What a difference a few months can make. At the beginning of October we travelled east to Norwich and returned with a pretty astonishing 5-1 victory. After a tricky start to our Premier League campaign where we’d been gradually improving, that victory seemed to be the catalytic moment that would kickstart our season. Unfortunately, in the months since that season high performance, the opposite scenario has played out for Villa.
Following Saturday’s listless display against relegation rivals Southampton, Villa now find themselves 3 points adrift from safety and seemingly increasingly bereft of confidence. The optimism and excitement which Villa’s fanbase entered the season with has waned severely, and the familiar fear and negativity that embodied our more recent Premier League existence has firmly found its way back in to the collective consciousness.
Now recovering from our Christmas festivities, we find ourselves in the pivotal moment of our season as we face our most direct relegation rivals in Norwich and the newly rejuvenated Watford over the course of three days.
With Norwich up first, we enter the clash of the newly promoted teams who have found life hard going in the top flight. Unlike our fellow gradutes Sheffield United, neither Norwich or ourselves have not found an astute or pragmatic way to compete well enough against the more ruthless and savvy oppositions we face in this division.
When we faced Norwich back in October, Dean Smith prefaced our meeting by stating Norwich “hadn’t faced this Villa side,” well two and a half months later, and those same words may well be applicable once more, albeit with a more negative connotation. This isn’t the Villa side that swanned in and out of Carrow Road with a verve and swagger, instead this is a worryingly fragile looking Villa.
Having said that, wearen’t without hope, we possess threats on the pitch, if only we can rediscover a little confidence and utilise them fully. Jack Grealish has, at times, almost single-handedly dragged us through games, and this season’s already career high league goals and assists tally has been key to giving us a semblance of hope in games in which we’ve not earned the right to hold any.
Likewise the unfortunate injury to John McGinn has opened the door for the likes of Conor Hourihane to step in. He has quietly gone about his work when called upon this season and his particularly good goalscoring track record against Norwich may well prove handy in today’s fixture.
Not to overlook Norwich of course, as they have some attacking threats of their own in the presence of talisman Teemu Pukki, and marauding attacking midfielders Todd Cantwell and Emi Buendía. Their problems lie at the other end and, injuries aside, the ease in which they can be played through coupled with a defence unable to absorb concerted periods of pressure bares more than a passing resemblance to our own weaknesses.
It should also be noted that this is also a different Norwich to the one we comfortably beat earlier this season. The injury crisis they’ve endured thus far has been alleviated somewhat in recent weeks. With some key players returning, and judging by their performances against Leicester and in the first half against Wolves, they seem more capable of creating problems than in our previous encounter. Their away form is slightly worse than their home form however, and that may prove pivotal in what might be a match of marginal gains as such six-pointers invariably are.
After enduring our insipid display against Southampton, what seemed most glaring was our increasingly uninspired lack of ideas, and perhaps most worryingly, we seemed devoid of the effort and wherewuthal required to win any match at this level. It was alarmingly easy for the Saints, and that level of performance can’t be allowed to set in, otherwise we may as well throw in the towel.
We need to look back to our victory over Norwich in October and look at what we were doing then, that is so strikingly different to what we’re doing now. We may be missing some personnel, but I hope that Smith and the coaching staff have been studying our performances recently and have realised that somewhere along the way we’ve wondered well way from the path and now some strong decisions need to be made.
Starting with studying our formation which seems increasingly vulnerable to being picked apart and played through. The need to get back to basics and doing the straightforward things well again is perhaps key. Smith’s stubborn determination to play his favoured 4-3-3 formation home or away against any team has made us pretty predictable. Instead of improving and growing stronger as a team within that set-up, we seem to be regressing instead.
Our lack of a Plan B is stifling us somewhat and has began to look increasingly like folly when faced with the evidence of our results and performances of late. Only with seeming desperation did we move to a 4-4-2 formation on Saturday, and whilst it wasn’t enough to make a marked difference on that game, it was at least the first sign from the management that we might need to utilise alternative plans of action.
Ultimately, this fixture may well be a pivot point for our season and hopefully the boost our fragile confidence needs. We may have lost at home to Norwich in May, but our top flight home record against Norwich has actually been pretty decent, and it’s that omen that I hope augurs well for Villa this time around, especially when our poor Boxing Day day record is taken into consideration.
I won’t risk a score prediction, but I will say one thing; we will need to really play our part as fans in trying to create an encouraging atmosphere for the team to play in because toxic negativity – such as we’ve seen before at Villa Park – definitely won’t help our situation. Whilst we may be frustrated, we need to show a collective will to try and guide the team through this spell when our confidence seems to be sapping.
Let’s keep the faith and be the twelfth man that the banner adorning the Holte End proclaims us to be.
By Jamie Yapp