The James Webb telescope recently produced some of the most stunning imagery of the universe ever recorded. It was a reminder that out there, somewhere in the eternity of space, is a parallel universe where Aston Villa’s team has structure, an overarching on-pitch idea of what it wants to be, a balanced squad, coherent movement in the final third and a head coach who makes substitutions that work. But that, sadly, is not this place.
The pressure is building for Villa manager Steven Gerrard already. Four games into the season and, well, it ain’t great. What are Villa? Who are we trying to be?
Towards the end of last season Villa were largely underwhelming, but it was only right to be patient and give manager Steven Gerrard a full pre-season to work on team shape and bring in new recruits. The signings of Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos were exciting, and the Australia tour was a success. So, after all that, how have we Villa fans turned so rapidly into a collective gathering of Gene Takovic’s? (Take your mind off Villa and watch Better Call Saul, folks – what an amazing show).
It is a sign of how poor Villa’s displays have been that so many fans have already lost faith after just four games this season. From the first minute of the opening match when Bournemouth’s Jefferson Lerma scored from a corner something has not looked right. The team can’t convincingly defend set-pieces, the defence looks vulnerable, there is barely any coherence in the final third and substitutions hardly ever make any positive difference.
The warning signs were flashing in pre-season when Villa played Manchester United in Australia. Erik Ten Hag’s side utterly dominated Villa in the first-half when Gerrard’s men used a diamond formation, with Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings up front and Coutinho playing just off them. Villa could not get the ball out of their own half and United took a well deserved 2-0 lead. However, to their credit, Villa fought back impressively in the second-half to draw 2-2. This happened after Gerrard shifted to a 4-3-3 and threw Leon Bailey onto the pitch.
A few weeks later, during Villa’s opening game of the season at Bournemouth, Gerrard stuck with the 4-3-3. Unfortunately for us fans his side were abject. The Cherries, who lost 9-0 at Anfield this weekend, are likely the weakest team Villa will face all season, but Gerrard’s men barely had a shot on target. Instead, the ball was constantly lumped forward onto the clunking great head of 6ft3 defender Chris Mepham, leaving poor Danny Ings carrying the expression of a lost soul desperately searching for the miracle of somebody to just give him a clear-cut chance.
Gerrard changed formation again during the following week’s win over Everton and went back to the diamond formation, with Ings and Watkins up front together. For some reason, Frank Lampard played with five at the back, treating his opponents like prime Guardiola-era Barcelona. It was an odd choice and backfired for the Everton manager. However, Amadou Onana’s introduction in the second-half caused serious trouble for Villa and almost led to a late catastrophic collapse by the home side, who just about hung on to win 2-1.
Villa then moved to 4-3-3 again at Crystal Palace, where the midfield could not deal with Eberechi Eze or Wilfried Zaha. When in control of the ball, Villa would often aimlessly pass around at the back waiting for a midfielder to take it off them and progress further up the pitch. But throughout the match there was hardly ever a midfield option to receive the pass and Villa therefore looked meandering and listless. Instead, Palace’s forwards would pressure Villa’s defenders and force them into making a mistake, or they would belt the ball upfield hoping it might land on the head or chest of lone striker Watkins.
The Palace game also saw a common theme of this season where a substitution did not work. At about the 65th minute mark, Gerrard chose to abandon the 4-3-3 and move back to the diamond shape by replacing Leon Bailey with Danny Ings. After that, Villa somehow managed to further cede control of midfield, which culminated in Palace scoring a third goal about five minutes after Ings entered the field. Only after the Villans went 3-1 down did Gerrard freshen up the midfield by replacing John McGinn with Douglas Luiz. By then, sadly, it was all too late.
WEST HAM WOES
And so, to this weekend where Villa lost again. This time it was perennial bogey team West Ham who turned up at Villa Park to beat Gerrard’s passive band of brothers 1-0 and confuse noted West Villa (West Villham?) fan David Cameron about whether he should have been happy or upset.
Speaking of confusion, we must wonder why Gerrard took off Douglas Luiz in the second-half. The Brazilian was performing well enough alongside Boubacar Kamara and offered some semblance of balance. But it was he who came off for Jacob Ramsey, who then formed the same midfield three with John McGinn and Boubacar Kamara which had failed to deal with Crystal Palace a week beforehand.
Soon after Luiz left the field, West Ham’s Said Benrahma made himself a chance by easily running through the centre of the pitch. It was a warning of what was to come. Just minutes later, Pablo Fornals found space outside the Villa box and scored a fortuitous deflected winner. West Ham’s first goal of the season was fortunate but sometimes in football you make your own luck.
The Hammers were abject in the first-half but their manager, David Moyes, was smart enough to change his side’s shape. His team then took control of the second-half for the most part. Villa, in contrast, could not find an answer to Moyes’ innovation.
