When statistics illustrate that Aston Villa have had their first back to back wins since 22 months ago, there’s evidence to say that lessons are being learned. Against Queens Park Rangers, there was a tenacity – a real dogged persistence – that proved the difference between a Villa team that could win versus a Villa team that does win.
Over the course of the season, there have been signs that the team have been trying to play good football, even when the results have been far from desirable. Many fans have, fairly, argued that passing the ball around freely means nothing if you can’t win games – style is secondary to substance.
Rules Of Engagement & How The Club Are Learning Them
Earlier this season, Villa’s confidence had more fragility than the old bone china tea set that my dear old Nan used to drink from. Contrast that with the past two weeks where Villa have gone behind but taken three points, and it is clear that the team’s mental strength is clearly improving.
Part of this mental strength is a calmness that is emerging that simply wasn’t there. When we look at Ashley Westwood, the most dominant figure on the pitch for the second week in a row, we can see an incredible 97% pass completion rate.
Now statistics don’t always paint the most truthful picture in fact, as the old saying goes “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” With that said, figures can back up what we see when framed correctly, and there is no coincidence that a calm but strong mentality is the reason Villa have taken six points from losing positions rather than zero.
Earlier this season, zero points would have been par for the course for a Villa team that seemed unable to deal with the regular issue of conceding goal and, consequently, the club find themselves where they are in the table.
Part of the change comes from the experience of being beaten, and how a player can learn from it. In a time where Villa’s two options after going behind are to fight back or lie down and take it, being able to compete mentally is key to the club’s survival bid.
Sylla Who? – The Importance A Previous Unknown Is Playing In Survival
Another part of why the team is playing better comes from the addition of Yacouba Sylla. As mentioned in the past, some fans questioned whether an unknown player from Clermont Foot would be the answer to a weak (and diminutive) midfield.
Many said Sylla was a nobody and that nobodies can’t change games. How wrong they were.
In Sylla, the team have a big framed, combative midfielder. Many of us, as fans, have called out for exactly this kind of player to the extent that I’ve lost track of how many times I personally have used the words “big”, “African”, and “beast” in terms of solving that midfield slot.
Like Christian Benteke before him, few would have known about Sylla, a quiet, unassuming player who peddled his trade away from the glare of a European top league, but his purchase – irrelevant as it seemed to many when it happened – may be key to stopping the midfield rot.
That rot has been an issue all season. When you consider that Villa have played a midfield trio of Barry Bannan, Fabian Delph, and Ashley Westwood in the past, there is far too little height (or power) when confronted with swathes of Premier League midfielders who are simply bigger and faster.
By plugging the midfield with the superb (and rapidly developing) Westwood and the imposing Sylla, Villa have done just enough to hold the tidal wave of pressure that was erupting through the middle of the park and sweeping away any chance of wins.
The Defence & Why The Full Backs Deserve To Be Cut Some Slack
Truth be told, the defensive play exhibited by the team from B6 is still woeful. However, having that stability in midfield is stopping the ball from consistently being played through the middle. Villa’s narrow width from the midfield forwards often means the wings are conceded – regularly leaving spectating as a heart-pounding stress-fest – but at least the centre is shored up.
A few short months ago, every single flaw in Villa’s defenders were being shown up due to the pressure they were under. The wide defensive players, whether Matthew Lowton, Joe Bennett, Enda Stevens, or any other player taking that role, have often been facing two players roaming at them freely.
Some have criticised these players for being weak spots in the team, positions where key balls have come from, turning seemingly feeble wide balls into assists.
The reality is that players in these positions have been facing an unenviable task. When one considers that in the rest of the team, most of Villa’s side have had only one person to worry about, the full backs have had two.
Part of what is making our team exciting to watch is that often our strikers are getting freedom as a result of the full backs having to take so much pressure on. The result is attacking football that also results in conceded goals – a hallmark of Paul Lambert’s style over much of his managerial career.
Through the middle, both Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker have suffered heavily until the midfield has solidified. With both players fairly inexperienced (compared with current captain Ron Vlaar), the pressure piled through the middle, coupled with the double pressure on the full backs, has led to a lot of issues, most notably a desperate, physical grappling of players by Clark.
Much of this was simply caused by panic and sheer overwhelming inability to handle what was being thrown at the club’s young team. Nowadays, with the development of the club’s midfield – coupled with a stronger “never say die” mentality – Villa will walk away with points rather than pain.
Attack From The Front
Finally, the front players have made significant impacts on the game. Between Andreas Weimann’s ability to put his body on the line, Gabriel Agbonlahor’s scorching pace (demonstrated again versus Rangers), Benteke’s imposing physical presence, or Charles N’Zogbia’s sheer talent, attack is clearly the strongest part of Villa’s arsenal.
The impact of these four shouldn’t be underestimated and, whilst individual feelings about any one of the players mentioned may be variable, there is little doubt that the relationship developed between the quartet – and in direct contrast to Villa’s past style of pure focus through Darren Bent – has been a saving grace. Had this not clicked, Villa’s defensive worries would have been largely irrelevant as an inability to score goals is the end of any team.
Looking forward to the future, there is a lot of potential in Villa’s youthful team, as well as a lot of money potentially able to be freed up in wages as both the aforementioned Bent and Stephen Ireland look increasingly likely to head for the exits. With Richard Dunne also unlikely to stay beyond the expiry of his contract, the Midlands club will have a massive £225k freed up from the sale of three players who are, arguably, surplus to current requirements.
So, as the club secured another step towards safety, fans may be turning their sights to next season and how £225k a week could secure a massive nine players at the rate Vlaar & Benteke have been paid this season.
The future’s bright, but only if the fight continues until Villa are safe – the club can’t afford to ponder the future too much just yet.