Aston Villa have regressed in such a bizarre manner, in such aesthetically poor conduct, in such a slow and painful way, that punters are now pondering whether relegation would actually be a good thing. A chance to take a step back, to re-evaluate, and then re-surge.
But it’s really quite a shocking turn in fortunes. Between 2006/2007 to 2010/2011 Villa finished sixth in three consecutive years, often mounting genuine top four campaigns that eventually fizzled out late on in each respective season. They were almost like a hungry lion, flexing their muscles, waiting to challenge the leaders of the pack with a sincere statement of intent. Now, in a post-Martin O’Neill age – they more resemble a whimpering, bruised and blooded dog waiting to be put out of their misery by embracing the relegation that may finally demand shake up of the club’s struggling hierarchy.
Tim Sherwood is the medic, the vet, tasked with reviving this battered animal and releasing it back into the wild with some fight and exuberance. But what that entails is tricky – he neither has a transfer window or the financial might to make serious amends, and confidence and morale are still low after a troublesome couple of months.
Last night’s victory was their first since a cagey 2-1 win over Leicester at the beginning of December, and in that time they’d only scored three times. For all of the analysis that you can vest in tactics and appropriate strategies, this is fundamentally a team who’s confidence hangs by a thread.
Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor are arguably having the worst seasons of their career. Ron Vlaar appears an entirely different package from the influential talisman that played such a pivotal role in Holland’s unbeaten World Cup run. The managerial structure was allegedly so bad in months gone by that Paul Lambert offered up his own resignation before being sacked. Twice.
From top to bottom there seems a fundamental structural flaw from within that’s condemning the club to year-on-year mediocrity. And April – perhaps the integral month to making a list minute dash to safety – is littered with two hazardous trips to Manchester and a tricky fixture at top-four chasing Tottenham.
So is it time to assume that Villa, under their inexperienced manager, are getting relegated?
It isn’t. Despite all of that adversity, Villa still have an excellent chance of surviving. It’s easy to write them off now because of their form, which is often the biggest driver of immediate public opinion. But Leicester and Burnley have much harder run ins. QPR are laden with structural difficulties more profound than Villa. A quick trip to odds-checker even indicates that the bookies are generally unanimous – for now – that there are three teams more likely of getting relegated than Sherwood’s men.
There’s also the reassuring quality of their defence, which is stronger than is appreciated. In relegation dog-fights, it’s from the back that builds you an innings of points capable of warding off the drop. Villa’s midfield, too, have been a fairly decent barrier this season, even when providing almost no attacking creativity and guile.
Crucially, there are still 11 games in this season. Sunderland only needed a run of six incredible (and inexplicable) games against title-chasing opposition this time last year to avoid a certain plunge to the Championship. Liverpool have looked dead and buried at points this season and would now look most likely to knick that elusive fourth champions league spot.
It would be lazy to write off Villa for now. Their troubles are deep rooted and in desperate need of attention, but when the relegation bailiff comes knocking on the door towards May, all sort’s can happen. Sherwood’s flair for the unconventional almost aids that idea that anything might happen, so don’t be surprised if Villa cling onto their hapless top flight status for another year.