Another game, another red card, another heroic stand at the goalmouth. Another draw, another point, another failure to score.
Villa’s league-worst goal-scoring record—11 in 19 games—has been a source of frustration to supporters for obvious reasons. It may come as some consolation, however, that Villa has done much more with each one of those goals than any other team in the Premier League.
Maybe scoring is overrated.
According to Paulo Bandini on The Guardian‘s Football Weekly podcast, Villa LEADS THE PREMIER LEAGUE in points-per-goal ratio. With 21 points from 11 goals, they have gotten 1.9 points per goal (“spectacular efficiency,” according to Bandini). No other team has more than 1.3. Whether through stalwart defense, timely scoring, or pure dumb luck, we find ourselves in the giddy heights of 13 place, despite the 7 teams below us having scored 17.7 goals on average.
So where did all those goals get them? Maybe scoring is overrated.
And guess who’s at the bottom of this particular table? Everton, with just 0.7 points per goal. They’ve scored 29 of the things, yet they sit just one place above Villa in the table.
Introducing people you care about to your favorite team is a fraught proposition. It can be like bringing your first girlfriend home to meet your parents—ideally, she’s a Phi Beta Kappa valedictorian with an I.Q. of 132 who got a six-figure job straight out of college. Or it can be like bringing home the “dancer” you married under circumstances neither of you remember. In the latter scenario, you will be desperately extolling her virtues (“She’s . . . really flexible!”) while your family sniffs her breath and tries to ignore her neck tattoos. But there is, of course, some logical reason you were first attracted to her, even if you can’t always remember what it was.
Members of my family have, of course, known of my infatuation with a certain Aston Villa for years. To them, I’m sure it’s one of those puzzling but endearing personality traits they’ll never understand, along with my penchant for reading roadside interpretive signs in the voice of a 1940s newsreel announcer and the fact that I still listen to E.L.O. But many of them have never actually watched a game with me. This year, with my brother Sean’s family visiting from Salt Lake City for Christmas, and my mom Nancy in from Montana, things were destined to change.
Aston Villa 1 – Manchester United 1
I had originally planned to take them all to the Globe the morning after they arrived. But a delayed flight (on Frontier, whose motto should be, “You Get What You Pay for, Unless We Give You Less”) and a post-midnight arrival meant that no one jumped out of bed the next morning. One by one, my guests roused themselves to find me enjoying my morning coffee and watching TV as Villa played host to Man United. “They usually destroy us, but you never know,” I said, then watched with growing pride as Villa first scored (Christian Benteke in the 18th minute, on a beautifully worked solo strike), and then didn’t completely collapse. Yes, they gave away the lead (to Falcao in the 53rd), but who wasn’t expecting that? Given the history between the two sides, most of us were probably expecting them to give away several more goals, and maybe even the North Stand. In the end, it was a point that felt not like victory but progress.
And, for the record, that was never, ever a red card offense by Gabby. Looked like a fifty-fifty to me.
Swansea City 1 – Aston Villa 0
Even my mother and niece noted ten-man Villa’s tenacity in holding the high-priced Manchester side at bay, causing my chest to swell with pride. And when, on Christmas Day, I casually suggested that we could all enjoy a Boxing Day breakfast at the Globe before afternoon departures from O’Hare, it seemed perfectly logical that they would all be interested. Only my own sons said no—we’d been dragging them downtown all week, and besides they had new toys to play with. At kickoff, I was proudly hosting two tables of Globe first-timers: my wife Marya (at last!), my brother Sean, sister-in-law Kirstin, niece Wilhelmina, nephew Oscar, and my dear mom.
What my family saw, of course, was a team whose
collective ability to erect a wall resembled that of
the Cannabis Builders’ Union.
My own recruitment efforts will always pale in comparison to those of Chicago Lions Chairman Simon Leach, but I do consider it my duty to bring more fans into the claret-and-blue fold. And this, to me, seemed like a good game game to do it. Yes, Villa were away, but the days of home-field advantage seem a distant memory these days. And, yes, Swans came into the game in eighth place, four above twelfth-placed Villa. But, with Benteke and Delph back on the field, with Alan Hutton back at right back, with Villa playing with more and more confidence and less and less hoof-and-hope, the moment seemed ripe for a one-goal victory, the perfect bookend to a great holiday week. Even more, I hoped Villa would put on a performance that would offer a strong argument for my allegiance to the club.
