A question of leadership

Richard Keeling blames himself, amongst others, for Sunday’s fiasco.

My family and friends think hilarious that I am a jinx on the Villa. I don’t get to see as many matches as I used to for one reason or another, but whenever I enter the hallowed halls there is a high chance that I will induce the sort of performance that we all want to see the back of but which seems very reluctant to go away. Naturally I was at the Bradford fiasco about ten years ago when we were all given flags to wave which, it turned out, should have been white ones.

Before January 8th my last visit to Villa Park was in the summer when we lost to West Ham, so, while I thought we ought to beat Stevenage, I had a feeling it would be a difficult game. My companion was a fairly recent convert to the faith who is a lot younger than me and hasn’t been a fan long enough to understand where the deep rooted pessimism and fatalism come from.

He thought it was amusing that, as usual, after about ten minutes of the match, I was muttering that we might lose this one.
The most common explanation for the fiasco in the media and elsewhere is that Unai Emery made too many changes. However, giving the second string a run out in cup matches has become the norm since not long after the inception of the Premier League, when clubs realised that chasing the cash must be the number one priority. So there wasn’t a lot of criticism of the team that was sent out and, in fact, every one of the starting eleven had been capped for his country, apart from Morgan Sanson who had represented France at youth level. So I am not convinced that Unai made a big mistake.

The crowd was strangely muted, possibly because the general feeling was that the quality of the Villa players was bound to make itself felt against a team three divisions below us. We tend to make a lot of noise when the Villa are threatened by big clubs and, as we know, the atmosphere can be daunting for the opposition, especially under the lights. It is perhaps difficult to turn Villa Park into a fortress when League Two opposition pays us a visit and we expect the players to have enough of that magical ingredient ‘quality’ to be able to succeed without a lot of encouragement.

As the match unfolded, I was reminded of the awful 2015-16 season, when we had a lot of talented players but stank the Premier League out. That season our regulars included Jack Grealish, Jordan Amavi, who later played for Marseille in a Europa League final and Jordan Veretout, who was in the French squad for the recent World Cup. Some other notable members of the squad were Jordan Ayew, who still plays for Crystal Palace and Ghana, Idrissa Gueye, who subsequently played in the Champions League for Paris St Germain and represented Senegal against England in Qatar, and Micah Richards, who had had a very successful career with Manchester City. He captained Villa during that disastrous season but since seems to have found his vocation as a TV pundit.

There was undoubtedly plenty of talent in the squad, but the most talented players were mainly quite young and a lack of effective leadership was seen by some to have been a big factor in the sorry story. That got me wondering whether we might have had a similar problem on January 8th. Our captain for the match was Danny Ings and, while it would be unfair to blame him for the defeat, it was a role with which he is unfamiliar, at Villa at least, He played a big part in the Villa goal but appeared to spend much of his time waiting for some service rather than trying to make things happen and offer advice and encouragement. Were there any other leaders out there though?

Whether we like it or not, many teams come to Villa Park and ‘park the bus’, as Fergie used to put it, so devising ways of finding a way through must surely be a top priority in training. Stevenage were set up exactly as you would expect any team who wanted to try to make a game of it against theoretically superior opposition. When Villa scored a fine goal, by attacking the massed defence, I wondered why we reverted to passing the ball around slowly in front of the defenders.

Regular first team players like Mings and McGinn sometimes get criticized in fans’ forums but they seem able to urge the team forward and, at least to some extent, to make sure the manager’s wishes are carried out on the pitch. Unai Emery has a very successful record in cup competitions and surely cannot have been happy with what he saw during most of the match, even before the fateful final minutes.

That fiasco began with Olsen passing the ball out to Dendoncker, who was not far outside the penalty area and needed to turn with the ball in order to make progress. I think in rugby they call a pass to a marked colleague a hospital pass because that is where the recipient is likely to end up. In this case a red card was the alternative to broken bones. It was likewise a short pass out from Olsen which gave Manchester United a big helping hand in our League Cup defeat.

You could argue that Olsen should have had it drummed into him in training not to take risks, especially in the later stages of the game, but somebody on the field could have reminded him that we were 1-0 up with only a few minutes to go. Yes, Olsen is an experienced ‘keeper and should not need reminding but I wonder if there was perhaps a lack of on-field direction. As for the second Stevenage goal, it probably wouldn’t have happened if somebody was out there shouting and organizing. You really don’t expect a Premier League side to be thoroughly undone by a short corner, even when a man down.

Management textbooks mention situational leadership which seems to require that someone in the team should have the ability quickly to assess a situation and make sure it is dealt with effectively. The website believeperform.com contains an article on the role of a leader in sports which states: “Successful teams have strong leaders and the importance of this role is evident in all categories of sports. The performance of a leader is very clear in interactive games and during matches. Leadership may be considered as a behavioural process that influences individuals and groups towards set goals.”

That seems to me to be what we were lacking against Stevenage and I hope Emery and his staff will have taken note of it. I am looking forward to the day when I can visit Villa Park and be confident that we have a good chance of winning, whoever the opposition may be. That is sure to mean that we have a few players who are leaders. Of course, you might prefer me to keep well away, at least until Unai and his team have had a chance to turn us into serial winners.