The Premier League’s three-month suspension was the perfect time for under-pressure managers to formulate new plans of attack, and Dean Smith appears to have chosen direct football as his best option. Against Newcastle, Villa attempted 22 crosses from open play, their second highest total in a league game since October. With Keinan Davis now leading the line, Villa typically look long and aim to exploit set-piece opportunities.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. Davis has held the ball up well but is not a regular scorer of goals, while Villa’s two best players — Jack Grealish and John McGinn — have been forced to scrap for second balls and have been easily thwarted by effective defensive teams. Grealish has created 11 chances in four matches since the return, above his usual average, but it’s the quality of those chances that appear to have slipped. In his six league appearances before the break, Grealish had 33 touches in the opposition box. In four games since, just seven.
Most worryingly for Villa, Grealish has become demonstrably frustrated at his ability to influence play in the final third. Having taken just two points from four matches and with Liverpool and Manchester United to come, Smith may have to revisit his strategy in a desperate bid to engineer survival and keep his best player involved.
Aston Villa’s only ray of light is that the teams around them show no inclination to pull themselves clear of danger and so continue to give Villa a shot at saving themselves. Twenty-eight hours after Villa’s defeat to Wolves, Watford fell to another limp defeat against Southampton.
Watford are in real danger of undoing the good work established in Nigel Pearson’s early days at Vicarage Road. They went seven games unbeaten in all competitions in December and January, but have lost seven in ten since. No Watford supporter holds much hope of survival on current evidence.
But they are not alone. Since the Premier League’s restart, the current bottom five have played 13 matches between them and picked up only two points. The assumption prior to football’s return is that it would take a higher than usual points total to avoid relegation, but those expectations are being altered with each underwhelming result. Might 34 points now be enough to stay up?
One indirect result of the increase to nine substitutions is that it lays bare which members of the squad are out of favour. Mesut Ozil’s continued alienation at Arsenal comes as no surprise, but for the second time in a week Matteo Guendouzi was omitted. With the greatest respect to Matt Smith and Zach Medley, Mikel Arteta was sending a message.
Arsenal’s problems are hardly solved by Guendouzi’s absence. They were fortunate to overcome defensive sloppiness from a set piece and reach Wembley, and the squad clearly requires defensive reinforcements during the short summer transfer window. But Arsenal have won twice away from home without Guendouzi, whose petulance and perceived immaturity is counting against him.
There is logic to Arteta’s new plan. With Granit Xhaka sitting in front of a three-man central defence, the other two central midfielders have licence to drift out wide to create overlaps and push forward. Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock have the energy to play as box-to-box midfielders without the tempestuousness that repeatedly catches out Guendouzi, and he has Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dani Ceballos as competition for the role.
It is not that Leicester City have fallen apart since lockdown, but that the three-month suspension has not allowed Brendan Rodgers to initiate a change in fortunes. Leicester’s slump now accounts for almost half their season; they have taken 17 points from their last 15 matches and on Sunday tumbled out of the FA Cup with barely a whimper.
Most concerning is that no part of the team is working as it should. The understanding between Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu has evaporated in a flurry of misplaced passes and poor positioning errors. The midfield seems unsure of whether to protect that defence or assist Jamie Vardy. Vardy has been chronically underserviced and repeatedly unable to get behind a defence. That is exacerbated by pedestrian passing in their own half that leads to more opposition chances than their own.
Worst of all is that Chelsea did not need to perform anywhere near their maximum to reach the FA Cup semi-finals; they were the least sloppy team rather than the best. With Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United still to play in the league, their hold on a Champions League place is slipping. The accusation is that Rodgers has suffered exactly this type of rut at each of his high-profile clubs. It’s on him to find a solution.
We should beware putting words in Danny Ings’ mouth. After career-threatening injuries and the rediscovery of football joy on the south coast, Ings may well decide against jinxing his purple patch by attempting to fix something that is not broken. The 12-month delay to the European Championship has done him no favours; he would surely have been in Gareth Southgate’s squad this summer.
But that does not mean that clubs should not try and get Ings out of Southampton. Only Jamie Vardy has scored more Premier League goals this season, and no other player in the bottom half has more than 13. After the first big move of his career went sour through no fault of his own, Ings is now at an age where he may want to take one final chance.