Broadcasting the stroppy angst of a schoolboy who had just missed the deciding penalty in the county cup final, a dejected Tim Sherwood identified ‘individual errors’ as the root cause of Aston Villa’s capitulation on Sunday, as Leicester City’s twenty-minute three-goal comeback left the Birmingham outfit empty-handed and in 15th place in the Premier League table.
“We lost control when they scored their first goal,” lamented the Villa boss after full time. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t wrestle the momentum back from them. We kept giving the ball back to them. The game should have been finished with 30 minutes left because we were 2-0 up. It was individual errors – we aim to stop that.”
Yet, I’ve always found ‘individual errors’ a rather hollow excuse for Premier League managers. On occasion it is certainly applicable; when the spirit of Heurelho Gomes possesses a goalkeeper to let a last-minute daisy cutter trickle under his body, instantaneously turning three points into one, for example.
But the responsibility rests with the manager to sign players who aren’t error-prone, just as it’s their responsibility to implement the confidence and composure that stops players taking a turn for the Titus Brambles when under pressure. If you’re talking about a group of players repeatedly making mistakes, even in the short time span of half an hour, there must be a more intrinsic and systematic factor than simply a spate of disconnected gaffes.
[ffc-gal cat=”aston-villa” no=”5″]
And no matter how many gilets Sherwood rips from his back to thrusts towards the ground in demonstration of his passion, disappointment and anger towards the 3-2 defeat, the most detrimental ‘individual error’ of the afternoon was indisputably his – substituting Carles Gil after 65 minutes.
The Spaniard had just netted a strike that demanded technical quality of the highest order, a curler from just outside the box with enough spin and power to jet past a helpless Kasper Schmeichel into the top left corner of the onion bag. Any more or any less precision, bend and speed, and the shot would have fizzled wide or tamely into the Leicester City goalkeeper’s clutches.
It was a goal that epitomised the 22-year-old’s instrumental contribution to Villa’s lead. He was the Birmingham outfit’s trickiest customer, recording two shots, one created chance, two successful dribbles and winning two free kicks in the space of an hour to cause serial problems for Leicester No.3 Jeffrey Schlupp on the right-hand side.
So one can only imagine Gil’s frustration in being benched just seconds after bagging a Goal of the Month contender to give Aston Villa a two-goal cushion, hooked by Sherwood during the first break in play after Leicester City had restarted from the kick-off. But any disappointment the attacking midfielder felt was soon eclipsed by his team-mates’, Sherwood’s and Villa’s as a collective – as a direct consequence of his abrupt departure.
Indeed, Gil was not only the best player on the pitch in the first 65 minutes but also his side’s most important outlet going forward; the only Villa player to finish the match with a pass completion rate above 90% and the only attacker who succeeded in outthinking, rather than outpacing or outpowering, the Leicester backline. When he left the pitch, Villa were edging possession and pass success rate over the home side; by the final whistle, both statistics had been overturned.
Gil’s exit lost Villa their foothold in the final third. Not all but a significant proportion of their most effective attacking play, especially as the game went on and opened up, had passed through him. Meanwhile, the former Valencia starlet’s replacement, £12million summer signing Jordan Ayew, failed to have any positive influence on the match; his contribution being just six passes and two drawn fouls in the space of half an hour.
It may seem rather superficial, simplistic and sensationalist to place one substitution at the core of Villa’s capitulation – as simplistic as lamenting ‘individual errors’, one might dare to argue. There were still eleven players on the pitch trying to protect a two-goal lead against an in-form yet by no means star-studded Leicester City outfit. Likewise, it’s not as if Gil has been at the epicentre of Villa’s results under Sherwood; this was his first start of the season. With half an hour to go, the vast majority expected the Villains to see the game out.
But the timing of midfielder’s departure sent out a clear message to the rest of the team. No more wonder goals, no more breakaway attacks; sit deep, suck up pressure and batten down the hatches. Villa began to lump the ball forward aimlessly not only because their most effective outlet was missing, but because Sherwood had subliminally suggested that all-out-defence mantra – even if it was unintentionally.
When quizzed on the substitution after the game, Sherwood insisted he tried to protect a player who had only recently returned from injury. To an extent that may be true. But would another five or ten minutes on the pitch, ensuring Villa’s shape and mentality didn’t change instantaneously, really have affected Gil’s fitness so gravely? Seconds before, he was sharp and fit enough to arrive late on the counter-attack and net a worldie.
Likewise, the cynics among us – including myself – will question a stereotypically English manager, always protruding passion and enthusiasm over style and tactical nous, substituting a diminutive playmaker for a more athletic and industrious counterpart.
Removing a player Sherwood viewed as a potential defensive liability when protecting a lead counter-intuitively kick-started Villa’s sudden demise. Whilst the Geezer-gaffer offers all the emotional commitment and candid quips one could want in a Premier League manager, his understanding of the game still leaves much to be desired.