By Adam Clark @AdamClarkers @TLE_Sport
For a brief moment at the start of this season Aston Villa soared improbably and gloriously into third place. But the Premier League is a harsh mistress, especially when you play Ciaran Clark at centre-back. 4 losses, 11 goals conceded and 0 goals scored. Like Icarus, Villa flew too close to the sun and are now paying the price.
Those in claret and blue will feel a strange sense of being punished for their early insolence. 5 matches in a row against last season’s top 5 – Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Everton – seems just a little cruel. To have several first team players pulled out of matches because they were vomiting during warm-up seems savagely farcical. To have the team’s spine in Ron Vlaar and Fabian Delph both injured and targets of the transfer market´s insatiable appetite just feels normal.
The bitter truth of course is that there is no conspiracy or tragic fate, only the brutal mill of Premier League football where to stand still is not just to fall behind but to be devoured and spat out in bloody chunks. Heroic defences around the box have fallen victim to the wizardry of Ozil, the predatory instincts of Diego Costa and the irrepressible joy of Leighton Baines in acres of space down the left. The talent of the top sides simply will always punish a side that has played as negatively as Aston Villa – at least unless it’s Liverpool’s attackers doing the job.
On the few occasions that the Villans have seen the ball, they have been faced with the imposing distance of the entire pitch to cover and the unfamiliar territory of the opposition goal on the other side, and found themselves unequal to the task. Desperate dashes up the field have broken down in an astonishing variety of ways, with ‘passing the ball directly to a defender’ top of the list.
There are perfectly valid statistical and tactical reasons for Villa’s rapid decline; a malfunctioning 4-3-3 with no real defensive midfielder; attacking players of the erratic quality of Charles N´Zogbia and a back-four which can’t seem to stay fit for more than one game in a row; an utter lack of pressing or finishing quality and a tendency to compress into one amorphous mass around Brad Guzan’s goal; Roy Keane shaving his beard.
But the more dramatically inclined (and what football fan does not indulge in a little bit of mythologizing?) will see it differently. Villa’s struggles are their ordained fate, the slow decline of a grand old side in the face of the hyper-competitive frenzy of the modern Premier League. To return to mid-table is only to resume their proper place in the order of things. The next fixture against QPR should help determine whether that is to remain the case or if the decline might be moving into its terminal phase and the sweet release of relegation.
Meanwhile attention can shift to the next pretenders to the throne. Villa’s claret and blue brothers-in-arms West Ham can test their new-found positivity against Man City. Southampton offer the more intriguing prospect – but Villa fans will be watching with a certain measure of cynicism.
Adam is a regular writer for SB Nation. Read more here: http://7500toholte.sbnation.com/