Watching last weekends “scrappy” away draw at Reading, a team that had won just once in thirteen games, hammered home the uncomfortable truth that again, Aston Villa are a club in transition.
It’s this uncomfortable truth, that despite often having opportunities, we remain vulnerable to an opposition side seizing chances often gifted to them through unforced errors.
Another draw, already the thirteenth of this campaign, was enough to set the polarised vortex of social media into frenzy.
The calls from a [presumably minority] element of the fanbase for Dean Smith’s head aren’t just ridiculously premature, but they prove that for some, football truly must deliver instant gratification. In a world of twenty four hour fast-food, vices upon demand and where rational grown-up debate has all but been abandoned, football managers now live by the game.
From The Villa Underground’s point of view, we are firmly back in ‘transition‘. Like it or not.
This isn’t somewhere this blog wants Aston Villa to be, but we’re there, make no mistake. It might as well be 2016 all over again; it sure feels like de ja vu as we appear to be finding our feet once more.
The evidence? At Reading, we looked like an awkwardly assembled squad.
More broadly? This season we’ve lurched from the abysmal to the sublime. This hasn’t been exclusive to the Bruce era either. Under Smith, Villa were riding a crest up until the draw at The Hawthorns, but since that encounter, our form and results have collapsed almost as badly as England in the West Indies.
No doubt this Villa squad has players within it that should or could form a meaningful promotion challenge, but there are glaring deficiencies that remain unaddressed.
Dean Smith has inherited all of the issues that we knew of before, has made his own mistakes too, but he cannot be expected to immediately rectify chronic underachievement at a football club that now spans at least a generation.
We continue to miss Grealish badly and his importance to our immediate ambitions cannot be understated. El Ghazi has all of the attributes to deputise, but too infrequently can the Dutchman produce the telling moments which we know he is capable of.
In short, our midfield is high on numbers, but low on consistency and true quality.
Hourihane’s statistics tell a tale of assists and a showreel of dead-ball goals. Reality is that the Irishman cuts a lightweight figure in a division that demands a minimum level of physicality. McGinn, an absolute bargain from Hibernian, does all of the running, harrying and chasing, but he cannot do this alone. Bjarnason and Lansbury have never delivered. Whelan, Adomah and Jedinak bring experience in abundance, but the lights on their careers are fading fast.
Upfront we’re fortunate to have someone [albeit on loan] with the natural ability of Abraham, his goal return speaks for himself, but the England international is still learning his trade. The margin between mid-table obscurity and building promotion momentum is a narrow one, but teams that progress will take their chances against struggling sides like Reading. Abraham (along with others) had at least two glorious opportunities to win the game for Villa last weekend, but he didn’t.
The defence remains a concern. Smith wisely opted to bring Kalinic in, but he must have and continue to be alarmed at our defensive fragility generally.
James Chester has lost significant stock having played on an injury for months. Indeed, the Welshman has gone from being one of our most reliable players to recurring liability. Smith acted to rectify this in the transfer window, recalling Tommy Elphick, who does the simple things right but struggles with pace and positioning.
We also now see the emergence of Tyrone Mings. His debut underlined both an uncompromising style of play we may have to adopt, suggested Kourtney Hause isn’t fancied and ultimately represents another loan gamble.
It all sits uncomfortably alongside the erratic individual performances of the likes of Hutton, Taylor & Elmohamady (on rotation).
This is what made the Reading draw perhaps so frustrating and predictable. These are obviously the same players, with the same flaws. Further, many of them are on notice from the club that they are playing for any hope of a future deal. In other words: “You’re not in our future plans.”
Smith’s challenge is to try and salvage this season and avoid it petering out. The campaign has drifted from aspirations of automatic promotion, to playoff contention to the sudden realisation that unless we start winning then we’re simply not picking up enough points to compete.
It makes games, such as Sheffield United’s visit to Villa Park on Friday night, vitally important.
Are we to be regarded as a team that gets thumped away 3-0 at Wigan? Do we risk simply becoming ‘that’ former Premier League side drifting aimlessly for another season in the Championship? And dare we accept another dismal draw like Reading pass us by without raising concern that this risks becoming our ‘new norm’?
Villa face a sterner test against Sheffield United this Friday evening, but with it, have the opportunity to remind us that we’re at least heading in the right direction.