In the first of what may become a new regular column, MOMS looks at the reality of Aston Villa at this moment in time.
In isolation, Villa’s comeback win against Fulham offered hope that the malaise of 2021 had been broken, but the reality is, there’s several underlying issues that need tackling to get Villa’s progress back on track.
Hard Truths – Aston Villa Opinion
Penny Drops for Coaching Staff?
For 70 minutes or so, watching Aston Villa struggle against Fulham was swiftly feeling like a waste of a fine sunny Easter Sunday afternoon. The team had failed to register a single shot on target during this period, mimicking other recent games when they’d gone whole halves without troubling the opposition goalkeeper.
With Villa stuttering through most of 2021 in terms of their attacking play, the finger must point at the management and coaching staff for their failure to find solutions.
With Grealish out, what was the thinking of continually playing John McGinn in a deeper midfield role? He was only given a deeper midfield berth since Ross Barkley had signed, but with Barkley currently out of the picture, why continue with McGinn deeper, even playing the likes of Sanson and Ramsay (who haven’t demonstrated any end product yet) further forward of him?
Why had the penny only dropped over the international break, when McGinn’s goals for Scotland seemed to remind Smith what McGinn can actually offer further forward?
Remember what McGinn did on his first ever game in the Premier League against Spurs? That was a textbook example of what Villa has needed from its midfield – to break the lines and offer the kind of movement, that would help Watkins.
The more proactive use of Keinan Davis offers another alternative option.
You could argue that Smith and his team have been guilty of making the same mistakes and expecting different results. Hopefully what happened against Fulham showed that bolder moves breed better outcomes.
Wide Men Enigma
On their day, the likes of Anwar El Ghazi, Bertrand Traore and Trezeguet can win matches for Aston Villa. The problem with Villa’s wide men though is their lack of consistency and that has bred frustration in 2021 for supporters. You want to love them all, as each has attributes that gives them real potential, but they must bring more to the party on a regular basis.
When Grealish is back, Smith will only probably need one of them in his first XI, so in many respects it’s up to him to juggle them and play the one that is most likely to produce.
El Ghazi scored five in five appearances during this season, but has been inconsistent before and since this purple patch. Trezeguet has twice filled in for Grealish, as Villa’s saviour. In Project Restart, while Grealish was largely quiet, Trezeguet’s goals kept Villa up and then, on Easter Sunday, the day that was meant to herald Grealish’s return, the Egyptian came off the bench to score two goals in three minutes, after failing to score in any of his previous 29 shots this season. Meanwhile, Traore is Villa’s ultimate wildcard – equally capable of producing real football genius, as he is to miskick a shot or ballon a freekick.
At the moment, deciding between the three of them, is certainly not an easy selection for Smith to make.
Grealish Cat & Mouse
After the excitable in-house social media coming out of the club suggesting that Jack Grealish was making his grand return in the Fulham game, the disappointment of continuous anti-climax is starting to rub Villa supporters up the wrong way.
I can’t remember a Villa regime that has led their fans astray as much as this one in terms of injury reporting. Maybe it just syncs in with the increase quest for followers and engagement from the club’s communication department or the clickbait assault (and insult!) of the local press covering such situations?
Grealish shin injury in Villa’s final Championship season went from keeping him out for a few weeks to a few long months. Ross Barkley, this season, seemed to have at least three or four false ‘comeback’ dates.
It’s hard to believe that modern day medical science has regressed to the point where a club has even less of an idea when a player will be likely to come back.
Even as fans, from our experience of following the game, we’d always have a rough idea of how long a player would be out depending on what injury they had.
Maybe the old ‘will he, or won’t he play?’ trick could be used on opponents once, if it is actually touch and go, but to run the same play for weeks, is just annoying and counter productive, as the opposition will get an instant boost looking at the team sheet.
The boy who cried wolf springs to mind, in terms of the club’s communication on such issues.
Now Smith stated that Grealish needs another scan.
Don’t hold your breath for the Liverpool game.
Empty European Talk
Lets get to the point. Any prospect of Villa mounting a serious European charge faded when they failed to set up a decent foundation for a closing season European push, by dropping cheap points in games against the likes of Sheffield United, Burnley, Brighton and Newcastle.
For the media to continue mentioning the European narrative just because Villa finally won a game, doesn’t really serve any real purpose beyond creating vacuous false hope or to hype the forthcoming match.
Villa’s next two games are against a Liverpool team, who now have fresh purpose, and a Manchester City team, who are on another level to the rest of the league. The final seven game run-in for Villa is then tougher than the last seven games they’ve recently struggled in.
They’d need to be a few surprise performances and results, for ‘Europe challenging Aston Villa’ to be a real thing.
Pragmatically speaking, the mission for the closing games of season is to achieve regular decent levels of performance, and to look like a team that next season will no doubt be actually gunning to get into Europe.
In a game where you’re struggling to make any impression against a bottom three team, if at the hour mark you looked to the Villa bench for inspiration, you’d think how come Ross Barkley is still sitting on it? If you knew nothing of what had happened at Villa in 2021, he’d be the logical choice to throw into the fray. However, Smith choose once again to bring Ramsey on ahead of the Chelsea loanee, as well as Davis and Trezeguet.
There was a school of thought that the return of Grealish would lead to Barkley being reintroduced to the first XI in tandem. However, with the Villa captain still sidelined, there’s little return for Smith to actually invest in playing Barkley now.
Unlike the last three seasons, Villa won’t be taking this season to the last game and needing all hands to the pump. So, the last few games will give Smith a chance to try a few things and get more games into the likes of Ramsay and Sanson, with next season in mind. Thus playing Barkley would seem fairly pointless.
There’s no doubt that Keinan Davis has the ability at this level to trouble Premier League defences and at the very least provide a foil to bring others into the game. But does he have the mentality to really push on at this level?
Davis’ shy and reserved nature seems to reflect how he plays the game. He has the aura of a player thankful to get onto the pitch, rather than one determined to show he SHOULD BE ON IT. With the attributes he’s got to bully defenders, a bit of arrogance and swagger would probably go a long way to making him the real deal.
The lazy argument is ‘he needs a goal’. While there’s no doubt he needs a goal or two, he ultimately needs more than that. He needs to back himself and let the adrenaline flow a bit more. He needs to be a nuisance for defenders, even if that means being a bit more ‘cute’, streetwise, or to practice the dark art of sh*thousey.
With Wesley having been out for over a year now and Villa failing to get in a legitimate second striker into the squad, this season could end up a missed opportunity for Davis. Yet, as any reality of a European challenge fades, this creates opportunity for Davis, as with Villa’s remaining games potentially soon to be deadwood games, Smith maybe more open to giving him more game time.
Davis is 23-years-old now, so a period next season on loan to a Championship club is not really the answer, it would just signal the first step of him leaving the club.
He needs to be proving himself at Villa in the here and now – not just be happy to be in the squad.
There’s certainly a potential opportunity for him, so it’s up to him.