Aston Villa and the grand approach

Villa lose at home to Arsenal as Dave Woodhall looks around.

Spring was in the air in Aston on Saturday morning. There’s nowhere like a floodlit Villa Park for atmosphere, and equally there can’t be many better ways to arrive at any sports ground on earth than that gentle stroll in the sunshine, past a Jacobean mansion and along an avenue of century-old trees. You can buy players, you can buy clubs and new grounds but that feeling you get when approaching our home is beyond price.

As for the match itself, there was a welcome sign of squad roation as the team was announced. Ezri Konsa returned to the starting line-up and Emilianao Buendia replaced Danny Ings, just as we were getting used to the Ings/Watkins partnership, although Douglas Luiz’s recovery meant that there was still no place for Morgan Sanson. Villa’s midfield triumverate seems cast in stone, unbalanced and lightweight thought it might appear.

Which, sadly, set the tone for the match. There was a nice tribute to the recently departed Andy Lochhead, nine minutes being both his shirt number and more than likely the time a player of his combative nature would last on the pitch these days. But how the Villa could have done with that sort of attitude. Arsenal in the first half were just too good for us. They pressed, harried and threatened. Villa dithered, pondered and stumbled. This was another tentative performance against a side above us in the table and Arsenal had already wasted a couple of good chances beore going ahead after thirty minutes.

Villa at least showed some improvement in the second half, with McGinn and Watkins going close, but the lack of urgency was clear and the result inevitable long before the final whistle. Substitutions were arguably too late and undeniably had little effect. Even as Arsenal tired Villa looked unable to get anything from the game. That it took until stoppage time for Villa to have their solitary shot on goal was perhaps the most damning statistic of the match.

Which leaves the question of where we go from here. It’s starting to look as though an uncomfortably large number of the players might be good enough for a mid-table squad but that’s as far as they’re going to get. For the team to move on, serious money will have to be spent – again – if we aren’t going to be regarded as just another Premier League team, making up the numbers until it’s our turn to struggle again. Another question has to be asked of Steven Gerrard, who once more failed to address the biggest problem. Villa’s midfield three are clearly out of form, yet they seem to be undroppable. Sanson might be another example of a player who gets better the longer he’s not playing, yet when he has had a chance he’s been at least the equal of whoever is keeping him out of the side. What’s happened there is a complete mystery.

And after such a performance, that walk away from the ground is a steeper uphill climb than you might think it is on the way there. At the moment it’s not the only thing that’s a bit more of a struggle than it first seemed.