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Aston Villa, From Chicago to the Holte End of the World

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Aston Villa 0 – Liverpool 6: Valentine’s Day Massacre

I haven’t been blogging about Villa much lately. Part of it has been that I have been busy with three very different book projects (stay tuned for more on those). Part of it has been the usual stuff of my day job, my family, and the things I love to do, like coaching my kids’ teams. But I suspect the biggest reason is that, too often, I feel I’ve run out of new things to say.

I’ve written one or two posts about what it feels like to win. I’ve written a few posts about meaningless draws. I’ve written still more about losses big and small, and the grind of supporting a terrible team. And I’ve written a lot about how, often, the only thing that makes supporting Aston Villa worthwhile has been the Chicago Villans.

I’m about to write another one of those. What’s the point? you might reasonably ask. But you could also ask that about watching our team over the past four and a half seasons. Continue reading “Aston Villa 0 – Liverpool 6: Valentine’s Day Massacre”

Liverpool 3 – Aston Villa 2: Going from Bad to Worse

When you steal two goals at Anfield, you expect to bring a little something home with you
When you steal two goals at Anfield, you expect to bring a little something home with you

Definitely Not Panicking

I’ll be brief: that was horrible.

Yes, I could be glib and say that we were bound to play poorly at Anfield one of these days, but strangely, it’s getting to be as hard to be funny about Villa as it is to find something new to say about losing yet again.

We were comprehensively outplayed and yet still could have come away with a desperately needed point—had we not let ourselves down with some truly shocking defending on Liverpool’s third goal. I swear, my AYSO teams are better than AVFC right now. (And they at least got the results. Later that day, the U12s won 6-2 and the U10s won 3-1.)

The drop zone: not just a crap movie starring Wesley Snipes and Gary Busey
The drop zone: not just a crap movie starring Wesley Snipes and Gary Busey

Continue reading “Liverpool 3 – Aston Villa 2: Going from Bad to Worse”

Aston Villa 2 – Bournemouth 1: I’m Still Not Seeing It

So yesterday, Villa did that thing where you kick the ball into the back of the other team’s net. It’s been so long since that happened that I forget what it’s called . . . “scoring a goal”? Is that the correct terminology?

Not only that, they did it twice! If they keep this up, I won’t even have to write the words on the back of my hand to remember them.

“Scoring a goal”? Is that the correct terminology?

After the 0-2 loss to Liverpool, I was too depressed to write anything—I had completely run out of new ways to look at losing and failing to score. I do feel better after yesterday’s result. Pending the results of the fifth-round draw, in which it’s entirely possible Villa could come up against another side from a lower division, progression in the FA Cup could provide an antidote to regression in the Premier League—as long as we don’t go all the way down and get relegated.

Wouldn’t that be an irony? An unlikely Cup run followed by a drop down to the Championship? I don’t even want to think about it.

There are a few reasons for hope: Carles Gil looks like a real player (and what a goal he scored!), Delph has signed, and a two-goal game against top Championship side could help the team find some much-needed rhythm.

If only the next game wasn’t away to Arsenal, and the next one after that, home to Chelsea.

The thing of it is, I still haven’t seen Villa score in live time since Benteke’s goal in the 1-1 against Manchester United on December 20! Due to scheduling issues (mine) and broadcasting issues (others’) I haven’t watched any of the Cup games live. And the last win I watched in real time was the 2-1 against Leicester City on December 7.

The sheer goallessness during that period has made it impossible for me to even enjoy Match of the Day. Watching other teams score with abandon while waiting for Villa’s pathetic recap at the end of the show, knowing your team’s 90 minutes haven’t produced a single worthwhile highlight . . . well, it makes it hard to appreciate even the most stunning goal by anybody else.

The win was nice but I would happily trade it for three points in the league. And the embers of hope have yet to truly rekindle in my chest. For that to happen, we’re going to have to start scoring goals in the Premier League and moving up the table.

Leicester City 1 – Aston Villa 0: We’ll Score Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When

We're number one in worst disciplinary record!
We’re number one in worst disciplinary record!

