Looking back, moving forward

Stacy Murphy muses over the past few months.

Three months on from the resumption of Villa’s season after the World Cup and the difference between the dour ‘going nowhere’ football of the previous incumbent of the manager’s office and the progressive attitude of the current occupant has been stark. We were given a taste of Unai Emery’s ideas for the club in the three games he oversaw prior to FIFA’s celebration of cash over ethics. In his first game Emery got Villa to shake off the Manchester United-at-home hoodoo and then gave a defensive masterclass which involved a defensive back six late on as Villa came back from going behind after a minute at Brighton. The changed line-up in the League Cup defeat at Old Trafford between those two games, although disappointing, showed how adaptable his team set-up could be as we twice went ahead before individual errors gave the home side a flattering 4-2 win.

Immediately after Christmas the home defeat by Liverpool masked a good performance but the FA Cup exit at the hands of Stevenage was an aberration which has to laid, at least partly, at Emery’s door. He picked the wrong team for the job but the players that afternoon collectively should have had more than enough to beat a League Two side. Lack of concentration and individual errors gifted the Hertfordshire club their two goals at a time when Villa should have long put the tie to bed.

The signing of Alex Moreno appears to be a good decision with his age my only reservation although his attacking prowess has so far outshone his defensive capability and the game at West Ham demonstrated this. His cross for Ollie Watkins goal was pinpoint but only his recovery pace to match Jarrod Bowen (who I found out yesterday is Danny Dyer’s prospective son-in-law!) prevented the West Ham winger from causing us even more problems than he did.

However, it’s the January business concerning the Villa frontline which caused most consternation. The signing of Jhon Duran, complete with all the new romantic puns associated with his name which followed, seems like the club acting quickly to secure a young, if very raw, talent. Duran has shown in his brief appearances from the bench that he has something about him which suggests he could blossom into a very good striker. His effort to win the ball back which led to our consolation at Manchester City was to be commended but his finishing and game management may need a bit of work. By deciding to shoot from an acute angle in stoppage time against Crystal Palace rather than take the ball to the corner flag caused some around me on the Holte to come over quite faint.

The aforementioned consternation comes from the exits in forward positions. I can see both sides of Cameron Archer’s loan move to Middlesbrough. He is getting lots of game time and nearly as many goals in a side who may well end the season with promotion to the Premier League and he seems to be enjoying life alongside Aaron Ramsey who is also scoring freely from midfield on Teesside. Whereas he may not have got off the bench much had he stayed. The decision to let Archer move temporarily in itself isn’t a poor one but it became questionable when coupled with the sale of Danny Ings to West Ham. With only eighteen months left on Ings’ contract it seems sensible to recoup some of the reported £25 million we paid for him particularly as the deal is supposedly structured to climb from £12 million to £15 million if the East Londoners stay up although his injury record since moving has not been ideal for them.

In isolation the decisions to allow both strikers to leave make sense. Our 21-year-old gets game time as a first choice and scores goals in a high-pressure promotion push while the sale of our ageing and expensive reserve striker has contributed to the coffers of an expected summer re-build. The spanner in that works is we are left with just the currently prolific Ollie Watkins as a central striker supported by just the newly arrived Duran. Every time Ollie gets clattered I’m sure many of us start to watch through our fingers in a way some were known to do when a former captain was yet again cast to the turf.

The way Villa play under Unai Emery is a bit alien to some brought up on the fast counter-attacking style of Ron Saunders, Ron Atkinson and Martin O’Neill and the more direct approaches of Graham Taylor and John Gregory. One of the fashionable watchwords of modern football is ‘the press’ based on the idea that originated in basketball that defence starts in your opponent’s half so forward players quickly close down defenders. Emery seems to favour a ‘counter-press’ which invites the opposition forward players to close in on our rearguard when we have the ball. The theory is that doing this leaves our creative midfielders more room and time in in the space left behind the advancing opponents. This tactic relies on accurate and well timed passes by defensive players who are comfortable and confident in their use of the ball in order to bypass the pressing players.

This has worked well so far, particularly away from home, but leaves us open to those individual mistakes. Ezri Konsa has appeared to be least happy of our backline in possession often wanting to offload the ball sideways to Tyrone Mings or Matty Cash as soon as possible. That said he has on the odd occasion surged forward with the ball which is something we had not seen too often previously. Mings, far happier with the ball at his feet, has also been seen carrying the ball up the left wing when he can’t see the pass to Douglas Luiz or Boubakar Kamara in midfield.

This slow build up approach from Emery is frustrating for some who would prefer the ball to be moved quickly up front but the likelihood of it coming straight back is quite high. Also asking Ollie Watkins to play with his back to goal when holding the ball up may well increase his chances of getting injured as a lumbering centre back (think Ben Mee) goes through him to get to the ball. The short balls from defence through midfield is something which is likely to stay so our expectations and patience may have to change.

That thing about Villa performing better away from home, with four wins and a draw in six league games under Emery, compared with three league defeats plus the Stevenage humiliation coming in B6, may have something to do with the crowd’s expectations. Frustration from the stands may influence, however slightly, a player’s decision making process. 20000 people groaning at a player passing the ball back to Emi Martinez must make him wonder whether to do it the next time the goalkeeper is an option when he has the ball. That pressure may contribute to the individual mistakes (those again) such as the ones we saw against Leicester.

If, as it appears, this way of playing continues it seems inevitable there will be a turnover of playing personnel in all areas in the summer but whether the players Emery wants are available to us is a different matter. The rumours of Matteo Guendouzi signing from Marseille would suggest some of our excessive midfield options, including some on currently on loan, may move on. We do need more options in defence as the long term injury to Diego Carlos has shown and Callum Chambers has not looked comfortable in the centre of defence. This also applies to our attacking players especially those who support Ollie Watkins who himself requires competition for his place. It would be nice if that came from Cameron Archer but if Emery doesn’t see Archer as the option he needs it would seem unfair to the player to continually loan him out.

With a third of the season to go and Villa having a very remote but possible chance of European qualification this term as a whole has been yet another missed opportunity. Under Steven Gerrard we took nine points from eleven games and in the thirteen under Emery Villa have accumulated twenty-one, with Aaron Danks overseeing the three gained against Brentford. Gerrard and his often strange tactics gained 0.82 points per game which would have seen us in a relegation battle. Unai Emery’s Villa have taken 1.62 points per game, which over 38 matches would have gleaned 62 points and a probable European (Conference League) place judged on the last five seasons. If Villa continue on the Emery trajectory for this season (1.62 points x 12 games = 19.44 points) it would give us 54 points which last season gave Leicester an eighth place finish.

Finally, something to show my age. The Unai Emery song. It just seems (at least to me) a bit long and complicated. In my head his name fits to the tune of local one-hit wonders the Maisonettes 1983 Motown pastiche single Heartache Avenue. I was around 11 at the time and hadn’t thought about it for years and now it is constantly stuck in my head!