What my family saw, of course, was a team whose collective ability to erect a wall resembled that of the Cannabis Builders’ Union (motto: You Can Count on Us to Finish . . . Wait, What Were We Making Again?). Blame Guzan the architect if you must, but it was a collective lapse of concentration that led to as simple and embarrassing a concession on a free kick as I can remember. Yes, the foul Okore was charged with was not really a foul, and, yes, Gabby should have had a penalty on that push later on. And, yes, Villa created far more chances in the second half than their hosts. But what will my guests remember about this game? Gylfi Sigurdsson kicking the ball into the net like a training-ground exercise.
(The Guardian called it a “missile,” but technically, any flying object can be called that. And, if the defending side paints a target on the goal, does the offense really deserve credit for hitting it?)
And this is where my soccer-team-as-the-
stripper-you-married metaphor breaks down.
The thing is, I still saw growth and potential in this game. Just as the man who married the stripper knows she has the potential to be a ballerina, or at least one of the Luvabulls, I saw things giving me hope that all I’ve invested in this relationship will some day be worth it. Villa lost when they deserved at least a point—on yet another maddening lapse of concentration—yet they held the ball better, they passed their way out of trouble (and, admittedly, into it), and they really had a lot of times when they COULD HAVE AND SHOULD HAVE PUT THE BALL IN THE BACK OF THE NET.
(Sidebar: Watching Match of the Day late last night, it occurred to me that, if teams scored every time the commentators announcers intone, “He should have scored,” or “He should have done better” or “He should at least be putting the ball on target,” soccer games would have American football scores. But I digress.)
And this is where my soccer-team-as-the-stripper-you-married metaphor breaks down, because, if you marry a stripper, the presumption is that, if nothing else, you will score.
Ever the gentleman, Simon chatted warmly with Wilhelmina and Oscar, reminding my eleven-year-old nephew (who adores Bayern Munich) that he could choose an English team, too. And that, further, when one Bayern Munich and one Aston Villa met one fateful May night in 1982, it was the English side who carried home the jug-eared trophy. (And promptly lost it, but that’s another story.) I think we’d all like to give the Germans a chance to redeem themselves . . . .
Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina, a soccer player, runner, and ultimate-frisbee player, showed real promise as a Villan, rising out of her seat when Villa was on the attack, wincing when they were on defense, lending her voice to the general dismay when we missed another chance on goal.
So maybe she sees the potential as well. And if even one or two more family members take a rooting interest in Villa, the outing will have been well worth it—a perfect Christmas present to me, and from me.
Let’s just hope it’s not a gift Wilhelmina and Oscar want to return after the holidays are over.
Despite the growing confidence from Villa’s five-game unbeaten run—form that saw them entering Saturday’s game as arguable favorites, even if they only scored five goals in those five games—Villa was well beaten by the home team when forced to play most of the game with only ten men. Kieran Richardson was sent off for a studs-up tackle on Stephane Sessegnon that manager Paul Lambert later conceded was a clear red card.
On Facebook, I saw one supporter lay the blame for the sending-off squarely at Lambert’s feet, for not having prepared Richardson well enough for the crackling derby atmosphere. First of all, it was hardly crackling. Secondly, when players make game-changing mistakes, it is extraordinarily frustrating, but shouldn’t a large portion of the blame lie with the players? Never mind that Lambert has so few to choose from.
Other than the weariness that comes from watching a loss against a beatable team, knowing you’re up against an expensively assembled side in a week, it was a pleasant enough morning at the Globe. Brian brought his two charming daughters (who were welcomed into the Chicago Lions Club by Simon) and I managed to score some good reading recommendations from Nick. And now I’m off to finally listen to that Tom Fox interview to see what everyone else is arguing about. Any two Villans have three opinions among them, and perhaps I’ll add a fourth.
A quiet Sunday at the Globe and only one Villan, a Brummie named Peter, was present as I walked through the doors with Bob Kemp and my father, Tom, visiting from Montana. Soon, however, we were joined by Simon, Kristen, Andrew, Nick, and Greg, plus a large handful of faces new to me (Ashley is the only name I can recall at the moment), possibly even shifting the usual yank-to-expat ratio in favor of the expats.
The Chicago Villans Facebook group, now numbering over 1,000 and outpacing even the Aston Villa America group, includes so many England-based Villans that Bob’s question on Friday (“Who’s going on Sunday?”) received just as many responses from Birmingham-area supporters with tickets to Villa Park as it did Chicagoland fans heading down to the pub. As much as I love hearing from random Villans worldwide, I can’t help but think we’ve lost a tiny bit of our identity as a local group.
Anyway: we won! Three beautiful points saw us reach the heady heights of 11th place! Granted, the table is congested, with teams you’d expect to do better not doing well at all (Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton), and teams you wouldn’t have expected to do very well surpassing expectations (West Ham, Southampton), with the end result that Villa are currently just as far from 5th place and European competition as they are from 18th place and relegation.
