Aston Villa won promotion along with Norwich City and Sheffield United with all three playing a progressive and intense brand of football but so far, Villa appear to be the only side to betray the very philosophy that saw them promoted to the Premier League.
Dean Smith’s side have only four points from six games and lie in the relegation zone whereas Norwich and Sheffield United have six and eight points respectively and while that may seem a relatively small difference which could well be overturned within a matter of weeks, both the Canaries and Blades have been lauded for their bravery in play.
What struck Villa fans the most in their Championship promotion season was the way in which Dean Smith wished to conduct business on the field. The club had an ethos of ruthlessness; one that didn’t let the opposition up for air as we submerged them under waves attack. A one goal lead wouldn’t just be sufficient and the idea of putting a team ‘to the sword’ would almost become a philosophy.
The average fan will feel hard done by in the opening six games; VAR has now played an objectional role in at least three fixtures – all of which ended in losses. Individual errors have been a root cause for conceding nine goals so far and a failure to gel with a relatively new squad have left the Villans playing catch-up, but the real issue lies deeper. We need to be braver. We need to take the game to the opposition, and we need to ruthless when we have the advantage.
Macabre seasons that plagued the four stands of Villa Park were meant to be a thing of the past – have we not suffered enough? What more do we have to give the footballing gods to be rewarded with a palatable ending to games? Worshipping any deital figure requires an offering, and Aston Villa are not vindicated from complying with their sacrificial obligations. Money – over £100m to be precise – cannot satisfy the football god’s; no need for the wicker baskets passing around.
These gods are old testament; unrelenting, omnipotent, that yield no compassion and certainly no power. A physical and emotional sacrifice must be made to these impalpable, yet tyrannical forces that act as judge, jury and executioner every weekend all over the world. Blood, sweat and tears are offered in return for fortune, but in the Premier League those fortunes come with a price that we have paid only once.
“I’m not going to applaud, credit or reward the players because they run around”, “that is just a bog standard for me”. Quotes by fellow promoted manager and a former Walsall teammate of Dean Smith’s – Chris Wilder – on his own team’s lack of assertiveness. Effort is a necessity in this game, and not many can fault Villa’s application for the most part. We have held our own in the vast majority of games, running stats are through the roof according to Dean Smith and yet we find ourselves with four losses. We are guilty of something.
Bravery, execution and confidence; the absence of these three key aspects led to our demise against Arsenal. It seems the lack of these infuriated Dean Smith as equally as it did the fans that were there – me included – as he said in his post-match press conference, dropping deeper when out of possession wasn’t an order of his.
In face of what many deemed a superior opponent, Aston Villa expressed themselves. Everybody knew the glaringly obvious weakness of Arsenal’s game beforehand; their defence is a suspect one, capable of collapsing at any moment and Villa were happy to exploit it at will for the first hour.
There was a hunger, a desire to get forward. Jack Grealish had come in for a lot of criticism for misplaced passes against West Ham United but his run, undeterred by a hounding gang of red shirts epitomised the expression needed that had been missing for the previous two fixtures. Our captain was brave, leading from the front into enemy territory and it paid off as Wesley steered the ball past Bernd Leno, sending the away end into mass pandemonium.
We sold our soul; our cards we’re on the table and had we got it wrong, we were vulnerable to be torn apart by a swift tsunami of loaded cannons. But we didn’t. For those 60 minutes, barring one defending mishap that lead to the Gunners levelling at 1-1, we were superb; footballing heaven looked ready to receive us into a joyous landscape and more importantly with three points in hand. Any previous feelings of apprehension before kick-off looked as if they had dissipated and we were being rewarded for making the necessary sacrifice.
A game of football is 90 minutes long, plus a few added on. Not 60, 70 or 80. Ninety minutes separate the men from the boys, and I think with our resounding success during the first 60/70, we lured ourselves into a false sense of security. Our ability to counter the hosts at will may have played into a narrative that no matter what it was to be our day, that the 10 men they still had left on the field could not match our 11. Villa sat back; from the peacock displaying its colourful bouquet of tail feathers to a hermit crab, retreating to its shell in search of safety and hoping that no creature large enough had the power to obliterate the shell. Our shell wasn’t cracked, it was shattered.
Now without a win in our last three games, frustration builds with each week the team fails to secure three points. It’s a natural response but the fact that it is frustration rather than anger should be translated as a positive reaction as it means we – the fans – can see our potential. We were good enough to win; we should have won but more importantly moving forward, we can win.
Being brave and sticking by your ideals isn’t the sacrifice – that comes as a result of what the bravery makes you. You become vulnerable to attack; when you attack you are at your most exposed and this is what keeps managers up at night. The relentless dichotomy of flight or fight. Conform to the oppositions will or stride into battle with brazen guns and triggers ready to be pulled. Norwich City and Sheffield United chose the latter, I suggest we join them.
By Jack Cudworth