Aston Villa and the neutral zone

Villa draw 3-3 at home to Leeds. Dave Woodhall reflects.

I suppose it was a great game if you were a neutral. I’m not a neutral and it was a frustrating, niggly, inconsistent, sublime to the ridiculous exhibition of how to throw a game away that you had in the bag before half-time.

Villa were more or less at full strength against a Leeds side with a few key players missing, so we should have been able to make this a welcome return to Villa Park after what seems an eternity. ‘Should have’ could be the Villa motto because ‘Prepared’ after the winter break we certainly weren’t. Leeds went a goal up after nine minutes and it wasn’t the first chance they’d had. Tyrone Mings lost the ball when he should have cleared it, Ezri Konsa was beaten too easily. It was to be the tale of the night, and Leeds could have scored at least one more.

Then with half an hour gone, Villa suddenly clicked into life. Philippe Coutinho scored, and made two more for Jacob Ramsey. The first was a sublime pass from the centre circle into the path of a colleague bursting from midfield; shades of Cowans and Mortimer if you’re old enough, or Cowans and Platt, or, well you can’t pay either player a higher compliment so may as well stop there. The second was similar, but with a quick break and a run with the ball before the final lay-off. We could throw Tony Morley in there, or perhaps Ashley Young if you want something vaguely contemporary.

This was vintage Villa, the best fifteen minutes of football for a long while. More goals seemed inevitable and when that happens you know what’s coming next. There were seconds to go until half-time when the ball bounced high into Vila’s six-yard box. Mings got a lot of criticism for letting a smaller player beat him to it, but the days when a six foot-odd defender can risk going for the ball and flattening an attacker have been sacrificed to VAR and controversy-is-good. Leeds were back in the game and thoughts turned to capitulations of old.

Emi Buendia was replaced by Carney Chukwuemeka after going off injured and Villa’s attacking threat diminished substantially. A cross, another defensive cock-up and the scores were level. Mings got the blame again, and his clearance was undoubtedly poor, but the ball fell to a Leeds player who had far too much room. From winning at a stroll Villa spent the rest of the game defending ever-more desperately, particularly in the dying minutes after Ezri Konsa was sent off for a second yellow.

By this time Steve Gerrard had been forced into making a couple of substitutions, Coutinho because he’s still not fully fit and Buendia through injury. And thereby lies Villa’s problem at the moment because these players, two of the best in the country, were replaced by the veteran Ashley Young and the comparatively untried Chukwuemeka. With the best will in the world you can’t make such substitutions without a massive impact on the team. Villa have currently got a fringes of the top six first team and a no better than mid-table squad. Maybe it would have been better to bring on Morgan Sanson, although that would have further unbalanced a midfield that is out of sorts as it is.

Watching Ramsey blossoming this season has been like watching Cowans, or Platt, or one of maybe half a dozen young Villa players in the past fifty years. Coutinho has already showed that next time he turns up for training we should be refusing to let him leave Bodymoor without a permanent transfer. He’s world class, and Ramsey could well turn out the same. Trouble is, they’re surrounded by team-mates who are either out of position and ineffective or at that difficult stage of being good enough for where we are now, but not good enough for where we want to be in twelve months time. On so many different levels, a lot of tough decisions have to be made during what’s left of the season.

One thought on “Aston Villa and the neutral zone

  1. A small striker shouldn’t beat a huge centre back, certainly in the air, but we were happy enough when Buendia did that to win the game at Everton!

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