A rare visit by your humble correspondent to Villa Park brought back fond memories of Bavarian compatriot Thomas Hitzlsperger in the claret and blue, but also less obviously, post-match, Abraham Maslow’s old observation that he is nicknamed the former midfielder in the center.
After Liverpool’s 3-1 home defeat on Christmas Day, Villa fans chanted that the club must spend money on improving their attacking force. This, of course, is not unlike the cries of most supporters and observers of the world’s richest league whenever a club’s shortcomings are discussed.
The answer, it always seems, is to buy new players. As Maslow wrote in 1966: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything like a nail.”
And while it is true that Villa need to score more goals if they are to climb the table, there is plenty of potential within their current squad to correct their shortcomings.
That starts with senior forward Ollie Watkins. He hasn’t had a great season so far and has scored just three league goals, putting him on course to record his worst season at Villa in terms of goals since arriving from Brentford in 2020.
The 26-year-old’s underlying numbers also make grim reading. Over the past 365 days, he has been well below average in key performance indicators such as expected goals and shots per 90 minutes compared to other centre-forwards in Europe’s top five leagues.
Defensively, Watkins has been better on the ball of late and with Unai Emery expected to see other areas of his game improve quickly as well. Nor is he the only Villa player whose individual form has dipped during Steven Gerrard’s time in charge.
And, encouragingly for Villa, there were signs on Christmas Day that his fortunes could soon improve.
Yes, he missed a couple of chances against Liverpool, but it’s arguable that he was still the most effective striker for either team in the game.
Compared to Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez, whose erratic performance seemed to defy all logic and reason, Watkins exuded attacking intelligence.
Emery used a two-forward system with Watkins and Leon Bailey out of touch, allowing the former to slot in on the left of centre, between Liverpool duo Joel Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
He eluded both at times during the game, especially when Villa attacked from the right and was able to hide in Matip’s shadow.
He failed to capitalize on a John McGinn reverse cross in the 16th minute when he failed to connect properly, but he made no mistake in the 59th minute when he finished off a similar move with a header to bring Villa back into the game later. down 2-0
Three of his four shots (combined xG: 0.68) were on goal. Even the best strikers don’t take all their chances, but it’s important that they still produce high-quality shots, which Watkins did against Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Watkins looks set to be one of the main beneficiaries of Emery’s fluid 4-2-2-2 system and the Spaniard’s penchant for having as many attacking players as possible operating in close proximity.
Emery spoke of ‘positivity’ after defeat to Liverpool but question marks remain for Villa (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
That got the best of Danny Ings in Villa’s last game before the World Cup break against Brighton on November 13, so there’s no reason Watkins can’t thrive too.
Against Liverpool’s high line, Watkins’ pace and movement were so good that it meant Villa bypassed the midfield for most of the first half.
“(To be blunt) it wasn’t our game plan at all, to be honest,” Ashley Young told Sky Deutschland after the final whistle. “But it worked, so we kept doing it.”
It worked in the sense that Villa looked dangerous when going forward, but the downside was less possession than the opposition and a general lack of control.
This was further evidenced as Liverpool took advantage of the absence of a third man in midfield with neat triangles into the half spaces.
Villa were more dominant in the second half after Lucas Digne pushed up and Bailey deflected wide. This saw Emiliano Buendia and McGinn step up and play centrally; meaning they were using a formation similar to 3-2-4-1 when he was on the ball.
As the visitors tried to finish the game off, Villa played their best football with short, sharp passing. However, this left large gaps behind. On another day, he could have tied this game, but he could just as easily have lost 5-1.
When it comes to injecting more balance into the wing, Emery will have to weigh up whether Bailey’s attacking contributions are good enough to continue using him as a second striker. The Jamaican is an effective dribbler, but his shooting isn’t high and his passing is atrocious – 99 percent of players in Europe’s top five leagues have a higher pass percentage than him.
An in-form Philippe Coutinho, who was introduced alongside Ings and Leander Dendoncker with just five minutes remaining, could prove more of a threat, as would the use of Buendia in a more attacking role.
Either way, this Villa team looks much better equipped to create chances in this new set-up, with a rejuvenated and happy Watkins in the middle.
But for all the “positivity” that Emery and his players talked about after this wonderfully chaotic game, some questions remain.
The Spaniard’s current system is inherently high-risk and will need a lot of improvement out of possession if he is not to give away the initiative in most games.
To put it in Hitzlsperger’s terms, it will be a lot of fun to watch this Villa team try to hit the opposition. But they better be prepared to absorb a few almighty hits along the way.
(Top photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)