Something For the Weekend (582)
Autumn leaves us doubtful..
Villa made a disappointing start to their all-important September schedule as they failed to secure the four points which seemed like an entirely reasonable expectation from their two home encounters with Brentford and Middlesbrough. The disappointment distracted from the fact that Villa weren't actually too bad and the knee-jerk doubts about Steve Bruce and his coaching staff were re-echoed. But gladly, the negative reaction I was dreading did not materialise, despite some persistent fear and loathing. Reason and moderation mostly prevailed once the boos had died down on Tuesday night. I can't claim not to have been gutted by this latest re-acquaintance with Villa's shortcomings but the go-to solution, suggested by not a few fans, of changing the manager less than a year after his arrival, has absolutely no appeal whatsoever.
That is not to say that Bruce is beyond criticism: far from it. The grand plan against Brentford, which seemed to be about playing it sideways at the back, to entice the visitors out of their own half, looked tentative and doomed, especially as Villa's poor passing provided Brentford with all their best chances, which only the heroics of Super Sam Johnson and some lousy Brentford finishing, prevented from turning into goals. Villa's cautious and pedestrian approach just demonstrated the players' inability to change tempo quickly, attempts at which, usually ended with the hurried pass turning the ball over to the opposition. Villa's chances mostly came when Brentford had their bus well and truly parked. Villa weren't bad at all but surrendering most of the pitch to Brentford in the closing minutes, which allowed Ryan Woods to strut his stuff, left the Villans with a less than positive assessment of the whole game. Brentford deserved their point and Villa struggled to assert their individual superiority because all too often they messed up when they attempted to segue between andante and prestissimo.
I had expected Villa to beat Brentford and draw against Middlesbrough and the latter outcome looked inevitable once Villa old-boy Traore had been sent off and Middlesbrough's renowned miserly defence was set against Villa's less than prolific attack. Villa showed some quality in their approach work as they battered away at Middlesbrough's Maginot Line but to no avail. Lansbury rightly should have been awarded a penalty in the first half but for fact that the tumble was a bit too theatrical, which let the referee off the hook. Then on the hour the inevitable happened, when Villa were reduced to ten men after the referee went all deus ex machina and sent off Lansbury. The offence was neither violent nor did it meet the criteria set out by the 'professional foul' rules, so the decision looked totally arbitrary. However, it can't be claimed that it changed the outcome of the game. That was left to lady luck and Villa's Hogan, who despite trying to jump out of the way of Hourihane's bouncer the ball freakishly rebounded off him to safety from the Middlesbrough goal-line. Villa had been pretty decent, their tempo was better and with some substantial bad luck and a sense of injustice to take home, they weren't judged too harshly by the faithful. But it was still a gut-wrenchingly disappointing outcome. The news that our neighbours had lost and had slipped into the bottom-three hardly registered as a consolation.
When my bitter disappointment had subsided and my reason was more accessible, I concluded that Villa need to be slightly better than then their luck, which when assessed over previous games has been about even, counting up the favourable deflections and refereeing decisions of recent matches. There is little doubt that Villa have been very unlucky with injuries, what with Grealish and now Green suffering long-term injuries. The significance of injuries to both Kodjia and Jedinak, who were last season's top performers, cannot be understated when trying to explain Villa's disappointing start. Both are now available and the appearance of Kodjia certainly seemed to liven Villa up on Tuesday. Jedinak didn't look quite fit but no doubt his forty-five minutes did him a power of good. The other positive which emerged from the two home games was the quality of Snodgrass's delivery, which sadly wasn't turned into goals.
The question is whether Villa can bring their qualities to fruition this Saturday teatime, when they face Barnsley in front of the television cameras. Barnsley have the exact same number of points as Villa but have let in two goals fewer. They finished last season with four points fewer than Villa, which listed both clubs amongst the mediocre, but Barnsley hold the bragging rights after battering Villa 3-1 at Oakwell during Villa's bleak midwinter meltdown. Barnsley's 90th minute equaliser at Villa Park in September had ensured that Di Matteo was soon looking for another job. It is 99 miles to Barnsley, which sounds like a Macc Lads song, but I am sure there will be plenty of the Villa faithful making the journey just to see if Villa have improved since last season, or not. I don't expect Villa will set the world on fire but a few sparks would be nice.
Keep the faith!