Christ, Villa can be a frustrating team. They came out looking brilliant, pinned the Red Devils back, got a couple of shots on target, nothing amazing, but still, still, for a moment, you could believe that this would be the day when Villa Park would once again become a fortress, when we would once again show everyone we’re headed in the right direction—that, on our day, we can beat anybody, even a mid-table team on a poor run of form, even the second-best team in the city of Manchester missing some of their most formidable players.
And then, against the run of play, in the fifteenth minute, Danny Welbeck put one in. And then, a mere three minutes later, he put another one in. And, unlike the many games where we’ve come from behind, or fought hard and stayed in it, we were just out of it. You could tell it was over, that a third goal for the visitors was more likely than a goal from us. I found myself hoping not for a win, not for a draw, but for Benteke to get a goal, one lousy miserable goal, to give us a sign that he might pick up the team and carry them as he did last year.
Not a chance.
I had made it to the Globe in time this week (yes, I set my alarm), and was gratified to see about 10 Villans, all wearing the colors, a much stronger and more unified turnout than the Man United fans scattered around the pub (I counted three red shirts). Though our spirits fell too soon, Chairman Simon lifted them again with gifts of Villa swag (including poster books for my sons) while, against one wall, wrapped presents under a twinkling tree awaited distribution to the Lurie Children’s Hospital. The gift drive is a combined effort of the Villa, Man City, and Arsenal supporters, all of whom meet at the Globe, their cooperation a reminder that some things are a lot more important than the score of a single game. Also discussed was the news that Villa owner Randy Lerner had gifted a million pounds to Acorns, keeping the team’s bond to the children’s hospice strong as ever. (Many of the newer, American Villa supporters have cited this as one of the reasons they were originally attracted to the team.)
As I devoured my F.E.B. (Full English Breakfast) and washed it down with a pint of Robert the Bruce, however, I couldn’t help but make a Christmas wish for myself—for six points in Villans’ stockings, come the end of Boxing Day.
Reasons for Pessimism
How long have you got? Since our hard-fought victory away to West Brom, we’ve lost away to Fulham and at home to Man United, giving up five unanswered goals in two games. We look porous at the back, clueless in midfield, and toothless up front. Even our go-go guys, Gabby and Andi, haven’t been causing problems for the other teams’ defenses. Losing early, we still sat back, letting them hold the ball. At the pub, Villans were growing for blood. None of us would have minded losing if we had seen our team really fight for it, sending the visitors home with a few bruises as souvenirs of their trip to Villa Park. Gabby’s late-game barge of De Gea notwithstanding, we never threatened in any way.
For the second time this season, Guzan gave up a goal when holding his ground against a striker—when he arguably should have moved forward, closing the angle, maybe even winning the ball from his feet. (Not that he should have been put in that position in the first place.)
We just failed to execute fundamentals. As Liverpool-Tottenham got under way, Andrew Grant offered wry commentary that just about summed it up: “Look, the guys on their team are all wearing the same shirts, so they know who to pass to . . . Look! On that corner, each of the defenders marked one of the players on the opposing team!”
Reasons for Optimism
The defense was weak, but we were missing Vlaar, who would have helped. And Herd impressed the previous week, too. If he hadn’t picked up an injury in training, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him starting again, and it might have made a difference.
We were also without Delph, who would surely have helped win some midfield battles.
Albrighton was a bright spot, albeit a lonely one. He worked hard, ran at defenders, and tried some interesting balls that didn’t quite work—but could have. I hope he gets another start.
Luna, despite whatever weaknesses he may possess, has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like that.
When the season is over, no matter how Villa played or the way we felt about them while they were doing it, the season will be judged on the numbers: goals scored, games won, and our position in the table. Last year, after 16 games, we had 15 points, were in 17th place, and had a goal differential of -13. This year, after 16 games, we have 19 points and are in 11th place with a differential of -5. Our next four games are Stoke (away), Crystal Palace (home), Swansea (home), Sunderland (away). Even given our maddeningly inconsistent form, it’s entirely conceivable that we could start the new year with another 6 or 7 points. And, so long as we’re better than last year, we’re headed in the right direction.