We’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table but
we are continuing to climb the injury table as well.
But with a very winnable game against West Brom coming up next—they’re in 16th place and 18th in the form table—we could well be top half before we face Man United just before Christmas.
Villa started well and certainly looked most likely to take the lead until Leonardo Ulloa did just that for the visitors in the 13th minute, slotting home a ball that came off Guzan’s hand in a save attempt. Replays showed that the initial shot might have taken a deflection, making Guzan less culpable than he appeared to be. Still, while the pride of suburban Chicago remains an excellent shot stopper, he hasn’t been holding on to the ball very well lately, which only adds to our already frayed nerves.
Ciaran Clark, of all people, equalized just four minutes later, on a superb sliding header from an Ashley Westwood free kick. But when Westwood was stretchered off before halftime, taken out by a tardy tackle by James Vardy, I started to lose my conviction that Villa would score again. Our midfield can look shockingly lightweight, and without Delph, Westwood, or Cole, a one-one draw against the league’s worst team seemed a likely result.
I wasn’t counting on Alan Hutton, who completed his cycle of rebirth with his first competitive goal in FOUR YEARS. In the 71st minute, Gabby passed to Benteke who passed to Hutton, who seemed to stop time, or just stop, as he gathered the ball, thought about it, calculated the angle and trajectory and possibility that, yes, he might actually be able to take a shot on goal—before firing and, yes, SCORING A GOAL!
You just can’t rush some things.
Hutton was later yellow-carded for shoving Paul Konchesky, who apparently deemed his ankle-stomp insufficient and barked at Hutton with the seeming intent of making him pull a Benteke and get sent off. Instead it was the English-born player with the Russian-sounding name who was sent off, shown a straight red, although it was unclear whether the red was for the tackle or his provocative conversational style. Leicester fans will think it harsh, although for Villa fans it somehow balanced Benteke’s sending off against Tottenham.
Benteke himself was unlucky not to have scored on a couple of on-target headers and a breakaway. Though the final ten minutes provided sheer, nail-biting agony for the fifteen or so Villans on their feet at the Globe, that the game wasn’t closer was due mainly to Leicester’s man of the match, Kasper “Son of Schmeichel” Schmeichel.
As much as I’m buoyed by Villa’s recent form—we’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table—we are continuing to climb the injury table as well. We’re now 3rd in those rankings, behind only Newcastle and Arsenal. And with more winnable games coming in the busy holiday-season schedule, if we play without Delph, Cole, Westwood, Cleverley, Vlaar, Senderos, and Baker, we could still struggle against beatable teams.
Although I’m much more worried about the midfield: clearly we can win without our first- or even second-choice defense!
It is, as many before me have observed, a funny game. With Aston Villa’s bleak record in London; with the eighth-minute injury to Joe Cole, the most influential player in last Saturday’s draw against Burnley; and with a Crystal Palace team that seemed to be attacking in waves from the opening whistle, there were few if any signs that Villa’s trip to Selhurst Park would end in anything but tragedy. Even Benteke seemed out of form in the opening minutes, his self-inflicted three-game layoff appearing to have broken the form he was starting to find.
But then, after a terrific strike in which he turned defender Scott Dann and forced a fine save from goalkeeper Julian Speroni, Benteke proved again why he is so important to the team. Stealing the ball from Dann on the sideline, he raced toward the goal and used the body of Brede Hangeland to screen an inch-perfect shot that curled into the lower right-hand corner.
Imagine how things might look if we’d had him all season. Certainly, the Lambert Out contingent would have less to complain about. A couple more goals at the right moment and everything would look different.
Everything certainly looks different this morning. Yes, Palace certainly had more and better chances. And yes, our defending was desperate for long stretches of the game. And yes, it at times resembled bordered on farce as we offered up chance after chance to score—chances that Palace were unable to capitalize on. In the battle of The Team That Can’t Protect a Lead versus The Team That Can’t Score, Palace proved to be just a little bit more awful on the day.
I almost felt sorry for them, knowing what it’s like to cheer for a team that can’t put the ball in the back of the net. But as I say, almost.
In the battle of The Team That Can’t Protect a Lead
versus The Team That Can’t Score, Palace proved
to be just a little bit more awful on the day.
And Villa’s grit and determination are something to cheer about. They came into the game with an utterly awful run of nine games without a win and they fought like hell to end that streak yesterday. A team without Vlaar, Delph, Senderos, or even Cole and Baker.
