Analysis: Aston Villa back on the canvas after sobering Manchester City defeat
Villa’s first season back in the Premier League was always going to include its share of difficult days.
Yet it is questionable whether, even in his worst nightmares, Dean Smith imagined there would be afternoons quite so sobering as this.
The first thing to say about Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 6 is the scoreline flattered the hosts. Were it not for some brave last-ditch defending and poor finishing, the champions might well have hit double figures.
Instead, the final roar came from the home crowd after Anwar El Ghazi blasted home a stoppage time penalty to ensure there was no repeat, at least in terms of the score, of the notorious Valentine’s Day Massacre at the hands of Liverpool in 2016.
That was the moment, during Villa’s last top flight campaign, when you knew they were sunk.
Though the current situation might be nowhere near so bleak - Smith’s men are back in the bottom three but just a point from safety - this was still an occasion which raised serious questions about whether they have enough to dig themselves out of trouble and avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
Smith was right to point out, in the immediate aftermath, that fixtures against the likes of City are not the ones which will ultimately define Villa’s season.
But defeats of this manner can still seriously damage the belief of a team who, in recent performances, had at least shown glimpses of rediscovering some poise.
It is also true Villa's recent home record, which Smith has always claimed would define the campaign, suddenly looks rather shabby. Villa have lost three of the last four on their own patch and conceded 13 goals in the process.
All told, this was a deflating day, which erased in 90 minutes much of the optimism garnered by encouraging displays at Burnley and Leicester.
The immediate challenge for the boss is to raise spirits ahead of the pivotal trio of fixtures, against Brighton, Watford and Bournemouth, which lead into the winter break.
City, it must be said, were excellent. Sergio Aguero’s hat-trick saw him surpass Thierry Henry as the Premier League’s all-time overseas top scorer. Some of the passes played by Kevin De Bruyne bordered on breathtaking.
Pep Guardiola’s team can rarely, however, have had things quite so easy. Villa’s problem was less an inability to land a glove on the visitors and more a failure to actually throw a punch in the first place. City’s class is indisputable, yet this felt like a meek surrender.
Smith later bemoaned his players for not putting sufficient pressure on their opponent though he might reflect, in hindsight, on whether his own surprisingly negative tactics were a factor.
The decision to tweak a system which had worked so well at Burnley and Leicester, by sacrificing an attacker for an extra midfielder, was on the surface understandable for a match in which Villa were always going to be on the back foot.
Yet in practice it merely meant the hosts, already playing without a recognised striker, had even less of a presence up front, with the result almost the entire match ended up being played in their own half.
There was simply no way to release the pressure and by the time Smith could even consider changing things, it was too late. City scored three times between the 18th and 28th minutes and from then on it was always a case of damage limitation.
For all the efforts of the hard-working El Ghazi, this was another match which highlighted Villa’s increasingly desperate need to sign at least one striker before the month is out. Considering the importance of the fixtures to come by then, time really is of the essence.
On an afternoon when no Villa player emerged with much credit, it was a particularly testing occasion for two in particular.
In goal, Orjan Nyland was unable to back up his excellent showing at Leicester with the kind of performance which might convince Villa they are making a mistake by signing Pepe Reina.
The Norway international should probably have done better with Riyad Mahrez’s opener, which crept inside the near post. He certainly should with Aguero’s first and City’s third, which flew through his hands on route to the top corner.
Even so, Nyland’s afternoon was a relative picnic compared to that experienced by Danny Drinkwater. Handed just his seventh Premier League start in nearly two-and-a-half years less than a week after joining on loan from Chelsea, the midfielder looked incredibly rusty and could not keep pace with City’s attackers.
Having failed to challenge Mahrez for the opener, he was then guilty of getting caught on the ball just 10 yards from his own goal just five minutes later and could only look on in horror as the Algerian thumped home his second of the match.
When Aguero then quickly added a third a humiliating afternoon began to look inevitable.
Gabriel Jesus, who had already gone close when he fired just over, made it four with virtually the last kick of the first-half.
With Smith opting not to make any changes at the break, Villa were unable to stem the flow and City’s fifth, just before the hour mark, came after Ahmed Elmohamady and Tyrone Mings both missed David Silva’s pass and Aguero rode two challenges before firing home.
The hosts, to their credit, kept battling but the occasion was now no more than a training match and when the weary Kortney Hause presented Silva with the ball 25 yards out, he teed up Aguero for the sixth.
Villa, who had barely threatened, then got on the scoresheet when Ilkay Gundogan felled Trezeguet and El Ghazi blasted home the spot-kick.
The penalty at least repaired some of the damage done to Villa’s goal difference, something which might yet become a factor a few months from now.
In the short-term there is a trip to Brighton, where a response is imperative, particularly with the visit of a resurgent Watford looming just a week tomorrow.
Smith may find solace in the fact his team were able to rebound from last month’s dire defeat at Vicarage Road. Yet Sunday’s result should kill, for now, any talk of resurgence. Not for the first time in recent weeks, Villa must once again find a way of climbing off the canvas.
Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.