Aston Villa guilty of abandoning their principles as Champions League nerves start to bite

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Aston Villa guilty of abandoning their principles as Champions League nerves start to bite

Chelsea had just levelled and the camera panned to two Aston Villa supporters in the crowd. One was sitting behind the other. Both had their hands on their heads in virtually identical poses.

It was a vignette to capture the mood.

A contest that ended in a 2-2 draw had carried an unnecessary sense of do-or-die throughout.

Villa’s cautious approach had invited anxiety, becoming increasingly submissive from the moment they went ahead in the first five minutes. The passivity generated outright fatalistic tension on and off the pitch. The players appeared strangely inhibited while a sense of dread permeated the Villa Park air; it was as if every minute in the second half carried the stress of stoppage time.

The players neglected the fundamentals their head coach Unai Emery preaches; that performances are influenced by habits and each game, each half and each minute must be judged on its merits. Instead, Villa appeared results-driven, focused solely on scurrying towards the season’s finishing line and forgetting that, to get there in the way they’d like to, they have to stick to their principles.

Following the win against Bournemouth last weekend, captain John McGinn said he had a points total in mind that he was confident would secure Champions League qualification. “We’re so close,” he repeated. On Saturday night, that sense of yearning was discernible.

Emery offered some much-needed perspective post-match. The point meant Villa were guaranteed a Europa League place for next season — an upgrade on the European competition they are still in this term, the third-tier Conference League. He explained Chelsea were allowed to play well and his team were forced, in his words, to “be resilient”. Despite them surrendering a two-goal lead in the final half-hour, Morgan Rogers added that they might turn out content with this draw.

A point is a solid-enough return, given the daunting fixture list awaiting their only rivals for a top-four finish, Tottenham Hotspur. Even after Sunday’s north London derby loss, which leaves Villa seven points ahead albeit having played twice more, Spurs must still make trips to Chelsea and Liverpool and play Manchester City at home in their remaining five games.

But that is what made Villa’s anxiety so bemusing — this was not the moment to implement a game plan that ceded possession, reducing them to sporadic counter-attacks while inviting a Chelsea side sporting multiple open scars, onto them, particularly after taking the lead so early in the piece.


Emery bellows from the touchline (James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)

There is a fine line between pragmatism and being submissive and what initially seemed to be a savvy, transition-based approach became far removed from the poise Emery desires as panic set in.

It is customary for Villa to spend periods within games sitting in. It can be energy-efficient and plays to their offensive strengths; they are blessed with direct and pacy attackers adept at playing on the counter. Crucially, though, there is (usually) always purpose, as there seemed to be at points in Saturday’s first half.

Chelsea enjoyed 75 per cent possession and had hit the post, but Villa’s two goals came from sweeping switch-of-play moves.

Yet the nervous undercurrent was exacerbated by Emiliano Martinez’s injury-related substitution at the break. Villa’s Argentine goalkeeper is often the chief leader on the pitch, knowing when to rally or calm down his team-mates. Villa were lacking in his second-half absence.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Briefing: Aston Villa 2 Chelsea 2 – Why were Villa so passive? Have Chelsea proved their character?

Emery pointed to his temple after Noni Madueke halved the deficit just past the hour. The message did not cut through. He gestured furiously for the positional units to be more compact, attempting to stem the flow of Chelsea’s sustained attacks.

Needing to raise their players, the majority of the Villa Park crowd broke out into isolated bursts of noise, yet Emery’s approach encouraged the tension. Chelsea had 21 shots in the match to Villa’s nine and, despite their current fragility, the visitors played with more of a flourish throughout.

This is illustrated by the two teams’ average positioning over the course of the match, with Villa only having Ollie Watkins (No 11) in the opposition half.

For a stark comparison, and a snapshot of Chelsea’s territorial dominance, of the visitors’ outfield players, only their two centre-backs’ average positions were inside their own half.

Villa’s sinking shape is highlighted below, shown with Chelsea winning possession just 27 metres, on average, away from the home goal.

Villa’s concerted efforts to sit deep are at odds with their overarching defensive principles, which previously centred on an effective offside trap. In the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge last September, Emery’s back line was at its most steadfast, refusing to give ground at any stage.

On Saturday, with over a quarter of an hour left, Villa went into preservation mode.

Central defender Diego Carlos replaced winger Leon Bailey, with right-back Matty Cash moving further forward and midfield anchor Tim Iroegbunam on in place of Douglas Luiz.

Iroegbunam had initially made a good intervention before Conor Gallagher’s 81st-minute equaliser. The strike itself was technically and aesthetically pleasing, but the England midfielder was afforded the space and time, which came as a consequence of Villa’s passive nature.

Still, it was no coincidence that the sole occasion when Villa kept the ball effectively in the second half — with three minutes left of normal time and following patient switches of play — ended with Watkins firing a shot over the crossbar. It should have served as a reminder that even if the momentum dial had swung, gaining initiative through possession tends to create chances.

Even then, the same trepidation remained.

Iroegbunam had won a free kick near the touchline and Martinez’s replacement, Robin Olsen, in wanting to restart play quickly, kicked long. Only Watkins was ready to challenge aerially, with the ball running through to Chelsea goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic.

Ezri Konsa, who had only just advanced to the halfway line, looked back at Olsen, a 34-year-old with 73 Sweden caps, and signalled for calm.

The ball came back at Villa, with Carlos making a mess of a simple clearance. Olsen saved well down low, turning Cole Palmer’s shot away for a corner. It was the latest demonstration of how tension can seep into a player’s decision-making, to the point where even the simplest of tasks suddenly appear irrationally taxing. Even Pau Torres felt compelled to sprawl into desperate slide tackles.


Olsen’s panicked urgency typified Villa’s anxious approach (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The subsequent corner threatened to teach Villa the most ruthless of lessons. The ball bounced around in the box, with Benoit Badiashile crossing for Axel Disasi to head in an apparent winner. After a VAR check, Badiashile was judged to have pushed Carlos in the back while gaining possession. As Chelsea raged, those in claret and blue drew breath.

Villa escaped the game with a point, as they did at home to Brentford at the start of the month in a performance that bore comparable hallmarks. Back then, a frenzied nine-minute spell had undone Villa. Emery said afterwards he would watch it back four times to detect symptoms of players straying from the plan.

Emery’s response to that Brentford match was resounding, rectified by four straight wins.

Lessons will be heeded again after a draw against Chelsea where Villa neglected processes, became result-driven and fell into a panicked — and unnecessary — trap.

Aston Villa’s remaining games: Olympiacos (h), May 2; Brighton (a), May 5; Olympiacos (a), May 9; Liverpool (h), May 13; Crystal Palace (a), May 19.

(Top photo: Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)