“It’s the hope that kills you”. It’s an old adage that has become a cliché, at least it has if you’re of a Villa persuasion. With the teams above us in the relegation battle beginning to pick up much coveted victories and finding the resolve to grind out the results needed, the situation has grown increasingly desperate for Villa who have yet to find their resolve. As fans, hope is starting to become all we have left.
Our record against Manchester United has been largely atrocious over the course of 30 years, so hoping for our fortunes to change against a newly resurgent, exciting young United side was perhaps somewhat ambitious. Nevertheless, our somewhat improved defensive work since the restart, plus an admirable (albeit fruitless) performance against champions Liverpool was enough to give us just a smidgen of belief.
The opening 20-25 minutes suggested that that belief wasn’t entirely misplaced either. United seemed content to very much ease their way into proceedings which afforded Villa the opportunity to exploit their early lethargy and build a little attacking momentum and from that some half decent oportunities too.
Konsa in particular was finding himself in some good advanced positions and – despite not being a natural right back – whipped in a couple of threatening deep crosses which twice found Aaron Wan-Bissaka out of position. Unfortunately, Grealish was unable to keep a tricky volley down from one such croass and Trézéguet could only head into the back of Wan-Bissaka with the other.
And it was Trézéguet who would go on to have Villa’s best chance, winning the ball back well in midfield and springing a counter attack. As he bared down on goal, Grealish and Samatta pulled away wide and the opportunity opened up and he bent a low effort past De Gea but agonisingly against the post. It was an unfortunate moment for Villa and the much maligned Trézéguet, but it was a positive sign of intent. Sadly it would be as good as Villa could muster for the rest of the match.
Then – as is becoming an all too common refrain in Villa matches – came the turning point. United attacking in numbers, played the ball across Villa’s area to Bruno Fernandes who, under pressure from Konsa, pirouetted himself into the Villa man’s half challenge and cleverly bought himself a penalty.
Even though we have VAR to check such decisions and despite the fact that replays suggested that Fernandes made sure to fall back back into Konsa – perhaps even fouling the Villa man in the process – Jonathan Moss decided that it should be a penalty. And because it’s Manchester United VAR inevitably agreed without question (despite the Premier League since admitting that a penalty shouldn’t have been awarded). Fernandes dutifully picked himself up and dispatched the penalty he so successfully orchestrated for himself.
It felt like an undeserved sucker punch at that point in the match but given our league position and our fragile state of mind, that sucker punch was enough to crack any resolve we might have had and relaxed an already confident United. From there they began to take control of proceedings.
Villa (and in particular Konsa) might have felt wronged, but there just isn’t time for dwelling on grievances when you’re in the midst of a relegation battle which you are struggling to escape. Unfortunately, if we were feeling orry for ourselves after that, we doubled our misery and made sure of our fate right on the stroke of half time.
Going in 1-0 down due to a contentious penalty wouldn’t have been a disaster (even with our poor scoring record since the restart), but 2-0 was a terminal blow. Mings lost possession to Martial on the halfway line and was a bit too honest in choosing not to foul him and halt a last minute counter attack. United subsequently raced away and with the ball at the feet of young wonderkid, Mason Greenwood, Villa criminally backed off and, making no attempt to close him down, they invited him to drill the ball into the net.
In a relegation battle there is one thing players need to show and fans need to see above all else, the will to fight. It’s not easy but a demonstrative determination to battle for every point, for every loose ball and a drive to keep going can be just as much a catalyst for a change of fortune as anything else. With Greenwood’s strike the collective body language of the players – especially leading vocal presences like Tyrone Mings – gave us all the evidence of a team who seem to have accepted their fate.
The second half became an utter capitulation. Any hope to see an active reaction to being behind quickly dissipated into effortless Man United possession. United are a good side and losing to them is no disgrace in and of itself, but the willingness to just go through the motions and chase their shadows for the remainder of the match was painful to watch and an endurance test that even the most optimistic supporter could barely tolerate.
By the time Paul Pogba casually passed in his his first goal of the season from the edge of the area, the game was well and truly up. The multiple excellent chances they conjured up with ease after that meant that 3-0 ended up flattering us. Maybe we could have made substitutions at half-time in an attempt to get something going, but in truth, there was little on the bench that could have realistically shifted things back in our favour.
The capitulation and the collectively poor body language almost from the moment of going behind, suggests that the players aren’t as up for the fight as Dean Smith has professed in his media briefings.
I’m not suggesting the players aren’t wounded by our struggles, the defeats and the increasingly ominous threat of relegation. I’m sure they’re hurting and desperate for wins, but right now, they just don’t seem capable of conjuring up the kind of team performance we’re going to need to gain those crucial victories.
There are just four games and twelve points left to play for and only wins will do now, but the seemingly shattered belief and the worrying inability to score goals right now means that victories may be hard to achieve.
Hope springs eternal however, and whilst there’s still a chance that we can stay up, we have to keep believing. It looks like a tough task from where we find ourselves currently, but if ever there was a moment for the team and the coaching staff to stand up and show their resolve, it’s right now.
With the fans unable to be in attendance to spur the players on through these tough times, we can only watch on from afar and hope that they can summon up the spirit and the fight to survive from within.
By Jamie Yapp