Dave Woodhall looks at Villa’s week, and finds it worryingly familiar.
Last week I said that Villa’s match with Newcastle could be the most important of the season, because it would show how much progress we’ve made since last year. It’s also about time that we began to beat mid-table teams at home as a matter of routine.
So, yet again the best part of forty thousand people turned up in expectation rather than hope to witness – a display that was every bit as bad as last season. Yet again the team didn’t begin playing until twenty minutes after kick-off, and once more we were a goal down by that time. To their credit the players looked a bit more like it after the break and deserved the equaliser thanks to Christian Benteke. In the circumstances, with the home side equalising and the opposition not doing so well away from home, from then on there should have only been one winner. You know the rest…
I’ve no idea why the team that played so well in the first couple of games can also put on a display like this. Our home form has been appalling since Martin O’Neill left, although even then it was too easy for teams to stop Villa from playing and leave with at least a point. In fact, Fortress Villa Park has been about as impregnable as Dudley Castle for thirty years, and any league success we’ve had has usually been based around our away form. It’s my theory, and I say it often enough, that Villa Park is just too good for us. It makes the opposition want to perform and encourages their supporters. We’re a river and a row of half-million pound houses away from being the Fulham of the Midlands.
Architecture apart, something has to change. Villa’s defence was as shambolic as ever and there was little inspiration from midfield. Yacouba Sylla must be wondering what he’s done wrong because we looked a different team after he signed yet he’s not had a sniff so far this season. Perhaps it’s significant that the three biggest disappointments so far have been Matt Lowton, Andreas Weimann and Ashley Westwood, who all burst onto the scene last year and were given new contracts during the summer. Maybe they think they’ve made it and don’t have to try anymore. If that’s the case then we can only hope that Paul Lambert will spend this week giving them the biggest kick up the arse they’ve ever received because if they want to become stars they’re barely past the first rung on the ladder.
Lambert himself also needs to realise that in the sophisticated environment of the Greatest League in the World you need more than hard work and effort to succeed. You also need a player who can pass the ball to any colleague, wherever they are on the pitch, at lower than chest height and you need a better plan B than piling every player upfield for the last twenty minutes.
I’m not overly concerned yet. There have been plenty of times when Villa have started the season reasonably well, then a bad result or two has been the catalyst for the team to move up the table. We can but hope that this is another one. However, the job has been made more difficult by the subsequent news that Jores Okore has ruptured a cruciate ligament and will be out for the rest of the season. Saturday was only his third league start, yet Okore has already shown himself to be adding to the Villa tradition of top-class central defenders. Not only that but he was also bringing out improved performances from Ron Vlaar. Of course, it had to happen in the first game after the transfer window closed – there might be a club that have suffered worse luck with injuries to key players as Villa over the past few years but I can’t think of one. Should it ever balance itself out we’ll never lose again.
Coming up is a trip to Norwich, where we won twice in two of the most memorable days of last season. It’s obvious that Villa’s counter-attacking style is better suited away from home but the major concern is that it’s too easily dealt with and there’s a worrying lack of alternatives. The signings that Lambert made during the summer were supposed to provide options both in personnel and in the way the team plays. There hasn’t been much evidence so far.