I watched the nil-nil against Crystal Palace with a handful of supporters at the Globe. The sound was off, we were seated in the wrong part of the bar, and the game was so boring I couldn’t stand to write about it.

I didn’t watch the FA Cup game against Blackpool—not even sure I could have. But I wish I had seen it, as the sight of Villa scoring a goal ranks up there with spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. Or has our ability to score a goal truly gone extinct? Only time will tell. Those who claim to have seen Villa score may soon be regarded with the same skepticism of those who claim to have seen Bigfoot strolling through their backyard.

Or has our ability to score a goal truly gone extinct?

But winning that game and staying alive in that competition, and then drawing Bournemouth in the fourth round, put me in a very tolerant mood. Yes, Villa are boring, and no, they don’t score goals, but I found myself nodding in agreement with a couple of blog posts I’d read about how patience is required, we’re building, and all things considered we’re doing well. I mean, in all competitions, the last 5 games had seen 1 win, 1 loss, and 3 draws—not the worst, all considered.

We're number one in goal efficiency!
We’re number one in goal efficiency!

And the lack of goals has been so—bizarre—I figured that, you know, at some point Villa would go hog-wild crazy and score two of the things. I mean, why not? And if ever there was a team to do it against, it would be Leicester City. Yes, they’ve improved a bit, but they’re not dead-last in the Premier League for nothing.

So how bizarre to watch Villa well and truly beaten by the worst team in the league. Despite what sounded like solid support from traveling Villa fans, the team deserved nothing for their efforts, and nothing is what the fans got. I’m looking for signs of hope and, barring some revelatory moves in the January transfer window, I just don’t see any. On the whole, we do defend well, and Guzan is still keeping us in games. But we have no ideas in midfield and no teeth on attack. We’re now keeping the ball better than we have in ages, but it doesn’t matter, because we clearly don’t know what to do with it. It’s tempting to blame Benteke’s lack of service, but even with players lobbing the ball at him desperately, he tends to run lukewarm and cold this season.

In sartorial terms, Villa is wearing a stout pair of shoes and a nice pair of pants but lacks a belt, shirt, and anything above the neck. Cleverly isn’t, N’zogbia doesn’t, Cole can’t, Richardson used to in September, and Westwood probably never will. Delph might be a wee bit overrated, but if he goes, what are we left with? Sanchez, who’s solid enough but still doesn’t offer anything going forward.

It occurs to me that my notion of “winnable”
is several years out of date.

We need someone to help create goals and we need someone who can score goals. And if Benteke isn’t scoring goals, who will? It pains me to say this, but I really don’t care if Gabby starts ever again. Ditto Weimann.

We had so many winnable games in December and we got 8 points out of a possible 18. We’ve had two winnable games in January and we took 1 point out of 6. Of course, staring such harsh data in the face it occurs to me that my notion of “winnable” is several years out of date. For the rest of the season, no game will seem winnable and any points will feel like a Christmas present.) Our next three league games are Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. I could see us getting 1 point out of 9, or 0.

Worst of all, watching Villa is BORING BORING BORING. Honestly, at this point, I’d rather go see a casual acquaintance’s one-woman show about her relationship with her mother than to watch another 90 minutes of what I saw yesterday. Hell, I’d rather STAR in a one-woman show about my relationship with my mother than watch Villa lose to the last-place team. I mean, Leicester is still going down, right? We all agree on that? So if we can’t compete with a team that is all but guaranteed to be relegated means . . . .

Don’t make me say it out loud.

Holy shit, Villa are boring. I have no hope we’ll score. I counted one truly nice passage of play yesterday, around the 32nd minute I think, that of course paid no dividends. What did I do in a former life that I was condemned to watch so many shit games?

We're number one in least goals scored!
We’re number one in least goals scored!

