WIGAN, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Rafael Van Der Vaart of Tottenham Hotspur scores the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur at DW Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
It's odd to think that Aston Villa find themselves in this position, but it's true; despite being in 8th place in the table and without a loss in Premier League play, today's game against Wigan Athletic is incredibly important. The reasons for that have far less to do with the club's standing in the league than the mood of the fans; Villa's results haven't been overwhelming by any stretch of the imagination but it's difficult to complain too much about five straight without a loss, especially at the start of a new and vitally important campaign. Still, it's not difficult to spot the source of the concerns (or moaning, depending on your view.) Villa have been dreadfully boring by most objective standards and they've also shown something of a tendency to surrender head-slappingly stupid and ill-timed goals, something that McLeish's most fervent defenders cited as a reason for bringing him into the club. The team's effort in getting bounced unceremoniously from the Carling Cup by Bolton was also widely criticized and only served to ramp up the complaints.
And really, it's not as though the loudest complainers needed much provocation. It probably doesn't need saying that McLeish's hiring was wildly unpopular and though many have adopted a "back the manager" mentality, more than a few persist in their strident opposition. Each disappointing result is duly noted in their ledger of evidence and there's a case to be made for every result so far this season (save the win over Blackburn) as being a disappointment. Doing so collectively isn't all that reasonable, but no matter what your opinion of the manager you'd have to admit that all five of the club's draws this season were annoying on at least some level. So while calling a contest against Wigan Athletic on the first day of October a "must win" game is certainly hyperbole, it's absolutely Villa's most important contest of the season. With each game that passes with Villa failing to secure three points the dissenters grow louder and larger in number. It's no secret that when Aston Villa fans feel as though the club is moving in the wrong direction they don't have much of a problem with letting their grievances be known. If Alex McLeish doesn't wish to be on the receiving end of the treatment experienced by Gerard Houllier last season (and it's not out of bounds to think that such treatment would arrive far earlier and grow in intensity far more quickly than it did under Villa's former gaffer) he'd be well served to making sure his club starts winning some games.
And beyond the mood amongst the supporters, there are very practical reasons to want Villa to secure all three against the Latics. The club's schedule to this point in the season has not been what most would consider to imposing; in six games Villa's toughest opponent has been Everton and though the Toffees aren't in as bad a shape as the overriding narrative might suggest they're far from an elite Premier League side. Things start to get more difficult after the international break when Villa travel to the Etihad Stadium to take on Manchester City and after a brief run of what should be winnable games thinks really begin to heat up in late November; Villa travel to White Hart Lane on the 21st, enjoy a brief respite against Swansea City the following week, and face the gauntlet in December. United, Bolton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Stoke City and Chelsea. All in a row. That's the kind of run that can have fans looking forward to an upper-mid-table finish reverse course and start investigating the train schedules to Reading in a real hurry. It's probably not going to be the most enjoyable month, and if Villa want to come out the other side in tolerable shape they need to beat teams like Wigan at home.
That's an achievable task. It's far from being too much to ask from this squad to beat Wigan at Villa Park. Darren Bent is, by all accounts, back to full fitness (or at least close enough that his days of being a pained, grimacing statue are over.) Jermaine Jenas and James Collins are expected to be available. It's not exactly a full-strength Villa side but it's pretty close, and it's certainly a team that should be able to hang with Wigan. Not to undersell the Latics; they've got a potent attacking combination in Hugo Rodallega and Victor Moses that should keep the back line busy and a greatly improved back line since the last team they met Villa, but they're still a lower-table side that Villa should be able to handle.
Emphasis on should. Because Villa should have been able to handle Wolves, Fulham, QPR and probably Newcastle. Quite frankly, the jury is still out. Villa can set up shop and absorb all kinds of pressure, but they don't look like the kind of side that will do well against the patient and fluid style of play that Wigan are known for. It's a whole lot of kick and rush and desperate defending and while that's brave and honorable and all it's not necessarily the best way forward.
And quite frankly I think Alex McLeish probably agrees. I think the conservatism and negative play is at least somewhat by design, but even Non-Sir has got to be frustrated with what he's seen from his troops. It's time for Villa to show what they can do. Even an improved Wigan defense is not especially hard-nosed. Even a Latics attack featuring Rodallega and Moses is not the second coming of United. Enough playing it safe. Enough trying to secure a point first and going after the other two if it's convenient. Villa need to win. This is a winnable game. Go for the throat Mr. McLeish. The worst thing that happens is you lose, and since it's going to happen eventually you might as well make it fun to watch.