The Good, Bad and Ugly of West Ham and AZ
What a week it has been for Aston Villa. Too many times in the past have they approached a test and come up short. This time, they obliterated the difficult opposition in front of them. Twice in a week!
It would be easy to just fill this week’s column with praise, superlatives and fluff to show how excited Villa fans rightly are, but it’s better to take a cold eye at how things are evolving.
Back in the dark days, Steve Round, then DOF at Villa, spoke of ‘The Villa Engine’, a style of play or identity that he wanted the club to have.
Of course, on and off-field disasters prevented anyone from seeing anything resembling an engine, just the trainwreck that followed.
It’s taken nearly eight years, but now you can say there is a ‘Villa Engine’ and it’s designed to ruthlessly chew up teams and spit them out.
On paper and certainly in the media, West Ham and a tricky away trip to Az Alkmaar, were the kind of games that could see Aston Villa become unstuck, if mistakes were made or players were below par.
What Unai Emery has instilled in Aston Villa is a system where the effect of emotion, nerves, and ultimately self-doubt are minimised as much as possible.
You play out from the back, you keep doing it until it works, the ball gets to midfield, there is space, it goes to one of the willing runners, and you drive at the opposing depleted numbers.
Once you’re finished, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. If you can’t live with defending against this, you get blown away eventually.
It’s startling to see in practice, as the same set of moves are played out from the back and again and again, the opposition falls into the trap. West Ham and AZ aren’t bad teams, but they got stung almost every time they couldn’t stop Villa from playing out from the back.
If you look back at Emery’s comments after the late show against Crystal Palace, you can see the mentality he is breeding in the players.
“I had to use a different tactical decision… We didn’t take our first half chances and there’s nothing to be done about that. We have to keep structure, that’s where everything starts, but I gave the players the licence to play with heart and passion. I enjoyed that in the end.”
It was clear Emery wasn’t happy that the ‘Villa Engine’ had failed in this game, but he knew when to let the players try to win it in a different way.
Since that game, it has been Emery’s way that has worked. Brighton, West Ham, and AZ, were all blown away without the players needing to use heart and passion, but it’s good to know the red button can be pressed in an emergency.
Villan of the Week – Leon Bailey
Leon Bailey, the comeback kid if you like, produces goals and assists as well as frustration.
In the Premier League only – in seven appearances he’s scored three and assisted one. That’s an above-average return considering he’s only made two starts and had a total of 226 minutes on the pitch.
There will be plenty of people who Bailey frustrates, because he is that kind of player, prone to an extra touch, running into a blind alley or not tracking back well enough, but you only need to look at his goal against West Ham to see what the upside is.
I don’t think another Villa player has that stepover and finish in their locker in such a small space.
It’s a struggle to find anything bad this week, but like Unai Emery, it pays to strive for perfection.
All the attacking excellence on display at Villa and the creation from the back is fantastic, but the team still do give the opposition a chance.
AZ really should have scored a couple more after robbing Kamara at the back and again in the second half when they capitalised on slack passing from Diego Carlos.
Emery said it himself of Luiz, after the midfielder’s West Ham performance, when the Hammers were on top for a period in the second half.
“He did it today and that’s the improvement I am proud of. When he scored two goals I was feeling a little bit that he relaxed, he lost two balls on the pitch and I was very demanding with him…
But I think he can do better. There were some moments after he scored the two goals where we were trying to control the game and I wasn’t happy because he was too relaxed.”
Other than injuries and fatigue, the only bad thing about Villa could be relaxing too much as the season progresses.
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The latest Italian betting scandal involving Nicolò Fagioli of Juventus – suspended for seven months, Sandro Tonali, Newcastle – suspended for ten months, and Nicolò Zaniolo currently on loan at Villa, raises questions people don’t like to talk about.
As well as the omnipresent sponsorship, gambling in football is ingrained in the culture from grassroots to the top level.
As much of a tradition as the post-match pint in the pub after the game, the talk would soon turn to what team let someone’s accumulator down, the raffles, the nights at the races and card nights soon follow, and despite the innocent intentions of fundraising, it all conditions anyone involved with the game to know how to gamble.
Like everything, the problem comes when the occasional indulgence becomes an addiction and this is where there is a failing in society.
Players are human like everyone else and if addiction to gambling is spotted, they should be treated. Where it gets messy, is when the addiction to gambling is only highlighted when they have been put under investigation or found out.
It could undermine the work that needs to be done to help people, as it breeds cynicism in the tribal world of football. Would they have kept going if not caught? If that’s the question, by definition, they have a gambling problem, especially to risk their careers for a few moments of a dopamine hit.
The real ugly question is. What club is realistically going to put one of their own players under the spotlight or risk a season-long ban to give them the help they need?
Gambling and football are so intertwined, that no amount of scandals will solve the problem.
Follow Phil on Twitter here – @prsgame