It never rains, but it pours for Villa fans this season and at St James’ Park the downpour was more than a metaphorical one. Manager Remi Garde can point to an improved second half performance against Newcastle and the fact that they got a draw, but if the hosts had not been wasteful in front of goal, Villa would have been dead and buried long before they got their splendid equaliser through Jordan Ayew.
Perhaps that fantastic strike and coming away with a point can inspire Villa to go on a run, stranger things have happened some will suggest, but equally, that goal should not paper over the cracks… no, gaping holes that Villa showed in the first half. Off the back of two great wins for the Magpies, they started the game well and could easily have gone into the break with a bigger lead as shortly before Ayew scored his 20 yard blockbuster, Siem De Jong had the chance of the game and only he will know how he managed to head wide from three yards out. Had he scored, as he should have, that would have been that for the game. He wasn’t the only culprit as Papiss Cisse failed to convert a good chance early on and Georginio Wijnaldum, excellent this season for Newcastle and normally calmer in front of goal, fluffed his lines shortly before De Jong missed his sitter.
Rudy Gestede gave Villa a different option from the bench, but that’s all he really offers and therein lies where Villa’s season started to go wrong: the summer transfer window. Christian Benteke is an above average Premier League target man and getting £32.5m for him was tremendous business, but replacing an above average Premier League target man with an above average Championship target man was, at best, a reckless gamble. Villa also lost Fabian Delph, a pretty average Premier League midfielder, but failed to replace what he offered their team.
Downgrading in important areas of the pitch for a team that has struggled in recent seasons is a dangerous move. Quite simply, Aston Villa lack quality. Rather than use their summer dealings to strengthen their squad, it got even weaker and could end up costing them their place in the league. It all goes back to the appointment of Tim Sherwood and whilst he initially did okay last season by giving the side more attacking freedom, his brash, outward confidence could only mask his tactical ineptitude for so long. The summer showed Sherwood’s lack of experience and failure to have a coherent, cohesive plan to take Villa forward. A swagger and a smile alone have a limited shelf life at the top level; style is nothing without substance and blagging only gets you so far.
Obviously, the Villa board not only appointed Sherwood, but has also overseen the steady decline of the club since they were a top six side under Martin O’Neill, and must take their share of responsibility for its current predicament. However, for all Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert facilitated dour football, they made up for a lack of quality by making their teams unpleasant to play against and usually tough to beat. Under Sherwood though, they became a comfortable opponent and easy to beat, far too easy.
Remi Garde has arguably risked his reputation taking the Villa Park hot seat and though he’s already smartened them up a bit tactically, he will need a January transfer window of Black Friday proportions if he is to recruit the necessary quality to give his side a chance of piecing some wins together and going on a run. My money right now on the three relegation slots would be between: Villa, Sunderland, Bournemouth, Swansea, Norwich and Newcastle. Of course, there is still a long way to go and there are often twists, turns and an unforeseen team dropping into the mix, but 10 points from safety is one hell of a gap to make up.
A central midfielder and striker of good quality are a must for the Villians, though convincing quality players to come for a backs-to-the-wall relegation fight is easier said than done. Garde does have knowledge of the French market that is harvesting talented young players, though perhaps a couple of loan deals for more experienced professionals for the job required might be more suited to the situation. However he chooses to play it, trying to save this once big club and former European champions from slipping into the second tier of English is an unenviable task.