Most worryingly, Villa ended this home game against a struggling Hammers side with an expected goals number of 0.4. In his post-match review of the game, Match of The Day pundit Micah Richards highlighted instances of players getting in each other’s way, and Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings making the same runs. Richards also showed Ings coming out wide and making an overlapping run when he should have been in the box waiting for a chance. It was brutal viewing and highlighted why Villa could not muster clear-cut chances despite having an abundance of attacking talent.
There will of course be pundits who argue Villa fans have been too quick to voice their displeasure. We are forever told supporters must be patient or, even worse, don’t understand football to the same level ex-pros do and we should therefore all just shut up and accept whatever ‘Proper Football Men’ tell us. Okay, sure thing. There are virtues to exacting patience and there will always be a vocal minority of fans at every club who moan endlessly on the terraces or fire-off hysterical Tweets about how any manager is ‘in the mud’ and ‘needs to get out of my club’ after one unconvincing draw against a struggling side.
The truth here, though, is that Villa fans have been largely patient with Gerrard. There were fair questions about the team’s approach last season, but few were calling for the manager’s head. Right now, after a full pre-season and a number of new signings, it is almost impossible to figure out what Villa are trying to be. It feels like anybody could beat them.
Can this turnaround? Villa has a talented collection of players who could achieve positive results if they were operating in a functioning system. Football also has a rich history of sides rediscovering their form after a period of struggle. However, at this moment, it is hard to believe things will change for the better. Perhaps Gerrard will find the right shape. Maybe he’ll land upon a formation that works consistently. But every passing week makes it harder to believe that will happen.
Who are Villa’s next fixtures? Arsenal and Manchester City. Gulp.
Compare Villa’s ongoing woes to Newcastle’s transformation under Eddie Howe, who took charge around the same time as Gerrard. After a poor start, Newcastle turned their form around with two inspired signings in Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimarães. Allan Saint-Maximin, a player Howe inherited, has also become a more consistent and electric player under the former Bournemouth coach. There are signs recruitment has largely worked on Tyneside, while Howe has also improved the players he first took charge of.
Newcastle were exceptional against an awesome Manchester City side last week, drawing 3-3. Every player looked as though they knew their role and fought for everything at St. James’ Park. It strongly suggested Newcastle’s players had bought into a collective idea introduced by Howe.
From the outside, Newcastle have developed a winning mentality. Their hard-fought performances and excellent form suggests the players have a unified belief in Howe’s approach. Is any of that clear at Villa Park right now? Unfortunately not. It is a stark contrast.
Clip from our Palace review episode. Comparing Aston Villa's recent displays to Newcastle & their excellent form. What do you think?
— All Villa No Filler (@VillaNoFiller) August 23, 2022
Villa have spent big since Gerrard joined. At the turn of the year, the overall approach appeared to move towards signing ready-made players on large salaries. Most of these player have little sell-on value and the likes of Coutinho and Lucas Digne are on significant salaries. This is serious expenditure which must put Villa among one of the highest paying clubs outside the Premier League’s top six. Given such spending, the board would absolutely expect to push for Europe and trophies, a prospect which currently feels light years away.
Have these signings really made much of a difference? Not yet. In fact, Villa have barely improved since their arrival.
Villa’s approach to transfers has been confusing for about a year now. It all began when they signed Danny Ings during the summer 2021. It came out of nowhere on the day Jack Grealish left for Manchester City. Ings was a proven goalscorer and a talented player, but his signing was still quite random when Villa already had a lead striker in Ollie Watkins who had performed well in his first season at the club, scoring 14 league goals. What were Villa aiming for when they signed Ings? Was there a plan to move to two up-front? Did the dealmakers expect two quality strikers in Ings or Watkins to accept a rotational role? Would Watkins be moved out wide in Villa’s then-favoured 4-3-3?
Ings is a high quality player and this is no criticism of his ability, but it is fair to look back and ask what the plan was when the club signed him for a significant outlay
In fairness to the recruitment team, Villa made very good signings in Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos this summer. The injury to Carlos was depressingly unfortunate as he added physicality to the defence. Kamara has looked a quality player with exceptional distribution and tackling. Villa have done well to sign the former Marseille man.
Lastly, on this long, joyous ride through the trials of supporting Villa, we must consider some of the odd decisions made off the pitch.
The decision to take the captaincy from Tyrone Mings and hand it to John McGinn has not worked so far. It provided a negative backdrop which only served to alienate the fans (and who knows how it went down in the dressing room).
McGinn has not performed well enough this season to even guarantee himself a starting spot. He is a talented midfielder and can play much better than his current form suggests but it does leave Gerrard with a self-inflicted problem of potentially having to drop a player he has just given the captaincy to.
Of course, Gerrard had every right to name his own captain and Mings likely has the personality to deal with the issue, but it all just feels like a drama the club never really had to endure.
It is a perplexing moment to be a Villa fan. We love this club and desperately want to see everything move in a positive direction.
Most of us will try to stay positive and support the side through it all. But will the board decide Gerrard is the man to keep the spirits of the Villa faithful up? We will find out very soon. Things need to improve and quick.