For all Villa's positive progress in recent months and the £200million-plus spent on players since promotion back to the Premier League, Jack Grealish remains their one component close to indispensable.
Sunday's defeat to Leicester was the third match the skipper has missed in the last two seasons and Villa have lost all three. During Dean Smith’s reign, they have won only three of the 16 league games Grealish has not started.
So superb has been the 25-year-old’s form this season, meanwhile, the question of whether Villa could do it without him had almost been rendered redundant. His loss would be a significant one to any team in the Premier League, with the possible exception of Manchester City.
Even so, Smith would have hoped his outfit would make a much better fist of coping without him than they did in the first-half against the Foxes.
Grealish’s absence was not enough to explain some seriously below par showings from team-mates who, in the circumstances, would have been expected to step up and fill the breach.
Shorn of their talisman, Villa were devoid of drive, barely getting out of their own half before falling 2-0 down to goals from James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.
An improved second half showing at least restored some pride and optimism. Bertrand Traore pulled a goal back but an equaliser never looked likely and by the end there was a sense the issues in Villa’s attack, already misfiring in previous weeks, had been further exposed. With or without Grealish, they have been looking like a team in need of a shake-up.
Plenty of post-match focus, once again, fell on another underwhelming performance from Ross Barkley. With Grealish absent, this appeared the ideal opportunity for the Chelsea loanee to make himself the focal point but instead he was difficult to spot during a first-half which largely passed him by, with England boss Gareth Southgate watching on from the stands.
When Barkley first joined Villa the move appeared an opportunity for the midfielder to rejuvenate his international career. Increasingly, the question is becoming less whether he can break back into the England team and more whether he is still worthy of a place in Villa’s?
There is, admittedly, a sense recent circumstances have conspired against him. Barkley’s return from a near two-month injury lay-off coincided with the closure of Villa’s training ground due to a coronavirus outbreak. Playing his way back into match fitness and form in competitive matches was never going to be an easy task.
Yet now eight matches since his return, performances have been mixed at best. Though Smith once more launched a robust post-match defence of the 27-year-old, who was again substituted, the head coach’s patience must surely be wearing thin.
Lively substitute cameos from Jacob Ramsey and Morgan Sanson will certainly have provided food for thought, albeit both players had the advantage of playing against tired legs as Leicester dropped deep and held on for a 2-1 win.
Barkley was far from the only man below par during the opening 45 minutes though at least Traore and John McGinn, to name another two, were able to restore some credit during the second half.
A large portion of praise must also go to Leicester, who in the early exchanges were suffocating in their press and ruthless when their opportunities arrived. It is probable Villa would have been beaten even if Grealish had played and the Foxes, who look well on course to claim a Champions League berth this season, are in many respects an inspiration to clubs with similarly lofty long-term goals.
Had Villa won yesterday they would have moved within seven points of their visitors, with two matches in hand. Though talk of chasing down Brendan Rodgers’ team appears almost foolish in retrospect, it does serve as a reminder to the strides taken by Smith’s men this season. Recent disappointments still require some perspective.
Whether Villa can remain the race for a top-six finish and Europa League qualification in all likelihood rests on the health of Grealish. Smith remained coy on the prognosis, declining to disclose which part of the leg is causing his captain discomfort (it is thought to be the shin) or clarity on the length of his absence, though it is not expected to be long-term.
Such comments have caused concern among supporters, who recall similar uncertainty around the injury which ultimately saw Grealish miss three months of Villa’s promotion-winning campaign.
Though there is an insistence the problem this time is nowhere near so serious, at the very least it seems Grealish will miss Saturday’s trip to Leeds and possibly the matches against Sheffield United and Wolves in the following week too. With just 15 games remaining and at a stage of the season when each takes on a little greater importance than the last, even losing him for a couple of weeks could be significant.
Villa certainly won’t take any risks. Grealish will only return when he is ready and Smith has never been a manager to fret on things which are beyond his control.
One issue he will be looking to fix between now and Saturday is Villa’s alarming recent tendency for slow starts.
Yesterday it cost them dear as Leicester established a stranglehold on the game even before Maddison opened the scoring.
His 19th minute opener arrived after Barnes had reacted quickest to a second ball and found his team-mate 25 yards out. With Tyrone Mings a little slow to close the space, Maddison shaped his shot around the defender with a fingertip touch from Emiliano Martinez deflecting the ball onto the post and in.
Martinez will then feel he should have done better than parry Jamie Vardy’s left-footed strike back into the danger zone four minutes later, yet it was the sharp reactions of Barnes compared to Ahmed Elmohamady which again proved costly as he hammered in the rebound.
Leicester didn’t carve out too much in the way of clear opportunities after that as Villa steadied themselves. When Traore fired past Schmeichel from six yards out two minutes into the second half, a comeback looked possible.
But it never came to fruition as Villa, without Grealish to lead the way, found inspiration sorely lacking.