The Villa Grealish Dichotomy

Considering they have just put in their best performance in a big game, it may not be the most opportune time to say this. I have not been impressed by Aston Villa this season. Many observers will disagree. The overriding narrative of their season has been one of playing good football without getting just rewards. Now, I can’t speak for others, but just because a team plays vertically doesn’t necessarily mean they are playing well. Some examples to illustrate my point further.

Earlier in the season Villa were 2-1 up against ten men at the Emirates. Remember, this was Unai Emery’s Arsenal. The Villains still ended up losing 3-2. It wasn’t a hard luck story. Arsenal actually dominated despite their numerical disadvantage and deserved the comeback win. A few rounds later, Dean Smith’s men were 1-0 up against Liverpool at Villa Park. Despite having the lead, it was alarming how many counterattacking moves the Reds were able to orchestrate, and while it is easy to say with hindsight, it really wasn’t a surprise that the table-toppers left with a late win.

Both cases were presented as heartbreak, but to my eyes both results were just and reflect a season-long pattern of Villa not really understanding the flow of the game. They have been tactically poor, not really understanding how to protect leads while also appearing a tad clueless when chasing games. Their attack hasn’t been good enough and their defence has shown varying levels of naïveté.

It is in attacking midfield that they have shone brightest and it is here that I bring in the nuance. Yes, I am not impressed with Villa, but I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Jack Grealish. To my mind, he has been one of the best midfielders to watch in England this season. I now get why Spurs were so interested in signing him during the summer they signed nobody. I now get why there was so much hype about this player and I can totally see what pundits were saying about him being the best player in the Championship, without having watched a lot of that division myself.

It’s no surprise that he is the Villains leading goal scorer, assister and passer this season. Grealish is a technical footballer’s dream. He has a varied passing range allied with easy dribbling and an excellent shot. He sees passes that nobody sees and is always an option for his teammates because he can be found in good positions, perennially drifting into open spaces. On a recent episode of the Totally Football Show, Michael Cox said he is an old-school midfielder who just knows how to run things. It is probably the reason that makes him such a joy to watch. Pass, move, pass, create, pass, shoot. All the while looking elegant and classy on the ball.

Then there’s the leadership. He is a boyhood Aston Villa fan. His passion for his team clearly shows in his game. His inspirational qualities are easy to see, without being an overtly chest-thumping heart-on-sleeve captain in the classic British sense. To Grealish, leading the team means being accountable. Need a moment of magic, Grealish is your man. Under pressure, give the ball to Grealish. He could have left when they were relegated from the Premier League. Yet he stayed and led them back to the top division. The actions speak louder than the words and that’s refreshing.

Make no mistake, Aston Villa are mired in an increasingly complex relegation battle. Arguably, a team — maybe even two — could be relegated this season without necessarily deserving it. As of one the big historical clubs in England, the pressure is even greater on Villa to survive. There is no question about who is the most integral protagonist at Villa Park. In truth, when people say Aston Villa have been good to watch, what they are really seeing, is that Jack Grealish has made them look good. Villa’s fate is inextricably linked with that of their captain’s.

The VAR “crisis”

Adam Crafton writing about VAR on the Athletic makes a lot of valid points about the prism through which we saw referee’s mistakes before VAR:

It suited players because it deflected from their own shortcomings and mistakes. It suited managers because it gave them somebody else to blame. It suited supporters because it gave them somebody else to shout at. It suited live television broadcasters, because it provided material to fill the post-match hour with their handsomely-remunerated pundits in the studio.  It suited highlight shows because these were isolated incidents easy to identify and scrutinise in a short, time-confined period. It suited newspapers, particularly for late games, as it was quick, easy copy for journalists filing on late deadlines.

It is important to remember this context when dealing with the maelstrom around VAR. Those who are shouting loudest against VAR are the same people who were shouting loudest against the competence of referees. I think if football media and perhaps more importantly football fans were just a bit philosophical, they would see that a referee’s mistake would very rarely be the underlying factor in a result.

