An air of resignation has settled over Aston Villa. It is becoming increasingly difficult to create new ways of discussing the weekly failure of this team; the bottom line is, they’re getting worse, and it is becoming unbearable to watch. It is that miserable.
Saturday’s defeat at Swansea was a fifth in the last six games, and the third by a 4-1 deficit. A once reasonable goal difference has taken a small hammering in that time, and Villa’s so-called defensive improvement is now in regression. Goals are being conceded needlessly, carelessly.
At the Liberty Stadium, three of Swansea’s were as a result of dreadfully poor play. Jonjo Shelvey’s 45-odd yard strike was masterful in its technique and will rightfully be shortlisted as a Goal of the Season contender but the midfielder was afforded the opportunity because of an embarrassing couple of errors.
Brad Guzan’s roll out to Ron Vlaar put the Villa captain in possession in a position he didn’t want to be in, with Swansea players pressing, and Vlaar's panicked hoof went directly to Shelvey. The malaise is spreading -- that was two of Villa’s most experienced and reliable players there. Both will be playing in the World Cup this summer.
Shelvey sent up Swansea’s third, the goal which settled the match. His right-wing cross fell to Pablo Hernandez, standing unmarked ten yards from goal; there was another Swans team-mate just next to him, too. Acres of space in what should have been a crowded penalty area.
The game’s final goal was downright laughable. Nathan Baker had already been booked for pulling down Marvin Emnes on the edge of the box when, barely 60 seconds later and with the ball having been returned into the area, the Villa defender barged into the back of the same player. It was a petulant, angry and frustrated foul from a centre-back looking increasingly out of his depth at this level.
Villa manager Paul Lambert’s preference for Baker over Ciaran Clark for the majority of the last few matches has been a controversial one. The conclusion, after watching Baker for the best part of two seasons, is that if Villa are to develop once again into a top-half Premier League club, he cannot be anywhere near the first X1. Maybe not even in the squad.
There was a goal to cheer the travelling support, at least, Villa’s first in three games. It was finished at close range by Gabby Agbonlahor but, more significantly, created by Marc Albrighton with a typically accurate cross from the right flank. Lambert has confirmed the winger will be offered a new contract, which is well deserved. Allowing him to leave for nothing this summer would be among the club’s worst recent decisions. And there have been plenty of those.
The buzz of Agbonlahor’s equaliser soon faded, with Shelvey’s volley restoring Swansea’s lead, and Villa simply didn’t have enough to get back into the game. Another chance to banish relegation fears wasted: it beggars belief that Lambert’s team has taken a point -- just a single point -- from games against Stoke, Manchester United, Fulham, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Swansea. Villa are in danger of becoming exactly the sort of club I used to hope would drop out of the Premier League -- hanging on in there, season on season, doing very little to improve their own situation, a team with few redeeming features. While I would never, could never, be ashamed that this is my club, for it will forever be part of my DNA, this is the third straight campaign -- actually, make that four, including the Gerard Houllier season -- Villa have been in a relegation fight, and this is now probably the worst of the lot. The team haven’t been in the bottom three at all during 2013-14 but the total collapse in form is abysmal, and indefensible.
Do Villa deserve to go down? The final league table never lies -- if Villa stay up by a single point that’s a point the team won; by the slightest of goal difference margins, the same. But this isn’t a group of players fighting to stay in the league.
Effort and commitment goes further than running hard for 90 minutes; it manifests itself in demonstrating more composure than an international central defender, the club’s captain, not shanking the ball wildly; in concentrating enough not to leave opponents unmarked in your own penalty area; in showing more discipline than piling into the back of a forward to concede an injury time spot-kick, when goal difference could ultimately make the difference between staying up, and going down.
Sunderland are giving themselves every chance, so too West Brom, who are starting every game intent on winning and, after two heart-breaking injury-time setbacks in recent weeks, beat West Ham at the weekend. The Baggies are now above Villa. Fulham are making a go of it; the Londoners, despite a season of turbulence and three different managers, have won as many games as Villa. Villa remain in control of their destiny. Beat Hull next weekend and everyone breathes easier. But there is no faith in that outcome. So, Villa fans instead look at the current bottom three of Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff, all of whom have two games each. With far worse goal difference figures, both Fulham (v Stoke and Palace) and Cardiff (v Newcastle and Chelsea) need to win their last two to climb above Villa, Norwich need four points from Chelsea and Arsenal.
If Villa can’t help themselves at all in the run-in and end up in the bottom three, relegation will be deserved after such a feeble capitulation. Sad, but true.