Aston Villa and the cloudy horizon

Villa lose 2-0 at Sheffield United and Dave Woodhall is apprehensive.

I said at the start of the season that I wouldn’t be too concerned until Christmas, just so long as Villa weren’t cast adrift at the bottom of the table. The festive season is coming like a jail on wheels (always try to shoehorn a Clash reference in wherever possible) and we’re still (just about) outside the relegation places but while worry hasn’t arrived for me yet, slight concern has certainly taken up residence.

Saturday’s game at Bramall Lane was, and again this is something I talk about regularly, the sort where the better team gradually impose themselves and in the end win without too much fuss. It might have been goaless at half-time but no-one really though that was how it would end.

Once again Villa started the second half slowly, conceded within five minutes of the re-start, and once again they never looked like they could get back into contention. United’s second was as predictable as Villa’s lack of attacking threat, a missed penalty from Jack Grealish the only time the home defence looked remotely threatened.

We can blame injuries, with Tyrone Mings absent and Conor Hourihane also out, allowing Kourtney Hause and Henri Lansbury rare starts, but the difference between the sides was more than could have been bridged even by a full-strength Villa line-up. Too many are off-form, one in particular is clearly feeling the effects of too many games already this season and there’s the growing suspicion that while signing players for their potential is all well and good, we should also have brought in a few for the here and now when we had the chance.

Dean Smith also has to take his share of the blame. Villa’s tactics are too predictable and a manager who was noted for his ability to think on the hoof at Brentford seems incapable of doing anything other than more of the same as events unfold over the course of ninety minutes.

So, where do we go from here? Tuesday night brings one of the more bizarre events even in Villa Park’s long history when we take on the might of liverpool’s Academy reserves. A combination of events (some are beyond Villa’s control – the extortionate pricing certainly isn’t) means that a cup quarter-final will probably see a gate ten thousand lower than our normal league attendance and I for one don’t know know how the manager should treat the occasion.

Enter into the spirit of the occasion and play a weakened side while resting players for the battles ahead, or put out a full-strength team in the hope of a morale-boosting win, at the same time risking injuries and a defeat that would be amongst the more embarassing even the Villa have endured over the past decade? It’s a big decision and the rest of the season might hinge on whether it turns out to be the right one.

A lot clearer is the importance of the few weeks afterwards. It’s one thing to shrug off defeats against teams a lot higher in the table and say that the vital fixtures are the ones against the lesser sides, but that’s only useful if you win them. Villa have got to get three points against Southampton on Saturday. It’s the shortest night and while the days might be getting brighter from then on, anything less than a win will see Villa’s prospects bcoming decidely gloomier.