Saturday, May 21, 2022

Aston Villa are on an ambitious path but Leeds draw shows just how far they have to go

BIRMINGHAM — It has been hard to fault Aston Villa’s ambition since they returned to the Premier League in the summer of 2019. It is a stage on which the biggest club in the United Kingdom’s second city belong and they have acted like they know that.

Owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are said to covet European football soon, and Champions League in the future. They have spent a sizeable amount to move Villa in that direction. A net spend over the period in excess of $300 million has given Steven Gerrard a squad that is well established in the Premier League’s middle classes. It is one that has an increasingly cosmopolitan feel to it, encompassing Argentina’s No.1 goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, the widely-coveted Emiliano Buendia and of course January arrival Philippe Coutinho.

His first full start at Villa Park offered a dizzying insight into what the Barcelona loanee can bring to this club and the teammates around him. Here was a player who in years gone by might be enough on his own to propel a side up the Premier League table.

When Villa were struggling he bent the game to his will, albeit with able support from the outstanding Jacob Ramsey. In less than a month together with Coutinho, the youngster from Great Barr seems to have carved out a role for himself as the magician’s apprentice. When John McGinn played a pass into a backtracking Coutinho in midfield, Ramsey knew what was coming next.

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Ramsey charges forward as the ball is played to Coutinho. Seconds later he will be receiving the pass, bearing down on goal and scoring Wyscout/BT Sport

Coutinho would beat his man with a swift turn and Ramsey would need to be in position to receive the pass. Seconds later, he was. Those two in tandem with Ollie Watkins as the able shadow runner dragging defenders out of position, turned a one goal deficit into a 3-1 lead in the space of 13 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Gerrard was glowing in his assessment of those players.

“Jacob Ramsey is Jacob Ramsey,” Gerrard said of his 20 year old midfielder. “He’s not following in anyone’s footsteps. He will be a terrific player. It won’t be long before the whole country is watching him, I’m sure. He is right up there, let me tell you.”

Meanwhile it was “vintage Coutinho” in his manager’s words. These players seem to have a manager well suited to getting the best out of them, after all the diminutive Brazilian caught the eye of Barcelona when playing alongside Gerrard in the Liverpool midfield that nearly propelled Brendan Rodgers’ side to the title.

There are few managers as well qualified as Gerrard to instruct a youngster like Ramsey on the travails of playing for your hometown club, one whose illustrious past sets an almighty benchmark for current sides. Villa are sat on a gold mine of local talent in the West Midlands. By 2020, only the North West and London had provided more England internationals than the region which was represented by Jude Bellingham and Jack Grealish. Ramsey, Carney Chukwuemeka and Ben Chrisene are among those who can aspire to follow in their footsteps. At Villa Park, as at his previous managerial stop at Rangers, Gerrard has proven to be willing to trust youngsters.

Not that Villa’s manager needs a personal connection to improve his players. With as many Premier League games played under Gerrard as before his appointment, the signs of improvement are clear. In their first 11 matches of the season the Villains claimed 10 points with a goal difference of minus six. In the matches since, they have picked up 17 points with a positive goal difference of two. The likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have been run close, a point has been taken from Manchester United.

Gerrard has won widespread praise for his galvanizing impact on a side that seemed to be stuck in quicksand after Grealish’s summer sale to Manchester City. The respect he engendered over his playing career has carried over to the training ground where players praise his clear communication and love seeing him get stuck in on the pitch. “Every now and then he joins in and you just see glimpses of the player he was,” said Matt Targett before his departure for Newcastle.

Ramsey was no less effusive in his praise of the manager last night. “He has given me a lot of confidence. I grew up watching him, so now he’s a gaffer I can only take his advice.”

The mood around Villa Park has changed since Gerrard’s appointment. That matters a lot. So do what the underlying numbers tell us and hey would suggest that while his new side have gotten better, they still have a long way to go.

Prior to Gerrard’s arrival on November 12 Villa had registered 12.2 expected goals (xG) while allowing opponents shots worth 15.3 xG, a combined shot profile that ranked 14th in the Premier League. Since then they have registering 11.8 xG while allowing 14.3, the 10th best record in the league. Similarly under new management they are 10th in the league in expected assists per game, eighth in goals, 15th in shots, 15th in opponent touches in the penalty area, 13th in touches in the penalty area. They might rank high in some facets, low in others, whatever way you slice the cake as a whole you have a team that has gone from lower midtable to mid midtable. 

Villa have gotten better but they have the statistical profile of a team that must go a lot further to achieve its aims. Those games against the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City might have looked close on the scoreboard but in them they have allowed their opponents a boatload of shooting opportunities whilst not creating much of their own. Though it is equally true that the small improvements Gerrard has brought to Villa have come while the team has gone through a stretch where they’ve played the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, so perhaps as the schedule eases, the improvement will continue.

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Then there was Wednesday’s catalogue of defensive errors that gave Leeds a way back into a game in which they so often looked second best. Tyrone Mings may be an England international but he has made more errors leading to goals (a statistic in which a great deal lies in the eye of the beholder, but where it is never a good sign to be top) than any outfield player in the Premier League over the last three seasons and those four do not even include the two poor bits of defending that handed Marcelo Bielsa’s side a point. A rickety defense might also have been more effectively shielded if Marvelous Nakamba were not out for the season. Douglas Luiz is an effective midfielder, but he is no anchorman.

To even become a team that does not fritter away the points they had on Wednesday, let alone competes in the Premier League’s upper echelon, requires sizeable further steps from Villa, who have not stinted in ambitious spending since returning to the big time. Their most recent accounts, which go up to the end of their first season in the Premier League, showed a 10 percent increase in the wage cost of the playing staff. That will have shot up yet further over the past two seasons, which have seen a sizeable uptick in the sort of transfers that win a club praise for their “ambition” in the transfer market before anyone can assess whether it has borne fruit on the pitch.

Villa spent their £100million Grealish bounty on three players — Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendia and Leon Bailey — who have brought a combined return of seven goals and seven assists. Injuries have hampered some of those new signings but Ings was not trusted to win the game for Villa against Leeds, having played just 11 minutes away to Everton before the international break.

The trio Christian Purslow mentioned as having been identified to fill the chasm Grealish left in the side has become a quartet. Coutinho certainly brings that gravitational force that the England international offered; it was almost as if those around him felt more at ease now that they had another one man attack in the side. Still for all that the Brazilian’s performance was a welcome hit of 2016 nostalgia, his recruitment even on loan has further bloated a wage bill that saw Lucas Digne arrive from Everton in January too. On their arrival in the Premier League Villa seemed determined to build something of a Championship All Stars side, young players such as Ollie Watkins and Ezri Konsa who commanded competitive wages and could be sold on for sizeable profits if they clicked. Now the number of Premier League veterans in their late 20s is ballooning, players brought in on chunky salaries with little hope of that investment being recouped on the bank end. Everton can attest that buying proven players is a more risky strategy than it might appear.

Equally there is no set template for building a team capable of achieving its owners’ ambitions. Even the most well run clubs of the last decade, Leicester City chief among them, spend more years falling just short then they do fulfilling their dreams. The Premier League’s middle ground is quicksand, it takes something almighty to drag yourself out of it.

From their manager to their young players via the sprinkling of stardust in-between, Villa have a lot of qualities that convince you they might. Yet there is a long way to go indeed before the 1982 European champions are back on the continental stage again.

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