With Sunday's 8-0 defeat to Chelsea hanging heavy in the air, a strong bounce-back performance could be vital to the short-term viability of Aston Villa's march back towards respectability.
It's pretty incredible how much one game can change the way one feels about a team. Riding a six game unbeaten streak and coming off impressive back-to-back wins over Norwich City and Liverpool, Aston Villa entered Sunday's match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on a high. 13th place and relative comfort would come with a win, and given Chelsea's recent mediocre form and the ease with which Liverpool was dispatched at Anfield three points looked like a realistic target. Spirits were higher than at any time during Paul Lambert's tenure, and arguably at their highest since Martin O'Neill still prowled the Villa Park touchline.
And then Aston Villa had to go and ensure that all of those caveats about struggles were reinforced, putting in one of the worst performances in the Premier League in recent memory and capitulating in shocking fashion on their way to a humiliating 8-0 defeat. Lopsided losses are par for the course with young and rebuilding teams, but this was above and beyond anything that falls within the range of acceptable in any circumstance. One game in and of itself doesn't change all of the positive things that took place over the month that preceded it, but it was a showing so horrendous that questioning whether or not any of that improvement was real or sustainable is completely natural. A back line that had functioned as the bedrock of Villa's disciplined approach was torn to pieces with relative ease. Ashley Westwood looked very much like a player that would struggle to get into the Crewe side from which he was recruited, while central midfield partner Barry Bannan seemed to have regressed to the player that many questioned would ever possess the decision-making skills necessary to play at the Premier League level. When a goalkeeper lets in eight goals and is unquestionably his team's best player, it was a very bad day.
On the one hand, it's easy to be optimistic and say that this was a case of everyone having a bad day at once and a relatively under-performing but incredibly talented opponent seizing the opportunity. It's unlikely that players that have taken major steps forward this season such as Bannan, Weimann and Ciaran Clark have suddenly forgotten everything that they've learned over the past three years or so. Likewise that the performance of newcomers such as Westwood, Christian Benteke and Matthew Lowton has been an illusion. It was, to put it mildly, unpleasant. But it was just one game, and this team has shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from heavy defeats in the past.
On the other hand, it was such a thorough dismantling that it's difficult not to wonder whether, on some level, this was the game in which Aston Villa was found out. Even Villa fans with the sunniest of demeanors would surely admit that Rafa Benitez won the tactical battle in a landslide, setting up his Chelsea side perfectly to make the counter-attacking approach Villa have used to such success in recent weeks a complete non-starter. Christian Benteke was effectively neutralized from the start by the home side's offside trap, while the Blues' physical, high-pressure midfield turned Westwood and Bannan into liabilities. Opposing managers will watch film of this game, and they'll approach Aston Villa accordingly.
The reality is almost certainly a combination of the two above scenarios. Whether it's closer to the former or the latter is yet to be seen. While Benitez certainly deserves credit for his gameplan, Aston Villa gave him plenty of help by putting in a shift so poor that it would have made Steve Kean look like a tactical genius. If Aston Villa play as well as they did against Liverpool they might not have taken a point out of Stamford Bridge but it certainly wouldn't have been 8-0. Still, it's worrisome that Benteke was so completely neutralized by the offside trap. It's something he's going to see a lot more often until he proves that he can make the adjustment. The same principle applies to Villa as a whole; teams are going to try to exploit the weaknesses that Chelsea so clearly exposed, and if they're able to do so then changes are going to be required.
With that in mind, Tottenham Hotspur is one of the worst teams against which to follow up such a heavy defeat. Andre Villas-Boas is nothing if not a student of the game, and he's certain to have taken in all of the lessons to be learned from Chelsea's thumping of Villa. Spurs present a difficult challenge no matter the circumstance, but this young Villa squad likely having a fragile psyche at the moment certainly doesn't help matters. If Sunday was primarily a case of this team being exposed, there's a good chance that we're in for another very long day. I would expect to see Lambert make a few changes both to the squad and to the team's approach, but it would be foolish to completely abandon the approach that led to a solid month of strong performances on the basis of one game, no matter how dispiriting.
By that same token, it's somewhat comforting to look at the aftermath of the other games in which Villa's proverbial rear end was handed to them: the 3-1 defeat to Everton was followed up by a big League Cup win against Tranmere and strong showings in the league against Newcastle and Swansea, the 4-1 loss at Southampton was erased just three days later when Villa stunned City 4-2 at the Etihad, and City's 5-0 revenge for their cup defeat was followed by six unbeaten. These kids can bounce back from tough losses.
But was this more than a tough loss? That's a pretty important question. I have my suspicions that, in the end, it isn't. I think it was just the wrong time for Villa to have an off day, and as spectacular as the scoreline ended up being, it's not some kind of harbinger of doom for the near future. It might take a little bit of time for this team to get all of their confidence back and play as well as they did against Norwich and Liverpool, but I'm still pretty optimistic about the future, in both the near and long term. But unlike past setbacks, I don't think people that are expressing serious concern after the Chelsea game and necessarily being unfairly alarmist. That was a pretty shocking display of incompetence by pretty much everyone involved, and it's fair to be critical.
And so, I'm nervous. Not about losing, because this isn't a game about which I was ever going to be especially confident. And to be clear, nothing that happens in this game is going to change my mind about Lambert or this team. I still think they're on a good path. But another poor showing (especially in front of the home crowd) could unquestionably slow this club's momentum to a crawl. This team needs a good performance tomorrow. Not necessarily a win, or even a draw, but they need to put on a good show. And given the quality of the opposition and the timing of this match, I find myself less than confident that they can deliver.