Was a break from fans what Aston Villa needed?
Dean Smith has just won manager of the month for December off the back of some really impressive results. A point at Stamford bridge, two midlands derby victories and 4 clean sheets - quite the achievement. He is the first manager since Martin O’Neill in 2010 to win such an award.
It is almost redundant to say how impressive Villa have been this season compared to last. The fans are fully behind the team and what Smith, Terry and Shakespeare have in mind for the future.
However, the question I have to ask is: how much has this been affected by the lack of fans at Villa Park and across the country?
Obviously, the expulsion of fans from grounds was devastating, even if necessary but since operation restart, there was a shift in the Villa team- we were sporadically good but were mostly outmatched. This is why we were sat 19th before the restart. Only Norwich were worse.
The best example of Villa’s shift was in Douglas Luiz. Before the restart, he was a bit lightweight. Yes, he had moments of brilliance like his goal against Norwich, but overall, he seemed to be out of his depth in England’s top division.
After the restart though, it was like he was a new player. As if he had played as a holding midfielder in this team for years, effortlessly demonstrating his full range of passing, leading to him becoming a fan favourite. Having continued this good form into this season I can’t help but wonder though, the effect of not being jeered instantly after making a mistake.
Has being allowed to learn from his mistakes and grow in confidence without the scrutiny of 42,000 (39,000 home fans) within moments of a blunder improved him as a player?
He is now one of my favourite players (which isn’t saying much as I love this team at the moment) and I really think that this is because he had the chance to grow without fans criticising his every misstep.
The change in performance resulted in one of the greatest relegation escapes in Premier League history.
With wins against Arsenal and Crystal Palace, along with crucial draws elsewhere, we managed to clinch 17th on the last day of the season.
I should like to think that we still could have done this with fans although if I am honest with myself, I think that the Holte end can become a little hostile.
Would the crowd have been happy with only 31% possession at home against Arsenal? Allow the players to simply defend for 60 minutes of the game? Optimistically, yes. Realistically, maybe not. Without fans, the players were allowed to play their own way and grind out the much needed three points. MUGS BELOW AVAILABLE FROM: WWW.TINYURL.COM/VILLAVISION
There is no denying that villa spent big after promotion. £143 million to be exact. Obscene amounts for a newly promoted club. We bought lots and lots of young talent. An average age of only 25 across 13 players- a lot of whom were from abroad. It was a big risk.
To start with, it was not paying off. The players needed time to adapt to the Premier League. Preferably, away from fans who had high expectations after such high expenditure (for example see Chelsea fans this year). We were 19th after 28 games, all but certain to be relegated, and the expectations walking into the ground were, let’s say… not high.
Then came the lockdown. It affected all of us. Work stopped, schools stopped, socialising stopped and football stopped too.
A few months later, after some hard graft by the people at Premier League, the league was restarted. High flying Sheffield United v 19th place Aston Villa- first game back! The game was, by today’s standard poor but at that time was a notable improvement on the 2-0 defeat at Bramall lane. Yes, we were saved by the biggest cock-up in Goal line technology history, even so, sometimes you need a bit of luck.
The game showed Villa still had some fight left in them and were able to show it even without a full Villa Park. Our young players were allowed time, whilst locked down, to work on themselves, improve and rebuild their fitness and confidence. Especially, the aforementioned Douglas Luiz.
We were not Barcelona and we never claimed to be. Nevertheless, we did enough. With a draw on the last day and our rivals losing, our young team kept us in the Premier league.
In the summer transfer window of 2020, we were able to spend far less and in much more focussed areas. Again though, on more young players: Matty Cash, 23, Ollie Watkins, 25 and Bertrand Traoré, 25.
As we have seen so far this season, all of these new signings have been a delight to watch. For me, particularly Watkins and these players were able to adapt without the scrutiny of fans, at least so far. They have played with a freedom which has not been seen inside Villa park since the O’Neill era.
I am not saying that fans are a bad thing. Of course not, I’m one of them after all and I can’t wait to get back to Villa park. My point is when you are a young player at a new club and suddenly 42,000 people with high expectations are screaming at you because you took a poor touch it can hard to build confidence straight away.
At the start of this season, the players did not have as much immediate pressure. Of course, there was expectation but when no one was shouting at Watkins after a few poor touches, he had time to grow in confidence at his new club and in his sixth appearance for Aston Villa, scored a first half perfect hat-trick against the Champions Liverpool.
Whilst with Cash, he was a bright spark in the championship, but like many others before him, may have failed to make the jump if he was getting told he was “f***ing s***” because someone beat him to the ball.
Confidence is everything in this game. See 24-year-old Timo Werner and 21-year-old Kai Havertz at Chelsea this season.
Football is a game that constantly changes but with a potentially hostile crowd, Villa may not have had the same sensational end that they had to last season. Let alone our terrific start to this season.
With the confidence in squad now and the confidence the fans have in this team, I think Villa Park will be a much better place when fans are allowed back in and hopefully performances will only be boosted by the Claret and Blue Army.
Until then, I will enjoy watching Dean Smith’s tricky Villains take it to the big boys at home on my TV and scream my opinion to twitter like everyone else.
Article by: Dan Ameghino