Aston Villa Backbone and Getting the Midfield Mix Right – GBU

With Aston Villa’s fortunes more good and less ugly nowadays, MOMS podcast contributor Phil Shaw resurrects ‘The Good, Bad & Ugly’, an old favourite MOMS column that started over eight years ago on the site…

By Phil Shaw

Right, if we’ve all got our fantasy football teams adjusted, let’s begin with this week’s Good, Bad and Ugly.

The Good

The last time Villa went two goals down to Leicester City, it was one of the worst performances in recent years. In the last game with crowds, Villa capitulated and ended up losing by four goals. 

After twenty-five minutes and trailing by two goals, things felt like they may get worse than that wet night at the King Power.

This Villa team has a backbone. Even when they have been useless in defence, even without Jack Grealish and more noticeably Matty Cash, they dug deep and stemmed the flow of Leicester attacks.

It wasn’t free flowing or pretty, but after half-time Villa not only got a goal through Bertrand Traore, they were the better team in the second half. Mings and Konsa nullified Jamie Vardy, and Ahmed Elmohamady eventually got to grips with the excellent Harvey Barnes.

Despite not being able to grab an equaliser, Villa showed they could compete with one of the most efficient teams in the league. With the form the team are in, and the run of games coming up, they will need to have this character and backbone from the beginning of games rather than when their backs are up against the wall. 

If that proves to be the case, the good times are here to stay.

Villan of the Week — Jacob Ramsey

When this strange season started, Jacob Ramsey wasn’t the name many Villa fans were calling on to sort out the midfield issues. Despite two goals against Arsenal in a pre-season friendly, Ramsey was very much one for the future. 

With Leeds United approaching, Ramsey is the name on everyone’s lips to sort out the dysfunctional midfield. Another energetic and efficient cameo, like the one against Leicester, and his name will be on Dean Smith’s lips also.

The Bad

It’s too simplistic to say things aren’t clicking for Villa’s midfield. The defence is solid and Ollie Watkins is not only a workhorse, he’s a live threat up top. The middle is where it is all going wrong.

Leaving out the two wide positions for the moment, the midfield three of Douglas Luiz, John McGinn and Ross Barkley are like three of your favourite drinks. Fine on their own, but throw them into one glass and 90 minutes later, you will have been sick on the floor and wondering why you did it.

It’s the same argument as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. There’s no point in playing people out of position just because they are your best players. This isn’t Top Trumps, sometimes you need to play a specialist, rather than squeezing in the better player.

Aston Villa, in full flow have an extremely effective and varied style of attack. They can work the ball into the box for Watkins to finish, or he can drive at the opposition along with the wide-men. 

In these scenarios the three midfielders support and are an option outside the penalty area. Typically, Grealish finds Barkley or McGinn in midfield and they either switch the attack to the other wing or slip Grealish or an overlapping Targett back in on the blind side. 

The variation in attack that worked so well until the turn of the year, is reliant on pace and fast ball movement in transition. Unfortunately, everything has become disjointed and broken. 

Villa’s attack has been running through quicksand in 2021 because the midfield three aren’t functioning in attack or defence.

Ross Barkley, is playing like he is in the middle of a team that is constantly 3-0 up with no pressure to make sure he does things right. 

John McGinn, is trying to get involved in so many positions that he ends up just being a statistic in midfield that can be bypassed too easily. 

Douglas Luiz, seems to constantly be the player who is always facing two or more opposition players.

While Dean Smith can rightly look to results and say his formation and tactics are more than successful, the personnel needs to change.

Looking at the last few games, the only constant that stands out is how the three in midfield didn’t interact with each other. 

One of the three midfielders needs to be exchanged for a player who can get the best out of the other two.

I can’t recall Barkley setting McGinn away with a pass, Luiz interchanging passes with them or McGinn bouncing off either of them. They all look to pass it to the wings or up to Watkins.

Either Sanson, Ramsey, or Nakamba need to come in with the express purpose of linking the three midfield positions into a unit. Who drops out, will be far from a bad player.

The Ugly 

When ex-Villa hero Christian Benteke slammed home a 95th minute winner for Crystal Palace against Brighton, Villa fans were reminded of what he used to be capable of on a weekly basis. 

Together with Palace’s first goal, it was further proof that for all the possession and best laid plans of some, football is still a game that can be decided by genius and inspiration.

When players leave Villa, the reaction is usually ugly, but Benteke is part of a select few, who have managed to stay onside with the majority of fans. It helped that when he was asked if he’d ever scored a more dramatic goal he answered, ‘Maybe with Aston Villa.’

Is it as simple as he did his best in a Villa shirt and made the club a massive profit, or is it because he didn’t hit the same heights in the rest of his career and there’s no jealousy attached to him?

James Milner, Gareth Barry, David Platt and Dwight Yorke are just four players who achieved more when they left Villa, and reaction to them is mixed. Milner and Barry are now remembered for the diligent servants they were, even if Gareth Barry was greeted with waved banknotes on his first return.

Yorke and Platt, however, seemed to forget they ever played for Villa as soon as they left B6 and aren’t remembered as fondly by those who didn’t see them play.

Despite everything, the current crop of players has been through, the example of Conor Hourihane is a real-time case study as his performances for Swansea are cheered by both Villa fans and Swansea supporters. What will happen if they get promoted, turn his loan permanent, and he sticks a free kick past Martinez next season? Will there be a mass deletion of social media posts?

Looking through the squad at the minute, you can accept that some of these players won’t be here in the long term. Which ones will get the ugly reaction when they return to Villa Park on the other side of the pitch?


Follow Phil on Twitter here – @PRSGAME

Check out the latest My Old Man Said podcast (with Phil) below…


  1. i would defo start with sanson in place of barkley and trez has to start just so he can help elmo out. id drop el ghazi and see how traore does on the left of a front 3.

  2. Villa have looked awful since their return from COVID (with the exception of the 1st half against Burnley which is the best I have seen us play for years) we should be safe from the drop so let’s see the exciting football, play without fear and let us the fans be entertained. Barclay is a luxury who doesn’t track and defend so I am afraid he has to warm the Bench, Nakamba defensive midfield, move Luiz up the pitch with. McGinn and Trez (who’s work rate is exemplary) play 4 1 3 2 with TRAORE and Watkins up top as Leeds do concede goals so let’s go for it. Take a spare pair of footwear however (preferably ice skates) because the pitch is atrocious.

  3. I agree the 4-2-3-1 does not work without Jack directing the attack . Nakamba looked god as the lone DM in the games he played so perhaps we should change to 4-1-4-1 ? But then who gets dropped ? Also Sanson looks as if he could toughen up the midfield in attack ! Although I’ve seen a few blame Luiz for midfields failures I’d drop Barkley & McGinn unless Ramsey who needs game time replaces Luiz

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