This was not the early Christmas present that we had hoped for.
In fact, a poor 3-1 home defeat to Southampton brings home the stark reality of Villa’s underperformance in recent weeks. A fourth straight loss now sees us alarmingly adrift by three points in the relegation zone.
Whilst the early part of the season may be reflected upon as one of missed opportunities, recent results have brought into focus our true quality and a rigidly one dimensional tactical approach.
This was an all too straightforward victory for The Saints, a side that has been languishing in the bottom three for two months.
It was a tale of Villa’s defensive ineptitude, attacking impotency and de ja vu mistakes.
And whilst John McGinn has been in less frenetic form, the news that the injury suffered in the early stages of the game will see him miss three months (ankle fracture), is a real blow.
There can be little debate that the underwhelming Lansbury or unpredictable Luis / Nakamba combo represent nearly adequate deputies at this key juncture.
Danny Ings, a forgotten man until this season’s resurgence, scored a decent brace against the backdrop of “shambolic” Villa defending.
The former Blackpool and Liverpool striker’s first came after a low save from Heaton fell kindly for him to tap home.
The second (Southampton’s third) was a great finish, but it was an opportunity gifted to Ings after Guilbert’s and Nakamba’s calamitous efforts to prevent it.
Saints’ second was a textbook header from a corner, with Jack Stephen’s being afforded the freedom of Villa Park to score. It was just another example of Villa’s weakness from set-pieces for which we are now being routinely punished. We are the worst in the division for conceding both headed goals and corners. The question is, when will we learn?
Jack Grealish provided the only moment of finesse from a Villa perspective, lofting a delightful finish beyond the visitors keeper McCarthy. It was a fine goal, but unfortunately a mere consolation with the damage already inflicted.
REGROUP & REALISM
Few level-headed Villa supporters would have predicted this season to be anything other than a potential relegation dog-fight. This was a team that needed significant overhaul following what was arguably an unexpected playoff-final promotion given our languishing in the Championship as recently as the turn of the year.
We did though start the campaign brightly, being well regarded for a number of competitive displays. Competitive, though, does not necessarily translate into points, as we are discovering.
We suddenly find ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to win Premier League games we might not reasonably be expected to.
Having lost to a relegation rival in Southampton, we face immediate tests against Norwich and Watford. The latter having unexpectedly beaten Manchester United [2-0] under new boss Nigel Pearson.
We must not be sentimental with our decisions either.
There are players who through either their sheer inconsistency or with questions around their true quality, must be replaced if genuine improvements can be identified in January.
This ruthlessness must also extend to our painfully rigid and predictable tactical approach. Smith is a progressive manager, who has transformed Villa from our out-dated brand of football. However, he mustn’t fall into the trap of repeating glaring on-field tactical errors or persevering with players for the sake of maintaining the ‘system’.
With this defeat and our league position, games against Norwich and Watford are now massive fixtures, possibly season defining. We must therefore not leave rectifying the errors of our ways to chance nor blind optimism.