Firstly, to those of you that have voluntarily directed yourselves to this match review for reasons that are frankly beyond me, I salute you.
I wholly appreciate and applaud the combination of bravery and borderline insanity that it takes to willingly put yourselves through the pain of that inevitable second half demise once again. But for those of you that remain and haven’t closed this tab after a moment of stark realisation, I’ll try to make this as enjoyable as possible.
Secondly, despite the context and preceding events, it’s nice to be back writing for you guys. It’s been far too long since I have put together a piece for HotH, residing mainly on The Villa Filler podcast, with my good friend and co-host Dan Morgan. But it’s good to be back doing what I do best. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Buckle up.
I’d like to start by saying I was surprised by seeing an unchanged starting XI from Dean. Whilst the performance wasn’t exactly bad against Sheffield United, it wasn’t untouchable, per se. For example, I thought Ezri Konsa at right-back was inhibiting and further weakened the most disappointing aspect of our team – the wings. I’m aware Frederic Guilbert finds himself injured and Ahmed Elmohamady is presumably physically unable to complete a 90 minute match with water breaks, a 15-minute interval and the possibility to be one of five substitutes, but the fact that we didn’t make a single change seemed to somewhat accept the mediocrity of a 0-0 home draw with a fellow newly promoted side. Disappointing.
But despite the team being identical, the tactics implemented were not. It was, frankly, anti-football in the first half. Eleven men behind the ball at all times, remaining compact and impossible to move through, smashing the ball to somewhere within a three-mile radius of Keinan Davis at the first available opportunity. It was the kind of football that we sacked Steve Bruce for, but at least that was honest and ‘did what it said on the tin’. Under Bruce, you knew that was what you were going to get. Perhaps the most confusing thing about Dean Smith is that he promised us an escape from the stone ages and his ‘dinosaur’ predecessor. He said on media day at the start of the season that we would go out to “win every game” and given our current position in the league, that mindset has perhaps never been so necessary.
But here I was, 43 minutes into the first half (and 29 games into the season), appalled at our refusal to go toe-to-toe with our opposition and string even four passes together, when I watched Jack Grealish pick the ball up on the right wing and play a underweighted pass backwards to Douglas Luiz. Yet, as I leapt up off my sofa in rage to question why the f*ck Jack is playing on the right and why his pass to Luiz was so short, the Brazilian latched onto the ball with all the grace and finesse of his esteemed compatriots, floating a sublime cross past the Chelsea defence towards the onrushing Anwar El Ghazi. A combination of El Ghazi and Kortney Hause managed to scupper the initial opportunity, which was saved by Kepa Arrizabalaga, only for the rebound to be stabbed home on the turn by the awaiting Hause.
It was scarcely believable, given the performance that it had resulted from. As I watched Kortney run towards to corner flag, grab it as if it were a microphone and start rapping in celebration, I was just waiting for the grim camera shot of the referee, finger on ear, confirming that VAR was to spoil the party yet again. Because surely – surely – we can’t go into half-time 1-0 up after that shambles.
But go into half-time 1-0 up, we did. Sat 16th in the league, too.
My first thoughts?
This is too good to be true.
The second half then started and whilst it was clear that Smith had no interest whatsoever in increasing Villa’s lead (because obviously, scoring two goals in one game would just be ludicrous), we were defending pretty resolutely. Thanks to Ørjan Nyland’s buttered gloves and the studs on Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s boots being not quite long enough, Chelsea had come close, but our clean sheet was still very much intact as we tentatively crept towards the hour mark.
And that’s when it all went wrong.
With the entirety of our team camped far too deep inside our own half, the ball was played wide to Cesar Azpilicueta. With left-back Matt Targett nowhere to be seen when the Spaniard collected the ball – surprising, I know – Azpilicueta was able to produce a cross just as menacing as Douglas’, which easily cleared the compact Villa defence, connecting with the boot of substitute Christian Pulisic, who rifled high past Nyland. There’s a quite surreal moment when Konsa, who is actually marking Ross Barkley, turns around in disbelief as to where the Villa right-back was who was supposed to be marking the goal-bound American, before realising that the missing player in question was indeed himself. That’s what you get when you play a centre-back at right-back, I suppose.
To be fair to Villa, they then did something rather kind. Instead of waiting until the 90th minute to concede the second goal, shattering the hearts of all involved in the process, they thought they’d just get it over and done with as soon as possible. Around a minute later, Mason Mount and Olivier Giroud played a tidy one-two on the edge of the area, before the former plays it wide to Pulisic, who plays a simple ball into Giroud, who had his back to goal on the penalty spot.
When Giroud takes his first touch, there are eight Villa players (including the goalkeeper) inside our own box. EIGHT. Not only do those eight players, the closest of whom is Conor Hourihane, allow the ball to come to Giroud, then proceed to let him take a touch, turn and shoot uncontested, the ball then ricochets off the underside of Hourihane’s boot and spins into the net.
And that was basically that. Chances for Kortney Hause and Jota followed but both missed the target, as Villa steadily sank into the familiar realisation that their chances of getting anything from this match had long since passed. It marked the fifth occasion this season that Villa have lost having scored first, two more than any other side in the competition.
Giroud has also scored against Villa for the seventh game running, a run that stretches back far into his Arsenal days. Both of those statistics summed up the inevitability of the afternoon’s events, to be honest. But the result was beyond Villa long before the Frenchman scored. In truth, it was long-gone, even before we’d found the net.
That was because of yet another case of tactical naïvety from our manager, right from the first whistle. Dean Smith has failed to learn this season, that you can’t just sit back and defend for 90 minutes against any opposition in this league. There’s just too much quality throughout, especially within a side like Frank Lampard’s. As we have done against Spurs, Burnley, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs (again) and now Chelsea, we have yet again experienced the pain and frustration of watching Aston Villa self-implode after making positive strides in a match. If we do succumb to relegation this season, it game management that is largely to blame.
I accept the quality of a lot of our players is sub-par. But it is those same players who often find themselves in winning positions. That can’t be denied. If all of those aforementioned games had ended in Villa wins, we’d be well clear of the drop zone. But the coaching staff have failed to instil the necessary mindset and knowhow into the players that enable them to see out such matches. Whilst I do believe the players have to partially shoulder that responsibility, when we take the lead, it is then up to the management to make the appropriate tactical adjustments that enable us to maintain our hold on the match. And we don’t. We either remain far too gung-ho, fail to manage the pace of the game and leave ourselves exhausted and exposed (see Liverpool) or sit too deep, invite far too much pressure and are eventually broken down (see Chelsea). It’s so one-dimensional, at both ends of the scale.
With 30 games left to play, I’ll spin this positively. A point from Sheffield United and Chelsea is not a bad return and is probably something I’d have taken before a ball was kicked on Wednesday. We face Newcastle next, in what is one of the easier games that we have left and a win seems vital. It’s not out of the question either, let’s face it. It was out of the despair of a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Watford that we had a tactical re-shuffle and produced one of our better performances of the season, away at Burnley.
It can be done. This season has plenty of twists and turns left in store, but we’re running out of time to find the best of them. I fear that without the fans in the ground to provide the never-say-die attitude, it is not long before the players accept their fate and a defeat on Wednesday could do that. Steve Bruce will be salivating at the chance to get one over on his former employers, so it is up to Dean Smith to prove his worth against his predecessor and show that he is indeed the man to keep Aston Villa in the Premier League.