Aston Villa and the learning curve

Villa draw with Ajax in the Uefa Conference League with Dave Woodhall happy enough.

There are some names in football that command worldwide respect and Ajax are one of them. No matter that their current team is reckoned to be their worst for decades they’re still Ajax, multiple European champions and purveyors of a youth policy that had produced some of the greatest footballers of all time. I’m sure it was that and no other reason that caused thousands of Villa supporters to travel to Amsterdam for Thursday’s star attraction. Oh yes.

Unai Emery picked the sort of team that was pretty much as expected – a few changes, Morgan Rogers and Tim Iroegbanum starting, plenty of quality on the bench if the match was going wrong. The pre-match atmosphere was also as expected with lots of noise, flags and percussion. That’s Europe for you.

The game, though, was hardly fit for the occasion. Villa never got going; the midfield seemed disjointed and without Leon Bailey starting much of our attacking threat was easily dealt with. Ajax probably shaded the first half and had the better chances although in truth Emiliano Martinez didn’t have a great deal to do.

The idea of playing in Europe is to do your best to keep the opposition quiet in the first half then gradually start to counter as they get anxious. Villa did this well enough and it was noticeable that as the second half progressed the substitutions seemed more with the aim of getting a goal rather than not conceding one.

Pau Torres had been taken off at half-time and replaced by Matty Cash, then Bailey and John McGinn came on for Rogers and Moussa Diaby. Villa started to get more into the game and the final set of substitutions, which saw Alex Moreno and Nicolo Zaniolo taking the places of Lucas Digne and Tim Iroegbanum added a bit more attacking variety to Villa’s play, even if Zaniolo did, yet again, fail to look as though he’ll be at Villa for any longer than is necessary.

There were a couple of half-chances but as the game went on the biggest attraction on the pitch seemed to be the referee, with several yellow cards for what looked like harmless challenges and one particularl assault on Ollie Watkins going unpunished. Ezri Konsa’s first booking seemed harsh, his second probably wasn’t. Perhaps English referees still are the bnest, after all.

The ref finally brought an end to what will never be remembered as a classic event although it was yet more European experience for the Villa team and a few more minutes played by those recovering from injury. You got the impression that Ajax were as good as they could have been while Villa have a couple more gears to go through. Emery certainly wasn’t happy with the way the team played; he knows they’re capable of much more and everyone knows hat he can get it out of them.

Overall, a decent night’s work and Villa should now be looking to go through to the quarter-finals next Thursday at a Villa Park that’s already sold out. It would have been better to get a good win, but to be disappointed with only drawing away to Ajax – as I keep saying, that’s progress.