Ninety-third-minutes equalizers are never easy to take unless you’re the one scoring. So, full confession, after seeing the result and reading various accounts of the game here and elsewhere, I did not go back and watch a replay of the 1-1 draw with Newcastle. I’d had a lovely long weekend away, and there wasn’t really any need to ruin it. It’s the only match I’ve missed so far this season, though, breaking my perfect streak.
So I can’t really offer any insights of my own. I did see the collective post-match meltdown, which has gotten a bit predictable and, to my mind, a bit unfair. Sandwiched between Spurs and Arsenal in the top half, it’s hard for me to get very upset or concerned. Supporters have short memories and expectations bordering on the unrealistic. No surprise there.
Has ‘progress’ stalled, though? Yeah, it has. For the thousandth time, I’ll emphasize the quarantine interruption, and how the team has looked since. And coming right out of that, there was the fixture congestion in making up some our games in hand. As has been pointed out, it’s also been a rather long stretch of football from Restart to now, with very little time away for the players. There’s mental and physical fatigue all round the league.
Jack’s injury has obviously been a big blow, but we’ve not lost that much ground, in the end. Hasn’t been brilliant, but everyone should know this is not yet a team we can expect to soar in his absence. Part of it is how much he brings individually, another is how reliant other players are on him psychologically, as much as anything else. Again for the thousandth time, we know Jack holds it, carries it, stretches and moves defenses, wins free kicks, can initiate some fine interplay and cut across goal, or take it round defenders either direction. While Konsa might be starting to come into the frame as a potential world-class defender, he’s not really tasked with influencing things in the final third. The squad know they’re much better when the only world-class player (except for Emi Martinez) is on the pitch.
So, we’ve muddled through and picked up some draws and points we wouldn’t have last year. And if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s draws that keep teams higher up the table: which is to say, not losing. Villa’s win total remains very respectable. It’s keeping the loss column under control that makes those wins really count.
Some players, of course, remain works in progress. Sanson is coming to terms with the quality in the league, the pressing and how quickly things close down. Likewise Traoré, who has done better when provided quality overlaps given his heavy reliance on his left foot. El Ghazi blows hot and cold, and McGinn is not consistently finding the form he’s shown in the past. Luiz has also seemed 75-80% of his former self, but Nakamba at least, has found his footing. We know Cash adds more than Elmo, and we know Barkley has completely lost his way since doing his hamstring. In what admittedly is still a thin squad, losing a dynamic RB, a #10, and Jack…well, it’s going to show.
Jacob Ramsey has gotten his chances, and while he did well running and filling the gaps against Leeds, he’s struggled to step up to a more influential level. He’s talented, and it will come, I’m sure, but he’s still very green, and it takes a rather special kind of young player to jump into the lineup and start imposing himself on games in the role he’s playing. Took Jack a while, if we remember.
Anyway, Spurs tonight, and The Special One hasn’t mustered much better out of a more talented, experienced, and skillful squad. On the heels of midweek European collapse, we can expect a response. But Spurs are a side that also blow hot and cold, should be a little tired, and really aren’t that different to Villa in style, with the obvious exception of the way Kane and Son are played up front.
If Jack were playing, and he might be though I doubt it, I’d quite fancy our chances for all three points. As it stands, I can see us either nicking something or playing for a draw to get us into the break, after which we’re all but assured that Grealish will return for the run-in. We know how that goes, however. But he shouldn’t be that far away, and you know he’ll be itching to impress after missing this latest England call-up. If he’s fresh, that should bode very well for Villa.
I’m pretty sure the game plan tonight will be familiar: Try to get after them early, get on top, and then see how well we can manage it from there. Son is out, which is a big plus, and given the ups and downs in form for Bale and Bergwijn, the job might come down to containing Kane and Dele Alli or Moura.
If it does go a bit wrong tonight, I’ll just encourage everyone to look at last summer’s business, and remain optimistic about this summer’s. The staff will have their targets identified already, and I’m pretty confident they know where the weaknesses lie. No idea what sort of outgoings we’ll see, but adding a layer of higher-quality players in midfield and attack should see Villa with more depth, more bite, and more danger.
Where we are now is just about exactly the amount of progress Compass et. al. would’ve reasonably expected. And we’ll have 10 to play after the break. Arsenal continue to do just enough right and wrong to keep us in the top half, though as I write, they have mustered a credible fightback against West Ham. Regardless, a win today, well, Villa are right back in the mix. But neither a draw nor a loss will be the end of the world. With Fulham up on our return, we’ll look for a couple results to go our way. I still find it rather refreshing and fun that we’re still chasing Europe, however long our odds.
Also, congratulations, Ollie Watkins. First year in the Premier League and here’s his first England call-up. At least Gareth can see what he brings, and it’s very well deserved.
Over to you.