So Wembley again, Manchester City again. And a resigned attitude from most Villans, who really would be happy just keeping it respectable.
You’d like to think that on any given day, anything is possible. You know, the old “That’s why they play the game.” On paper, Villa have no chance, given our last two beatings at City’s hands. So the result comes down to whether Villa are going to read that sheet of paper and believe it, or decide to write down something else.
If Villa are to make a fist of it, it’s all going to come down to attitude: effort and fight. Will Southampton, and Dean’s reaction get something more out of them? Will there be some pride in play as a result of the 1-6 thrashing? A quest for redemption?
Further, will the results that have seen us drop back into the zone proper have an effect? If so, will it be positive, or will a sense of fatalism have crept into the side?
Lots of questions, no answers, as yet.
Me, I’m not really looking forward to it, though, I can tell you that much. I don’t expect us to pull off a shocker. I don’t think a tactical tweak is going to surprise or confound City. And even if it did, it won’t take them long to adjust.
The only thing that will see Villa salvage any pride today is fight. Same with the season. I’d hope that today Villa can at least get up in their faces from the off, play without fear, and make them earn everything they get. The blueprint is the same for staying in the top flight.
It really comes down to whether the players have it in them. We can talk about Smith, motivation and tactics (again)…But if the players don’t want to give every last ounce for the full 90 minutes, well, none of that matters.
Jack, you know he’ll give it everything. Trez will, too, even if he can be rather ineffective for long stretches. Tyrone. Nyland may well put on a show. The others? For starters, not sure who we’ll see out there, obviously. Is Dean going to put Elmo on Sterling? Will Luiz keep a spot because maybe he might want to impress Pep? Will Hourihane be given a rare start? Will Drinkwater be any further along so he’s not chasing ghosts? Will Ally convert one of what will surely be few clear-cut chances?
I know what most will say in response. So it’s up to them to prove us wrong.
When it comes to tactics, though, and what the players choose to do, here’s what I’d say:
It all starts at the back. And with City’s aggressive high press, Villa can’t afford to dwell and let options close down. Hause, in particular, has really struggled playing it out, long or short. By design, we’d like to bypass him as much as possible. By design, they’ll be looking to force that on us.
The fact everything goes through Jack is is inescapable. So this the phase that matters most. There has to be an outlet who can get free and get it to Jack at 35 or 40 yards out from goal, then give him an option. If we can manage that sequence, we have the chance to get established further up the pitch. That means whoever is playing deeper in midfield, be it Luiz, DD, Nakamba, or Hourihane, we need to get the ball moving upfield centrally. Someone has to be able to take it and turn a man or find a quick link-up. Then we can go left or right, and pull defenders off Jack. If Jack has space, we’d like to find Samatta and put him through.
He’s always going to shade left, Jack. Maybe Dean plays him central to provide the outlet I’m talking about, who knows. Since the team sheet just came out, it looks like maybe he will. Regardless, we know all the focus will be on pressing our backline and shutting Jack down. I’ve seen far too much of Hause getting in a pickle and either panicking, or trying a longer pass that’s almost inevitably cut out. Long aerials also don’t work, because we don’t have a hold-up man. We almost never win the ball in the air upfield.
Clearing our lines, whether it’s Hause or whoever, has been another issue. We have to push up quickly on clearances. We have to stop hesitating and just thump the ball, get reorganized. We also can’t just sink back. We have to come out and aggressively challenge players on the ball as they near the box or play it side to side in that arc waiting for a runner to come free.
Breaking on the counter has to happen quickly, but we can’t be so hung-ho all the time. We get stretched, turn it over, and things are too easy coming back at us without a midfield terrier/enforcer. We have to try and maintain a little possession. And if a clear chance isn’t there to be played into, we have to be willing to pull it back, reestablish our shape, and look to end that phase with a goal kick, corner, or deep thrown-in.
Of course, these are things that hold true in any game. And none of that happens without players willing to commit everything to win it back, close down options, or otherwise break up the rhythm and not get stuck looking like training cones. We can’t just watch them.
And with the team sheet just out, looks like Smith is changing it up, something like a 4-2-3-1, or maybe just a 4-3-3:
Nyland, Guilbert, Engels, Mings, Targett, Luiz, Nakamba, Elmohamady, Grealish, El Ghazi, Samatta.
Reina, Taylor, Hourihane, Trezeguet, Lansbury, Konsa, Davis.
So…I don’t really care whether we win or lose. Of course I’d like to win, and all the questions about whether it’s better to win a cup and go down, or lose and stay up are silly. Staying up is the only thing that matters, and it’s not either/or.
Point is, if Villa can show the effort and application to make the game competitive, it’s a blueprint for the run-in. We’ve said it before, and keep turning the corner to false dawns. But if Dean’s done anything this week, it has to be pounding that into their heads. No good beating Leicester when you can’t apply the same effort and lessons learned the following week.
I’ll be on the edge of my seat, sneaking peeks through my fingers, hoping or a miracle. What I really want to see is fight.
Over to you.