Perhaps it might be a slight exaggeration to describe Villa’s loss by that scoreline at Chelsea as such.
But after an opening month to the season disrupted by injuries and international disputes, Saturday’s showing at Stamford Bridge provided encouragement for the weeks to come.
“Our best performance so far,” was how Dean Smith described it and several key statistics agreed. Villa registered more attempts on goal (18) than in any of their three previous Premier League matches this term. They had six attempts on target, compared to Chelsea’s four. This was a better display than their previous meeting with the Blues in May, the final match of last season.
Yet while that match ended in a 2-1 win, on Saturday Villa were comfortably beaten – at least in terms of the scoreline – primarily down to an inability to take their chances. Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea had no problems there. The Belgian striker gave a clinic on being clinical in front of goal, scoring the only two chances which came his way over the course of 90 minutes in which he touched the ball only 25 times, the least of any outfield player.
Ollie Watkins, by contrast, was a far more consistent presence in proceedings, setting the tempo for Villa’s energetic performance with tireless pressing on what was his first start of the season.
But the goal his effort deserved remained elusive, in part down to excellent goalkeeping from Edouard Mendy but also poor finishing. Having first been denied by an impressive Mendy save, Watkins really should have scored after rounding the Chelsea keeper a few minutes later but sent his shot straight at the covering Thiago Silva.
Ezri Konsa was also guilty of giving Mendy the chance to show off his reflexes later in the first half. Lukaku, when opportunities came his way, was not so generous, firing under Villa goalkeeper Jed Steer having first cut inside Axel Tuanzebe in the 15th minute, before smashing a shot into the top corner in stoppage time to crown the home side’s victory. That is what £97.5million buys you and brutal as it might be, that is the difference between the Premier League’s elite and clubs who aspire to challenge them.
A lack of ruthlessness in front of goal wasn’t the only reason for Villa returning to the Midlands empty-handed. The key moment of the match arrived four minutes into the second half when Tyrone Mings, failing to put sufficient power on his pass back to Steer, handed Mateo Kovacic the chance to double Chelsea’s lead on a plate. Until then Villa had been the better team by a fair margin. Afterwards, for all their continued endeavour, there was always a sense the game was out of reach.
Mings has played an integral role in Villa’s rise over recent seasons and remains a hugely important member of the team. But mistakes such as Saturday’s have occurred just a little too often for comfort since the club won promotion to the Premier League. If the captain and Villa are to realise their lofty ambitions in the years ahead, they need to become less frequent.
Other than offering one gift, Villa did a pretty good job of frustrating their hosts. Chelsea registered just four attempts on target and Smith’s decision to change system and switch to a back three for the first time since Project Restart could hardly be described as a bad one.
Villa’s set-up also afforded an extra body in midfield and in the first half it was the tenacity of John McGinn and fearless running of Jacob Ramsey which allowed them to take control.
While McGinn looks in better shape than at any other point in his Villa career, Ramsey appears increasingly at home in the Premier League. Having missed the 1-1 draw with Brentford prior to the international break after testing positive for Covid-19, this was the perfect way to back up his performance in last month’s win over Newcastle. Typically the most advanced of Villa’s midfield trio, his running caused no shortage of problems for the home defence.
The sense, however, is Saturday’s tactics were closer to a one-off than a sign of things to come. Though the formation allowed Smith to field both Watkins and Danny Ings as a central two, it also limited positions for his other attacking talents, with Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore having to make do with appearances from the bench. The former, making just his second appearance, provided further evidence of why his Villa career is likely to be anything but dull.
Emi Buendia, due back at Bodymoor Heath this week, will add another option for next weekend’s visit of Everton and though Saturday felt like a step in the right direction and for all that Villa appear to be getting stronger, it may be a little while yet before the head coach hits on his best XI and system. At least, as this performance proved, there is an option for flexibility.
Defeat left Villa with four points from their opening four fixtures and while there may be some mitigation, that is ultimately an underwhelming return for a team who want to rise above the level of also-rans. The visit of the Toffees, while hardly must-win, feels a significant early season marker.
Encouraging as Saturday’s performance was, you can only survive on promise for so long.