Psychologists say one common symptom of anxiety is a tendency to catastrophise, meaning to expect the worst outcome in every situation. Dean Smith used the same word this week, not for the first time, when discussing the ailments Aston Villa must remedy if they are to clamber out of the Premier League’s relegation zone. Villa’s next three matches, starting with Brighton on Saturday, are against teams also fighting to avoid the drop. Smith’s men cannot afford to approach those games with a sense of impending doom.
Villa have played very well at times. But too often fear has appeared to render them timid and sloppy. “We can catastrophise goals too quickly,” said Smith in December, after the home defeat by Southampton. Last weekend they started promisingly against Manchester City but unravelled so badly after Riyad Mahrez scored in the 18th minute that they were 4-0 down by half-time, on course for a 6-1 defeat. Smith says his team must learn to remain confident no matter what.
“When you concede a goal, you don’t catastrophise it. [Against City] we backed off and did not engage [after falling behind] … That’s just not good enough, it was naivety on our part and we’ve spoken about that at length.”
Opta statistics show that Villa have made more mistakes leading to chances for opponents than any other team in the league this season. Sometimes to dread the worst has been to invite it.
“The players need to stamp it out,” says Smith. “If they’re making individual mistakes, there’s not a lot we can do on the coaching field about it. That comes from confidence sometimes.”
Smith has done more than just talk about the problem. He has taken several steps to try to make his team stronger. For a start, he changed formation, and the switch to a back three yielded encouraging performances and results at Burnley and in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final against Leicester. Then came the relapse against Manchester City.
Merely adjusting the shape would not be enough to make Villa solid and sharp, especially amid an injury crisis. Villa, who awarded Smith a new four-year contract in November, know they must make optimal use of the transfer window if they are to escape trouble.
Their January dealings so far certainly could not be diagnosed as further evidence of catastrophism. On the contrary, the loan hires of Danny Drinkwater and Pepe Reina demonstrate hyper-optimism.
Smith believes those players will inspire with their quality and experience despite their lack of recent playing time. He says criticism of Drinkwater’s debut last weekend was “very harsh” and the midfielder will bring much-needed “bravery and guile”. Smith also expects a big influence from Reina, the former Liverpool goalkeeper who could go straight into the side after joining on loan from Milan, for whom he appeared only once this season.
“He’s got an air about him,” says Smith of Reina. “He knows what he’s about and what he stands for. He certainly won’t accept falls [in performance], that’s for sure. He’s probably what we need in the dressing room at the moment. Our recruitment in the summer was players with potential and [Drinkwater and Reina] can help them fulfil potential by helping them with their experience.”
But Villa minds will not be truly at ease until they can deploy at least one potent striker. Wesley has hardly been a runaway success since arriving in the summer but he has been missed since a season-ending injury earlier this month. Part of Villa’s players’ worries can be attributed, you suspect, to their knowledge that conceding first could be ruinous because they find it so difficult to score. Similarly, their apparent reluctance to send the ball forward against City – which went against Smith’s declared gameplan and resulted in them regularly being caught overplaying at the back – was likely down to their awareness that they had no one who could hold the ball up front. Anwar El Ghazi has done a fair job filling in but is palpably not a solution.
All of which is why Villa want two new strikers this month, one of whom should have Premier League experience. The other is likely to be the Tanzania international Mbwana Samatta, whom Villa are close to prising from Genk. They will need their business to pay off almost immediately. But at Brighton, pending the availability of new forwards, they will have to cope without a specialist striker, and make sure they do not get spooked if their opponents score first.