No two Villans seem able to agree on our best starting lineup—some detest Sanchez, some were furious he wasn’t starting. And at least one fan seems to think, bizarrely, that Cissokho is the worst player ever to pull on a claret and blue shirt. But everyone, everyone, is feeling better today. We’ve woken from our most recent nightmare. And, if Villa can beat Leicester City at Villa Park on Sunday, which they should, we’ll be dreaming again of a top-half finish.
Oh, the wonders of techmology: just a few minutes to boot my aging laptop, a mad scramble to locate the password for my in-laws’ guest wifi login, a couple of attempts to remember my RCN password, then a helpless wait as the NBC Live Extra page loads and stalls and loads and stalls again. Watch a short commercial and voila—instant video!
It’s a strange experience, watching a game on a dashboard like a videogame console. The data at my fingertips is both fascinating and troubling. Why remember things when your device does it for you? I much prefer to have my remembering done by the lifelong Villa supporters at the Globe like Simon, Brian, and Rick.
The first half was a joy to behold as Villa attacked, attacked, and attacked again. Despite one supporter’s pregame insistence that Joe Cole starting was the last straw, I think most of us asked ourselves the same question: why hasn’t Joe Cole been starting all season? Villa looked lively and creative, and by the time Cole deservedly scored the first goal in the 38th minute, the only surprise was that we hadn’t gotten two or three of the things.
The data on my dashboard seemed questionable, reporting that, by the end of the first half, Villa had an unheard-of 13 shots with 12 of them on target, but whether accurate or not, they certainly captured the gist of things. Burnley may have lost concentration in the scuffle just prior to the goal, but it was well earned on balance. Even better, the game was actually entertaining to watch.
Villa started the second half on the wrong foot, looking very vulnerable, but slowly imposed themselves on the game. Without creating as many chances or showing as much creativity as the first, still looked capable of seeing the game out, holding on to a lead created in the first half, something they’ve struggled to do all season. And Lambert’s substitutions seemed unlikely to create any controversy as they did last week: Cole was obviously tiring, and Grealish is a player fans are demanding to see. The latter had less of an influence than the former, but played well and had an influence. And in taking a largely anonymous Weimann off for Richardson, Lambert appeared to have made the right moves to see the game out.
Villa’s inability to hold a lead is woeful.
And then Okore, who had been having a very good game, got caught out of position and bundled Jutkiewicz over to prevent a goal. Danny Ings comfortably slotted the penalty home in the 87th minute to score the equalizer and break our hearts again. Due to a bend in the time-space continuum (or maybe just a delay in my video screen) I saw the yellow card and the goal noted on my videogame console minutes before I saw it happen. I felt like I’d been stabbed twice.
How many players have we seen make game-changing gaffes and blunders this year?
Villa seemed as shell-shocked as Burnley was energized, and the home team was thumping on the door in added time. They hit the post and shot just wide, barely missing their chance to take all three points.
For some teams, earning a lead is difficult but holding on to it is more routine, and it’s tempting to be clever and say that Villa has that problem in reverse. Also wildly inaccurate: for us, earning a lead has been extraordinarily difficult and protecting it nigh well impossible.
The Good News
There’s good news, right? After six straight defeats, three straight draws must be seen as an improvement. And getting a goal from someone other than Gabby or Andi is a big positive. Just last week I saw a post somewhere about Villa’s reliance on true strikers to get goals, set against a trend of other clubs seeing more offensive production from midfield players. Clearly, we need more than two or three players to get on the score sheet this season. And, with Benteke coming back, the odds of that happening are increasing.
The Bad News
A perfectly winnable game becomes, in the end, a hard-won point on the road against the league’s second-worst team. (Granted, we’re the league’s fifth-worst team, so maybe this should go back up under “good news.”) Villa’s inability to hold a lead is woeful. Their record stands at 3 wins, 4 draws, and 6 losses. But three of the last four have been winnable games: against Burnley and Southampton, we conceded late goals to turn wins into draws. And, against Tottenham, we conceded TWO late goals and contrived to lose the game completely. That’s two points out of a possible nine. Add those extra seven to our current tally and we’ve stolen Tottenham’s position this morning of seventh place.
As we say in the U.S.: coulda, woulda, shoulda.
I still believe this team can and will play better, and I’m not worried about relegation—yet. The players seem to slowly be regaining some belief, although I worry about the manager’s: Lambert’s body language looks awful, and he’s aging before our eyes. And he doesn’t even have Mr. Keane to keep him company on the bench anymore, either.
Nine games without a win and counting.
P.S. A note on the stats: NBC Live Extra has villa with 18 shots, 16 on target. The BBC had it as 18 and 7. The Guardian has it as 18 and 7. I didn’t keep count, but I guess Mark Twain’s words hold true: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.