Aston Villa’s Recent Midfield Struggles and the Need for Dean Smith to Tweak it.

Good, Bad and Ugly of the Villa Week

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

The Halfway point of the season has come and gone and while Aston Villa’s trajectory is up, the signs of a sticky patch are there for all to see in this week’s Good, Bad and Ugly.

The Good

Reality… It’s good to get a reality check sometimes. Games against Southampton and West Ham, were like a dry January after Christmas. 

Whether it’s a case of other teams finding their rhythm, after effects of COVID-19, or just lack of time on the training pitch, Villa are a bit flat at the moment. 

Across the league the high scoring early season anomalies are gone and games are settling into patterns now. Southampton, have had their seasonal 9-0 drubbing and Manchester City are moving into second gear at the top of the league.

Why is this good for Villa? It’s a matter of long-term thinking. 

They are very much ahead of schedule, but the rebuild process ended when they won the first four games of the season and battered Arsenal. That’s their required level this season.

A heavy bucket of cold water, dished out by David Moyes and Sean Dyche over the last two midweeks, has come at the right time to solve any cracks in the team before they widen. 

If Villa had beaten Burnley, Southampton and sneaked an unlikely draw against West Ham, the hype train would be out of control and when the fundamental weaknesses surfaced later, the damage would be worse.

Dean Smith, now has a chance to nip the midfield issues in the bud and get the team sorted for the second half of the season, without the pressure to keep going with a team who are just about holding on to wins like they did against Saints and losing their heads if they go a goal behind.

Villan of the Week — Tyrone Mings

In the West Ham game, Tyrone Mings made a wonderful clearance off the line, before sliding knee first into the net. He screamed, holding his knee and if you were online at the time, the instant reaction from the Villaverse was concern. 

Despite some warranted and some harsh criticism recently, the thought of having to play any length of time without him was enough to get the true reaction from the fans. 

The Bad

At the moment Aston Villa remind me of a Bond Villain. They get themselves into position to take over the world, yet when they have James Bond tied up on the table, they tell him their whole plan in detail before walking away without killing 007.

We have a way of playing, it is superb, but we’ve now shown the rest of the league that plan for half a season and the 00 Agents, that are other managers, have worked it out. 

In other words, Dean Smith and the coaching staff need to adapt a bit more to other teams. Villa aren’t peak Barcelona or Bayern yet, who dominate with their style of play, so when the opponent’s defensive wall is made of brick rather than paper like Newcastle and others we can’t just run through it.

Midfield is where you need to hatch and execute a game-plan.

Against Southampton and West Ham, the Villa midfielders were bad. Bad enough that previously held opinions on Douglas Luiz, Barkley and McGinn are under the spotlight this week.

They are all top Premier League players, yet something is missing to make them gel. It should be simple. Barkley high, then McGinn in the middle with Luiz, deeper, shielding the back four. 

When it doesn’t work, Barkley is pulled wide and McGinn and Luiz are too close together effectively reducing the cover of the midfield down to one area of the pitch. Opposition teams who achieve this chaos, have a free run at Villa’s defence and if any of the defenders are joining in the attack, it outnumbers who is back.

Villa haven’t shown that they have a midfielder who operates entirely in the centre of the park and without one it looks like no one is home. It’s happened against Leeds, Southampton, Brighton, Burnley and now West Ham, and it’s a bad problem they need to resolve.

Perhaps Morgan Sanson will be the missing piece of the puzzle? But that means bad news for one of the current first choice midfield.

The Ugly

A couple of weeks ago, when in full on attack on VAR and the PGMOL, I said that the only way this would change would be if fans called out decisions even if they favoured their teams. 

Ironically, opportunity wasn’t far away for Villa or Manchester United supporters with what has happened to Southampton this week.

Against Villa, most people would agree they should have had a penalty when Matty Cash handled in the first few minutes. Mike Dean on the VAR interpreted the ball flicking off Cash’s thigh, as what made it hit his hand, rather than the movement of the defender’s hand to the ball. It was a poor decision.

In the last minute, they also thought they had grabbed an equaliser when Danny Ings, pounced after another World-Class save from Martinez. When the VAR lines were drawn, Ings mid-upper arm was adjudged to be offside. Again I have to say that this was incorrect to the naked eye.

As if things weren’t bad enough, they then went to Old Trafford and Mike Dean took centre stage again. While it wouldn’t have affected the 9-0 outcome, VAR disallowed an even tighter offside goal for the Saints, before Martial dived in the box to get Bednarek sent off. Dean looked at VAR and concluded, somehow, that this was the right decision (Bednarek’s red card has since been rescinded). 

It’s beyond a joke now and has begun to deepen the already tribal nature of football. 

Villa had nothing to do with the two decisions that went their way and Southampton have nothing to do with the four decisions mentioned that went against them. Yet fans, who have become keyboard warriors in lockdown are getting more and more hardened in their stances with every passing week (ala politics on Twitter).

The common denominator, as always, is the application of VAR. 

It’s removal isn’t happening despite online petitions, so it needs to be amended.

If its application isn’t tweaked, the situation becoming more ugly when fans are back in the ground.


Follow Phil on Twitter here – @PRSGAME

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  1. West Ham were good: they were in our faces quickly, and you’re right Colin that they looked strong (and impressively kept this up for the whole game). When we got the ball we were surrounded, and had no option but to go backwards, or to try and take multiple players on (on some days we have the players for this, but other times it looks like playground tactics).

    I feel we need someone in the middle who is always available, and keeps the ball moving around too quickly for the opposition to swarm around us. We need a sideways option, rather than going backwards. Our team are young (ish) and not the finished article, but we can train for this, and I’d like to see what Sanson (or maybe giving Luiz a freer role) could do, as I don’t see a lack of skill in our midfield. It would also be worth Trez out wide and Jack in the middle, because we’d have more energy than Berkeley (although his finishing is more bankable).

    Hopefully Arsenal have a more attacking style, and the game opens up in a way which suits us as well as them.

  2. Agree with much of that especially the comments about midfield which looks too weak when against a team like West Ham who tend to Bullodoze players off the ball . But in his few minutes Sanson looks like a player who might be able to add a little strength to the midfield

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