Mark Ogden also wrote a strong piece on ESPNFC about VAR:

“Some people are saying it gets the right decision, but we’re the players on the pitch and it doesn’t feel right to me,” Wolves defender Conor Coady said after his team had lost 1-0 at Liverpool on Sunday following two key VAR decisions. The first, when referee Anthony Taylor’s decision to disallow Sadio Mane’s goal for Liverpool following a handball call against Adam Lallana was overturned, and the second, when VAR ruled out Pedro Neto’s goal after Jonny had strayed marginally offside in the build-up. Both decisions were correct, so what does Coady want? Decisions that keep everybody happy even if they are wrong?

I think Ogden hits the crux of the issue with his question. Whether supporters admit it or not, a vast majority of them can only see things through a tribal lens. It’s not surprising to me in the least, that footballers are now echoing the fans and playing to the gallery with such nonsensical and irrelevant quotes.

We can have a legitimate debate about how the Premier League has implemented VAR and why they have introduced barriers and elements that no other leagues and competitions use. We may even come across some good solutions as a result of said debate. In an ideal world, the football ecosystem would be a mature one and we wouldn’t need VAR. But unfortunately for inexplicable reasons tribalism and petulance is rampant. That’s why we have VAR now. The least we can do is accept it for what it is, celebrate the correct decisions and just be patient as VAR evolves.

Pellegrini’s time at West Ham

I like Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has always come across as a person with dignity and humility. When you consider the fact that he has riled even the best managers of this era with mostly unfancied teams playing good football, the sense of rooting for him only grows. Hence, I feel for Pellegrini being sacked by West Ham.

Have West Ham made the right decision? On account of what has transpired this season, it would be hard to argue against the logic of letting Pellegrini go. Very few managers, even those at clubs that regularly win trophies, have the luxury of handpicking their director of football. Pellegrini had that with Mario Husillos. The two Davids that own West Ham went all in on Pellegrini. They backed him in the transfer market and while some may say their summer spending wasn’t the wisest, I still think they actually bought well in the summer, and in due time we’ll see the value of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals to name two of their new recruits.

Some may argue that Pellegrini was a victim of both, expectations and circumstance. Perhaps there is an element of truth to this. With the money spent on the squad, West Ham were considered candidates for sixth at the beginning of the season. The problem was that there were a few other teams also expected to gatecrash the European spots, and we’ve seen the consequences at some of those clubs. Then there was the injury to Lukasz Fabianski. Until that fateful day, West Ham were riding high in the table.

It is important to note that for attacking mid table teams, an injury to a proven goalkeeper like Fabianski is a serious blow. It was immediately evident that Roberto was nowhere near good enough to be a keeper in the Premier League. West Ham started leaking goals and their form fell of the cliff. Here comes the first serious question for Pellegrini. Once it was clear for everyone to see, why did the beleagured manager take so long to bench Roberto and give third choice David Martin a chance? When he finally did axe Roberto, West Ham got a clean sheet in the win at Stamford Bridge.

But that bounce wasn’t sustained. And perhaps this is where Pellegrini’s harshest and most justified criticism comes into play. When you have a goalkeeper like Fabianski who can win you points, you can afford to play creative players who won’t necessarily track back and do the hard yards defensively. Such an approach means you may suffer some embarrassing defeats, but you will also get to delight in thrilling wins and performances, including against big teams. For a team in mid table this is fine. 

There are two scenarios however where this approach backfires. The first is if you strive to be a team that finishes higher than a position between eigthth and twelfth. The second is when you’re battling relegation. West Ham started the season aiming for the former but the latter has taken over in the last two months. And yet Pellegrini stuck to his simple template, believing a variety of creative attacking players would get West Ham the results, while Declan Rice and Mark Noble were consistently getting overrun in midfield. A defence that was losing confidence with each passing game had no protection. Nothing changed. Pellegrini kept giving vague platitudes about playing football the right way and little else when it came to a sense of direction.

