Both sets of fans around the Emirates were going strong last weekend. Arsenal and Aston Villa were looking for their first win of the season after disappointing starts to the 2023-24 campaign.
Arsenal won 1-0 when the fourth official took the board and showed 12 minutes of added time. If Villa, who led from the 25th minute, can hang on, they will first confirm a club: away wins against top-four teams and, more importantly, a chance to climb into second place in the table.
But it was not to be.
Arsenal’s last-minute comeback – Katie McCabe in the 92nd minute and Alessia Russo in the 94th minute diverted attention through Carla Ward. Having lost all three of their WSL games, why has Villa been so unrealistically expected to be underdogs this season?
Some of the pre-season predictions for Villa this season looked extremely lofty. For the first time in the club’s history, it was suggested that they could end up in the top four or finish third. That was all despite being 10 points short of last year.
The expected goal difference per 90 minutes of the 2022-23 season saw them finish fifth. In 90 the average was +0.15, significantly better than Tottenham’s expected goal difference of -0.31, but below fourth-best team Manchester United at +1.02.
Villa have conceded 37 goals from 24.6 goals scored. Fortunately, they had WSL Golden Boot winner Rachel Daly to balance the books. His 22 goals from 12.7 xG was the highest since Opta began collecting xG data in 2017-18. There was little chance of Delhi repeating that goal this season – going into this year, Villa knew they needed to create more attacking opportunities and strengthen their defense to create a 10-point gap.
The absence of midfielder Kenza Daly at the start of the season – who Ward confirmed was “back from the World Cup knock” – hurt Villa’s forward line. The 32-year-old had the most goal-scoring actions of any player (20) and the third-most shots-creating actions (106) in the WSL last season, but is yet to return to training.
In her absence, Ward has been fielding a somewhat makeshift midfield, with 20-year-old Laura Blindkilde used twice and Jordan Nobbs once. mid-back).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have taken the second-fewest shots in the league this season (27), with their five against Arsenal on Sunday the lowest in the league since the start of 2022-23. Striker Kirsty Hansen’s absence following his straight red card against Manchester United has further reduced his attacking options.
On the other hand, the conservative midfield should have helped them defensively. In their game against Arsenal, press releases from Staniforth and Parker limited Arsenal’s options. By switching to the 5th back unit for the game, they went out of the normal 4-4-2 formation and won the 5-4-1 and were able to suffocate the opponent.
But there is still a clear gap between Villa’s squad and the top four. While recruiting Dutch No.1 Daphne van Domselaar, Lions defenseman Parker and former Houston Dash forward Eboni Salmon was shrewd business, it should not be forgotten how much of their squad came from top clubs.
Three United players (Hanson, Adriana Lyons and Staniforth) and two Arsenal players (Nobbs and Anna Patten) joined last year. Some of these players have shone through the ward system but it is clear that Villa are picking up players that the clubs above them have decided are more than desirable.
There is no denying that Villa have had a difficult start to the season. In the first three games, the teams that finished second (United), third (Arsenal) and seventh (Liverpool) last season met.
They face Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday before playing host to WSL title holders Chelsea after the international break. Harder games won’t be released anytime soon.
“If we stick together and keep doing what we’re going for, the points will come soon enough,” Ward said following the defeat at Arsenal.
Undeniably, Villa have had a poor start to the season, exacerbated by their roster and attacking injuries. He quickly dampened speculation that they would make it into the top four, but that was optimistic and it is still too early to solidify Villa’s future direction. If they can keep their head, they will be better at overcoming the first problem.
(Top photo: Mark Atkins/Getty Images)