Losing at Bournemouth on the opening day of the season was a bad look for Aston Villa, and the nature of their defeat all the more so.
The result was bad and there can be no sugar-coating that. But for Aston Villa supporters catching up on their team’s 2-0 opening weekend defeat at Bournemouth, the nature of the performance might have been even more troubling than the result it produced.
Despite it coming with less than three minutes on the clock, there was an element of bad luck about the opening goal. Lucas Digne was off the pitch receiving treatment for a nosebleed when the first corner of Bournemouth’s return to the Premier League was not successfully cleared, allowing Jefferson Lerma to score from seven yards under no challenge.
This was bad enough for Villa, but there was little over the remaining 88 minutes to suggest this early goal was just an unfortunate accident.
They were sluggish and half-formed throughout the game, their chances largely limited to speculative shots from distance that made for comfortable saves for the Bournemouth goalkeeper Mark Travers, or which sailed high and/or wide.
A second goal with ten minutes to play wrapped up the points for the home side.
Aston Villa at times seemed stuck between two somewhat different tactical set-ups. There was no high press, but neither did they sit back deep in the hope of inviting their opponents to push too far forward and open up gaps behind them.
Instead, there seemed to be something like a halfway house going on, neither flesh nor fowl, and a formation which offered their opponents all the advantages of playing against a high press with none of the pressures that such a tactic is supposed to bring.
All of this makes for an uncomfortable start to Steven Gerrard’s first full season as manager. And in the trigger-happy world of modern football manager recruitment, this likely means that he will likely only have a few weeks to fix what went wrong on Saturday.
Villa’s last match before the first international break of the season – which is likely to be the first point at which those triggers start to be pulled – is against Southampton on September 16, just seven games away.
There’s a sticky period to come at the end of this month when they have to play West Ham United, Arsenal and Manchester City in successive matches.
The last time Bournemouth were promoted to the Premier League in 2015, they kicked off with a home match against Aston Villa. Villa won that game 1-0 but ended the season bottom, relegated with just 17 points. Few would believe that something quite as disastrous could happen this time around – Villa’s basket-casery at that time knew few bounds – but we’re hard-wired to see patterns, and supporters are justified in being concerned by the lack of them at Bournemouth.
Because it seems clear that this unhappiness isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to a poor result on the opening day of the season. Aston Villa tailed off in the last third of last campaign, winning just two of their last 11 league matches.
Both of those came against Burnley and Norwich City, teams that would end the season relegated.
And while the summer transfer market has hardly been incredibly busy for Villa, there was little to get too excited about in making Phillipe Coutinho’s loan from Barcelona permanent, nor the arrivals of Diego Carlos and Boubacar Kamara from Sevilla and Marseille respectively, especially when considering the loss of the highly promising Carney Chukwuemeka to Chelsea for £20m.
The ongoing simmering row over Tyrone Mings being stripped of the captaincy doesn’t seem to have helped the mood around the club either.
It would be a stretch to say that there is a ‘crisis’ at Aston Villa. That feels like over-egging the pudding. But it does feel as though there is a growing list of problems that need to be resolved, and that as time progresses those problems become all the more intractable. Not least of these is ebbing support from the fans themselves.
If that bond severs completely then the chances of Gerrard still being in his position by the end of the year start to look all the slimmer.
None of this offers much indication that Gerrard will ever be fit to be the manager of Liverpool. Gerrard has previously sought to quash the suggestion that he was only taking the Aston Villa job as a ‘stepping stone’ towards eventually replacing Jurgen Klopp or one of his successors. Setting aside that no-one in their right mind would presume that he wouldn’t accept the managerial position at a club at which he was a player for 17 years, there have been few signs over the last nine months that he has the skill set for the highest possible expectation levels.
And if there is a sense of disappointment around Villa Park at the season starting like this, that’s understandable. It is Aston Villa’s fourth campaign back in the Premier League since they returned after three seasons away, and they didn’t finish in the top half in any of the previous three.
But Aston Villa are one of the few clubs who can reasonably expect a top-half finish from the Premier League season, and the fact that they have neither managed this nor are showing many returns of improving will be frustrating.
For a club the size of Aston Villa, it seems reasonable to look at the clubs that finished above them in the Premier League last season and wonder: ‘If Brighton, Wolves and Leicester can get into the top half of the Premier League, why can’t we?’
It is obviously too early in the season to suggest that Gerrard ‘isn’t up to the Villa job’. This is the first campaign for which he’s had a full pre-season, his record at Rangers was good and the experience he picked up over a very lengthy top-flight career is valuable.
But there were few signs at The Vitality Stadium that having a full pre-season with the team has improved them considerably, and after three seasons of treading relative water that push towards a European place doesn’t seem any closer than it was a couple of years ago.
With three weeks of the transfer window still to go and only one match played so far there’s plenty of time to fix this. But trigger-fingers can be itchy these days, and the owners of the club are unlikely to tolerate so few visible signs of improvement in the team for much longer.
None of this spells good news for Steven Gerrard, who is under pressure as a result of more than just the Bournemouth showing alone. The early signs are that something needs to change at Villa Park if Aston Villa are to have much chance of making the progress their supporters have been waiting for.