Those who had travelled to St Marys hadn’t even had the time to break the crust on their pies before Adam Armstrong’s effort almost broke Martinez’s net. It was a fine goal, from which Villa never recovered, nor mustered a response in the 88 minutes that followed.
This was another deeply concerning Villa display. One which raised many questions about what exactly Villa’s game-planning involves, lack of tactical adaptation in-game and an alarming number of individual players who look bereft of form or confidence.Embed from Getty Images
The first half displays are also harbouring a sense of de ja vu, as Villa were once again over-run, found themselves behind but did little to address glaring on-field deficiencies. The opening 45 minutes against Southampton were no different, with the hosts guilty of failing to extend their lead on any number of occasions.
Villa were exposed down the flanks repeatedly, with Bailey offering nothing in the way of assistance to the tireless Cash. El Ghazi did little to improve the perception in certain quarters that he resembles anything like a Premier League footballer. The Dutchman was fortunate not to see red for a blatent second bookable offence or an embarassing dive in the penalty area.
The central midfield was painfully ineffective. McGinn was as anonymous as the absent Douglas Luiz. Nakamba contributed so little that Smith could have been forgiven for opting not to bring on a substitute for the former Club Brugge midfielder. Nakamba when you need genuine quality, like El Ghazi, is way out of his depth at this level.
The second half saw Villa raise the tempo, but with the bar so low based on the first half display, running out onto the pitch represented an increase in intensity.
If the manager and his staff have an excuse up their sleeve at present then injuries are one. The sight of Keinan Davis, with just a solitary goal to his name appearing on the touchline, adequately personified Villa’s predicament. With Ings and Traore injured, it very much had the feeling that role of ‘barrel scraper’ had been added to the clubs technical team.
What this (and Smith’s post-match comments) detract from is the miss-firing arsenal on the pitch. Ollie Watkins looks a shadow of his former self having returned from injury into a cobbled system and erratic supporting cast.Embed from Getty Images
The supporting cast of Leon Bailey and Emi Buendia, huge summer investments, struggled for time and space. They were also guilty of losing possession and with it creating pressure, particularly in the first half, falling upon the defence. However, in the second half, there wasn’t a single clear-cut attempt created.
Smith increasingly cuts a fidgety, ponderous figure on the touchline. He now spends much of his time glancing at his watch, as though conscious of the grains of sand within an hourglass slipping away. Once again the manager watched, unable to prevent a fifth consecutive league defeat. A career first for Dean Smith.
STICK OR TWIST
With Christian Purslow and Johan Lange in the shadows of St Marys and ambitious owners monitoring from afar; Smith’s role must be genuinely regarded as at risk.
However, the context must be considered outside of the toxic echo-chamber of social media and the mass media craving for a manager’s sacking.
In the here and now, Smith has badly lost his way with a Villa side that has the playing personnel to be far higher up the league table. This is not a symptom of the Grealish departure, but a reflection that Smith has struggled to establish a playing style for Villa throughout his three years at the club.
Indeed, it would be impossible for supporters to describe what our best eleven is, predict what Villa will turn up, or, in the absence of any style, what we are conceivable trying to achieve.
This is compounded too by indecision and the dangerous managerial trait of tinkering when hunting for a victory. A previously solid defence has been interfered with, rendering it dangerously leaky. Tuanzebe seems in a state of constant recovery and Mings’ form appears as changeable as his on-field temperament.
The teams formation is now also moveable feast, but the personnel are glaringly unsuited. Matt Targett, for example, a stand-out performer last term, has seen his form and more concerningly his morale nose-dive.
The decision to stick the former Southampton defender in front of the cameras following the defeat was brave on the part of the player, but provided a worrying insight into an individual clearly deeply affected by his own performances. It made for uncomfortable viewing and stands as an eye-brow raising decision from a communications perspective.
If we are honest, we’ve seen literally momentary brilliance from Buendia and Bailey. These alleged mercurial talents need to be used better and up their own games. Ings, a potent goalscorer, has been awkwardly combined with Watkins. Morgan Sanson, an apparition and costly acquisition, could feasibly become Villa’s next Mathieu Berson.
Quite simply, five straight defeats, with our resources and the manner of those losses have been totally unacceptable. There’s no escaping this for Smith other than winning football matches; football isn’t complicated but no-one would accept it’s easy.
The international break arrives like the bell for boxer being pummelled at the end of a number of punishing rounds. Smith’s corner need to work miracles if he is to firstly emerge against Brighton and secondly avert the club’s hierarchy from making a decision they perhaps thought unlikely they’d need to take.