After falling to a dismal 2-1 defeat to Leicester last week in the Premier League, Aston Villa return to top-flight action when they take on Leeds United on Saturday afternoon at Elland Road.
Dean Smith’s side have enjoyed an incredible second campaign back in the Premier League, staying well in the hunt for a shock European place next season.
And while things have been rosy for a number of months now, a couple of chinks in the Villa armour have started to emerge. Injuries to both Jack Grealish and Matty Cash have robbed the side of two key players in the starting eleven, while Smith must make a big call on the woefully out-of-form Ross Barkley.
The Chelsea loanee has had a rough time as of late, struggling to recapture his early season form following his comeback from a hamstring injury. In seven out of the last eight Premier League games, he’s been taken off before the full-time whistle, and Smith must finally say enough is enough, and take him out of the line-up when they visit Leeds.
Speaking after he was hauled off yet again in the second-half against Leicester, Sky Sports pundit Alex Scott slammed the midfielder for his display, saying: “For me it’s another missed opportunity for Ross Barkley to show up and demand, he’s been subbed off again and you can see in his face he’s not happy. But how many chances does a player need?
“You need to take it upon yourself. There’s only so many chances that he can be deserving. He’s missed another opportunity today.”
The Villa boss however was quick to dismiss any suggestion that Barkley’s move at Villa had gone sour, insisting: “It’s a long way off the mark to say things aren’t working out for him. His numbers have been really good in terms of his output on the pitch and we have to remember he’s been out for six or seven weeks with a hamstring injury and then had to play games to recapture that fitness because we haven’t been able to train.
“But he’s certainly getting back to where we want him to. I just needed to change the game at that time.”
While it’s rather unsurprising Smith leapt to his player’s defence, it is a slightly baffling take to claim that Barkley is getting back to his best. The England international has scored just one Premier League goal since mid-October when he netted the winner against Leicester, and for a player playing in his position of just behind the striker, that simply isn’t enough.
His lack of goals may not be that much of an issue if he were setting his teammates up instead, but his assists total have badly dried up too – he hasn’t done so since a 3-0 victory over Arsenal in early November.
The Athletic’s Gregg Evans suggested on the 1874 podcast that Barkley appears to be “playing with a bit of fear”, and admitted that the attacking midfielder “needs to be dropped” following his latest lacklustre display against the Foxes.
Valued at £17.5m by CIES, Barkley simply needs to be taken out of the firing line when Villa make the trip to Leeds on late Saturday afternoon.