By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Norwich
A lacklustre performance against Southampton means Villa have stumbled and fallen off the tightrope they have been walking for much of this season. All is not lost however and a positive result against Norwich on Boxing Day would help push them back up.
Villa have already logged a comprehensive win against their fellow strugglers on their own turf, so a home return fixture should help inspire what would be a crucial win.
Can Villa stop the rot and keep their head above the water?
Aston Villa – D L L L L
Norwich – D L L D L
Dean Smith on current bad form
“Four Premier League defeats, and four not great performances as well.
“The goals we’ve conceded is a concern. The performance against Southampton wasn’t great. There was nothing in the game and then we made poor mistakes for the goals which was disappointing.
“Our reaction to that wasn’t as good as it should’ve been and we’ve spoken at length about that in training.
“The only way you can put that right is by going out on the training ground and working hard, which they have been doing, but for whatever reason in the last two or three games we haven’t replicated that onto the pitch.
“That’s what we have to do for Norwich now.”
Daniel Farke on Aston Villa
“It was a strange game against Villa earlier in the season. It didn’t feel like we were too far away from a good result.
“We just weren’t competitive because of all the injuries we had. We’re in a better position now. We’re still not the favourite in this game.
“They have top-class players, but we are definitely competitive, as we showed in recent weeks.
“The Premier League is always a close competition and it’s difficult for every team to win points. Some good sides can struggle.
“Everton were involved in the relegation battle, which is unbelievable considering the quality of their players.
“You can quickly be gaining momentum with two or three good results in a row so that’s what we’re hoping for.
“Each game is big on this level, so I wouldn’t over-interpret it too much. Villa are a bit under pressure having lost their last four Premier League games after spending £150million in the summer.
“You’d have expected them to be in a better position. We are where people expect us to be but we’ll keep on fighting against it.
“It’s important for both sides but makes no sense to speculate who’s under more pressure. It’s always good to be playing for something.”
Norwich have mostly remained faithful to their 4-2-3-1 formation this season, with the imperius Teemu Pukki up front, Todd Cantwell and Emiliano Buendia on the wings and Cristoph Zimmerman joining Ben Godfrey in defence.
They are a very tidy team when on the ball, maintaining a respectable average of 81.1% pass completion across the season. They often work a slow build-up, with the ultimate goal of finding Buendia or Cantwell on the wings. Virtually all of the attacking threat in the team is supplied by these two and Pukki – between them they have provided 14 goals and 10 assists, which is almost the entire team’s goal contribution.
In terms of expected goals, the 19 goals they have scored this season has come courtesy of 19.23 xG. An average of just over one goal per game is nice and steady and would see them safe, if not for a leaky defence which has conceded 37 goals so far.
Godfrey and Zimmerman can find themselves under pressure thanks to marauding full backs who are expected to help supply the width in attack. They cope with this reasonably well, averaging a combined 9.9 clearances per game. However Whoscored lists aerial duels as a particular weakness for both, so they struggle to handle balls being crossed into the box.
Both central defenders average less than one foul per game, suggesting they won’t be bullied by a strong target man and they are calm enough to not rashly dive into a challenge. Norwich may not be a particularly dangerous side in the grand scheme of things, but Villa cannot expect to find them easy to break down this time around.
One to Watch
Pukki and Cantwell are the danger men in front of goal, scoring almost every goal the entire team has scored between them. However, the assist king in the team is Emiliano Buendia, who has contributed five so far. The Argentine winger is a tricky and clever playmaker who provides 2.8 key passes and 3.2 successful dribbles per game, boasting an 81.3% pass success rate.
Villa will be wary of the goal-getters in the Norwich team, but the best way to stop them is to starve them of their main source of service.
Aston Villa 4-2 Norwich – 19-08-2017
Conor Hourihane’s first hat-trick and a goal from Andre Green were plenty enough to win an exciting match. This was the first time Villa fans really got a feel of what Hourihane was capable of in this team.
Norwich 1-5 Aston Villa
Villa’s best result and most comprehensive Premier League win in some time perhaps gave fans a false sense of hope that Villa had found true stability at last. After all, it was against a seriously depleted Norwich team. A Wesley brace followed by goals from Gealish, Hourihane and a truly special Luiz strike gave Villa fans plenty to savour though.
However, a bizarre consolation goal from Josip Drmić, courtesy of fatal miscommunication between McGinn and Mings, should have been seen as a bit of foreshadowing.
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How it could play out
Villa are not short of problems currently. Misfiring strikers, mercurial wingers and a tepid midfield are combing to make Villa an easy target right now. Smith’s relentless insistence on sticking to roughly the same formula in every match has been sussed out by opposition managers.
Seeing him bring Kodjia on to partner Welsey late in the last match, a move which a lot of fans have been screaming out for for a while now, offers some hope that he is going to reconsider the cards in his hand.
Undoubtedly the biggest problem he has at the moment is the news that McGinn will be out for around three months. Losing one of the season’s stand out stars during such a crucial period, alongside the fact that Mings is also currently still unavailable, leaves Villa in a sticky situation.
How do you plug a McGinn-shaped hole? The answer is you don’t – Villa need a plan B, and fast.
A major talking point for Norwich in the previous fixture was that most of their preferred starting XI was in the medical bay rather than on the pitch, meaning the team Villa beat so convincingly was little more than a ragtag bunch of misfits. While a look at the team they fielded that day suggests this is a bit of an exaggeration, it also implies that this next match will definitely not be as simple, especially considering Villa will themselves be a severely reduced outfit in comparison this time around.
The key to winning this game is to win midfield dominance; cutting the supply to the front three, supposedly the only goal threat the team has, while applying pressure to a relatively weak back four will be a point of priority for Villa. Wesley was able to bully them last time around – can he find it in himself to do it again, at this most crucial time?
This is an opportunity for Villa to chalk an early six points against relegation rivals. That would be a result that could very well define the entire season in the end.
Aston Villa 1-1 Norwich
Both teams are in a mire, devoid of ideas and in dire need of inspiration. Despite how things went last time around, it seems unlikely either team will muster up anything worth writing home about in this game. Let’s hope Norwich show up still steaming from the brandy the night before.