After Friday night’s disappointing defeat to Leeds United, Aston Villa’s impressive 100% winning start to the Premier League season was brought to an end in fairly emphatic fashion. What matters now is what Villa do next and how they react to that disappointment.
Iain Dowie once popularised a term when discussing a crucial component of his promotion chasing Crystal Palace team; “bouncebackability”. Simply put, to achieve success, a team needs to show the ability to react positively to any setbacks.
The season’s success so far for Villa has been built upon the more solid defensive foundations we’ve developed since the return from lockdown back in June. But under Leeds’ concerted waves of attacking pressure on Friday, especially in the second half, that solid base crumbled.
In so doing, we were given a bitter reminder of the harsh lessons that can be dished out in the Premier League and with it a dose of reality to dampen our hard earned early season optimism.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this still remains our best start to a league campaign since 1930, so rather than letting any negativity creep in, we should use this defeat to serve as both a healthy reality check and fuel to refocus our energies on getting back to the form and performance levels that have led to our winning start to the campaign.
The main frustration that came from Friday night was the fact that, at times, Villa looked like a team who hadn’t really done their homework on the opposition. Leeds have drawn a lot of plaudits in recent seasons for their attractive, energetic, attacking style of play under Marcelo Bielsa’s enigmatic tutelage, but we still appeared caught out by their set up and unable to deal with it.
Perhaps we could have been guilty of getting a little carried away in our own performances and subsequently backed ourselves to give them a game playing with our own familiar set-up. Instead we wound up playing more into Leeds’ hands rather than taking control ourselves.
In the first half we were also given another less heralded moment of managerial difference that showed a more ruthless stance that Dean Smith may well learn from. Just 20 minutes had been played of an initially open and even game, when Bielsa, noticing the struggles of his young defensive midfielder Pascal Struijk – deputising for the absent Kalvin Phillips – didn’t hesitate to remove him from the fray rather than waiting to see how things played out.
It was bold and tactically astute and with young Jamie Shackleton bringing a fresh energy to midfield, helped to slowly shift the balance of the match increasingly in Leeds’ favour. Smith by comparison, seemed slower to analyse the balance of the play and was subsequently more cautious and more reluctant to make any changes.
Even as the game was increasingly getting away from us, we found ourselves stuck in a cycle of trying to do the same things and play in the same way despite clear evidence that it was proving less and less effective. As the game ran on, the outcome grew more and more inevitable.
But every setback and defeat is an opportunity to learn. Learning from Bielsa’s game management and how he adapts to different oppositions before and during matches, can be a positive lesson that Smith can definitely learn from. The best teams, players and coaches learn and evolve by studying their errors to see what they can do differently in order to progress.
Smith and the coaching staff deserve a great deal of praise for how they’ve already adapted, coached and changed this group of players but this defeat is another opportunity for tactical introspection. After all, you never stop learning and Smith has the humility to admit that.
We’ve always seemed a little reluctant to change things, particularly during games, but we have shown adaptability when pressed into it. We switched formations at the start of the year, when we had begun to look stagnant and we also used lockdown well to analyse and improve upon our weaknesses for our ultimately successful run-in.
A similar analysis can be run now toothed, because the facet that stood out so starkly against Leeds was our strangely stubborn refusal to make any changes in tactics or personnel when it started to go awry. We only made one fairly arbitrary like for like change (Traoré for Trézéguet) once we’d gone 2-0 down under a relentless barrage of attacks. The substitution didn’t change things at all because it came too late and didn’t address where the problem areas were either.
This obstinate mentality to keep playing in one fashion regardless of its effectiveness could cause problems again down the line against sharp sides and was ultimately our undoing this weekend. But if we can truly learn the lessons this defeat has taught us, then there’s no reason to see this as anything more than a bad day at the office in which the best team won.
Despite the ultimately comfortable defeat and subsequent frustrations, we did also create some very good chances ourselves and could have perhaps had a penalty too, so there were still positives to take away, it’s just that on this occasion the negatives outweighed the positives.
The fact that it’s pretty much the first time that the negatives have won out this season is evidence of how much we’ve improved and how far we’ve come. That’s the principal reason to remain positive despite Friday night’s disappointments and why we should believe this team can bounce back against Southampton next week.
We seem a much more confident and balanced team now and much more studious in working on our weaknesses on a game by game basis and whilst Southampton can be a similarly energetic side to Leeds and managed the double over us last season, I’m more confident in this Villa team’s ablity to learn from their mistakes and bounce back than I have been in any Villa side for quite a while. That’s reason enough for me to keep my optimism for the next match and the rest of the season.