I’ve always resisted the call of “Lambert Out!”—in part because I don’t know that we’ll do any better than him. (I was absolutely astonished to see one supporter fondly remembering Alex McLeish’s term in charge.) But more and more, I wonder whether a change needs to be made. Even if we got a new-manager bounce that was only worth a couple of wins, those 6 points might be enough to save the season. And while we may not have the talent we need, the players we’ve got are better than the results we’ve had. And that, more than anything, may be a case for making a change at the top.

I will say this: I desperately want Lambert to succeed. Yes, Villa returning to winning ways would boost all our spirits. But it would also give some meaning to these endless hours waiting for a goal. It would feel like that time was worth something, not wasted, that our patience (and, yes, sometimes impatience) was rewarded.

Some stats that will boggle your mind:

  • Chelsea, Man City, and all the rest can eat our dust as Villa is now FIRST in the disciplinary table. They have five sendings-off.
  • Villa is also FIRST in the goal efficiency table: at two points per goal, they leave their nearest competitor, Stoke, far behind dust (1.18 points per goal).
  • Villa is also LAST in scoring with 11 goals. The next worst team, Sunderland, has 64% more goals than us.
  • However, Villa has the FIFTH BEST defense in terms of goals allowed. Only Southampton, Chelsea, Man City, and Man United have allowed fewer.
  • Due to the scarcity of goals scored, Villa still has the FIFTH WORST goal difference.
  • If you want to get really depressed about the lack of offense, there have been 544 goals scored in the Premier League through the first 21 games. Despite the fact that Villa represents 5% of the league, their 11 goals represent 2% of the total haul. (And still that number seems high…)

Given all that, it’s hard to believe that Villa is as high as 13th in the league table. Efficiency or no, if they don’t start scoring some goals soon, we might be watching them in the Championship next season.

Aston Villa 2 – Leicester City 1: Sometimes Defense Is the Best Offense

Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off
Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off

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!

Last Year’s Top Five Teams 11 – Aston Villa 1

Brad Guzan
Just watching the ball go round: Brad Guzan shows he’s human after all

Damn the schedulers. After our flying start (Four games undefeated! If you don’t count the League Cup loss to Leyton Orient! Third place in the league!) Villa’s momentum has ground to a shuddering halt with five games in a row against last year’s top five teams. First Liverpool, then Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Everton. We nicked a goal and three points against Liverpool and then went 0-for-the-rest-of-the-top-five while making our bed with four clean sheets for the other teams.

I mean, just look at the way our last five opponents ended last season
I mean, just look at the way our last five opponents ended last season

I was philosophical about the losses to Arsenal, Chelsea, and City but had hoped for at least a point against Everton. Even though Everton is obviously better than this year’s table position has suggested (they were 17th before the game), we were struggling, they were struggling—why couldn’t we both struggle to a draw?

Alas, it was not to be, and our current lack of threat in front of the net reminds me of another dire stretch last year. In fact, if my calculations are correct, since Gabby’s ninth-minute tally against Liverpool, it has now been 441 minutes, or or 7 hours and 21 minutes, since we found the back of the net. Unless we score in the first nine minutes this weekend, we’re going to do last year’s seven-and-a-half hour goal drought one better.

We were struggling, they were struggling—
why couldn’t we both struggle to a draw?

Given our start to the season, I had been looking at the QPR fixture next Monday as a get-well game, a chance to regain form against a bottom feeder after a tough run of five. And yes, QPR is sitting dead last, but after watching the fight they showed in a wild game against Liverpool, I wouldn’t put it past us to drop more points. Yes, Liverpool beat them in the end, and we’ve beaten Liverpool, but I’m still anything but sanguine. With Delph out, Senderos, and Baker out, we’re likely to see Ciaran Clark in action again, so we’re bound to see more misadventures on the back line. We need a big response from the rest of the team and we need it now.

Here’s an idea! Maybe we can shave Roy Keane, style and mousse his hair, and sneak him onto the field—we could say he’s Jack Grealish’s big brother or, better, uncle—and let him bark orders from midfield? Who knows, he might even get us a goal!

Right, right, I know. No one’s touching Roy’s beard—or anything else.

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