Maybe if Fabianski had never got injured in the first place, Pellegrini’s Hammers would still be in the top half of the table. We will never know. But a manager of Pellegrini’s experience should never have been in a position where one injury derailed a campaign so easily. Nor is too much to expect a manager to address issues and come up with solutions to problems with such an expensively assembled squad.

Does this mean Pellegrini was a failure at West Ham? I don’t think so. They finished 10th last season playing some good football, and over his season and a half the Hammers gained some excellent wins and draws against the big six. It’s just that expectations increased and circumstances changed. Pellegrini lacked the ability to inspire consistency from his players that could have taken the team to a higher level. He also lacked the gravitas to demand greater effort and discipline when things got tougher on the field. When change was needed, he seemed devoid of tactical ideas or creative solutions to address the slide down the table. Ultimately he had to go and while he may not be universally missed, for those who respect gentlemen in the game, his loss from the Premier League will be felt.

A game-changing injury or a poor substitution?

Lazio’s 3-1 win over Juventus was one of the more remarkable Serie A games I have seen recently. For the first hour Juve took the game to the hosts and were completely on top. The interchange of positions, crisp passing and fantastic movement were topped off by an excellent team goal to put the Bianconeri deservedly ahead. Then Rodrigo Bentancur got injured and Maurizio Sarri put on Emre Can in the Uruguayan’s plance. The game completely changed, Lazio got a foothold and crucially got the vital equalizer on the stroke of halftime. On resumption, Juve looked like a team of strangers and never threatened. Lazio deservedly won.

The question that Sarri has to ask as he ponders his first defeat as Juve boss, was whether he made the right choice in bringing Can on or was Bentancur so inspired that no other midfielder could match him on the day? That neither Miralem Pjanic nor Blaise Matuidi were able to shoulder responsibility will be cause for concern and the fact that the manager hasn’t yet been able to inspire Adrien Rabiot to reach standards that are expected at Juve is also troubling. I still think Juve made the right choice in appointing Sarri to develop a more progressive style of football. But why is it that after a brilliant month of aggressive football in October, Sarri’s team is starting to resemble Allegri’s version from last year? The key could be the pedestrain midfield. Without that base playing well, it’s going to be hard for Sarri’s revolution to take off.

Assessing Gladbach’s win over Bayern

It’s important to look at Gladbach’s win over Bayern with objectivity. First of all Borussia Park has always been a difficult place for Bayern to visit. Even Pep’s Bayern lost there a couple of times and it’s clear that the Foals raise themselves to another level when they host the perennial champions.

However, it’s been a long time since Gladbach welcomed Bayern as equals, at least according to the table. I think this clearly weighed on the league leaders once the game got underway because the occasion got to them. For the first 60 minutes Bayern were getting a flashback of last weekend, where they dominated Leverkusen, created chance after chance but failed to score.

It was almost like Bayern needed to score for Gladbach to feel like their natural place in the pecking order was restored. Now more comfortable as passionate underdogs, the home side finally dug in, fuelled by Marco Rose throwing caution to the wind and bringing Breel Embolo on. They duly equalized, in some part down to Bayern’s lackadaisical set piece defending, but one sensed the tide had turned.

In truth, despite being roared on by a passionate crowd, I can’t recall Gladbach doing anything particularly incisive other than Marcus Thuram giving Bayern’s defence a bloody nose with his runs and trickery. A draw seemed likely, and I don’t think the hosts would have been too disappointed.

Then came the penalty in stoppage time, again thanks to that man Thuram. Considering what was at stake, left back Remy Bensebaini showed incredible composure to wait and pick his corner exactly to give the leaders a memorable win.

The result means Gladbach stay on top of the Bundesliga for the 8th consecutive week. Despite this remarkable run, it’s too early to say the Foals are contenders, let alone favourites. That being said, the nature of this win, when they were nowhere near their best for a long time and still managed to beat the champions while coming from behind, speaks volumes for their confidence. If they can maintain this momentum till the winter break and keep a position in the top two, then come January, we really can say that Marco Rose’s men are genuine title contenders in Germany.