in there as well as the best teams we’ve played. There are other games where we should have got points out of, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Roy Hodgson on losing streak
“I certainly don’t have any fears about the players to keep going and give their level best in the rest of the games,” said Hodgson, whose side have dropped from ninth to 14th in recent weeks.
“I haven’t been disappointed with the way the team has performed during these [post-lockdown] games.
“There have been moments when we’ve done well, in particular the other night when Chelsea knew they’d been very much in a game and were quite fortunate to get away with all three points.
“We’ll be trying to get as many points as we possibly can in these last four games.
“It’s not going to be easy but it will be important to break the losing sequence.”
Crystal Palace like to use a 4-5-1 formation with Jordan Ayew up front, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend on the wings, with James Tomkins and Gary Cahill in defence.
Their 14th position in the league is represented by their possession (46.2%) and passing accuracy (76.2%). Both of these values are only slightly below average in the league, much like the team itself.
Their formation makes them hard to break down at times, but they are not a primarily defensive team. They push forward when they need to, but they strongly favour their left side – Zaha and Van Aanholt provide the majority of the attacking impetus and feed striker Ayew well. 27% of all shots they take come directly from the left side.
The midfield trio of Kouyaté, Milivojevic and Arthur are more defensively active – their primary job is to break up play in the middle. Milivojevic in particular is a no-nonsense tackler and has picked up a team leading 10 yellow cards this way.
Palace are not high scorers: they have put away 30 goals from 31.51 xG. Defensively, they have conceded 43 goals from an xGA of 51.80 – while they are not a primarily defensive team, their defending ability is still key to their success more so than their attack, which is not wasteful – it simply lacks potency.
Palace are certainly a beatable team, but caution will be required.
One to Watch
Wilfried Zaha is the spark that lights Palace’s powder keg. For a relatively low scoring team, four goals and three assists is a solid output. He likes to carry the ball forward too, completing 4.4 dribbles per game. This sort of play draws 3.1 fouls on average, mostly in dangerous positions. He will likely be Villa’s key tormentor in this game.
Aston Villa 1-0 Crystal Palace – 12-01-2016
Arguably the worst Villa team in history managed to win this game on a freezing cold evening. Even then, it was because Palace’s own goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessey, momentarily forgot what his job was and put the ball in his own net.
Crystal Palace 1-0 Aston Villa – 31-08-2019
Who could forget about this one? Jordan Ayew put the home team ahead midway through the second half. When Henri Lansbury clearly won back a point at the death after a delightful pass from Grealish, an awful referee decision denied Villa the point they deserved.
John McGinn was awarded MOTM, too. It says a lot about a game when a player from the losing side gets the best rating.
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How it could play out
Most teams have sussed by now that the key to beating Villa is to stop Jack Grealish. Back when this game was last played Villa had a plan B in John McGinn, and his gung-ho attitude to midfielding sapped a lot of the attention Grealish was getting.
McGinn has not been the same since his long injury layoff, however. This is to be expected: three months out with an injury, followed by a further three months because of a lockdown imposed right as you’re about to get started again, is not easy to come back from. It will take him time to get back to his usual standard.
He may be able to take comfort in that fact himself, but for Villa, time is not a luxury. They need their plan B to come back to form, because plan A has been all but neutralised by now.
All hope is not gone for Villa just yet – at times, it can seem like Palace too lack a plan B. Wilfried Zaha is their Grealish. Everything goes through him going forward, and stopping him can all but nullify their attack.
At the start of the season, Villa looked like they would have goals in all positions on the field. It was true then, so it stands that it should still be true now. The players look like they have lost confidence in themselves over the course of a difficult season – they need to remember that early promise they showed. It could be their saving grace.
Aston Villa 1-0 Crystal Palace
Predicting a Villa win always feels like wishful thinking these days (just like clean sheets). However they desperately need one – time is running out. If they don’t get one here, it’s game over.