My hope, going into this game, was that we’d continue our recent improvements and we’d just be shite. Having been phenomenally shite against Sheffield United, and then really shite against Arsenal, I’d have settled for just plain shite. I really would.
But this was the worst shite yet. Worse than any of the shite – and there had been plenty of shite – which had preceded it. This, more than any other game this season, was a performance and a result which had relegation written all over it. RELEGATION, in size 72 font, bold, underlined and in bright red. This was simply the most pathetic and meek surrender imaginable, from a group of players without direction or inspiration, and a manager completely out of his depth and – judging by his post-match interview – descending into madness.
Getting hammered and conceding five at Leeds now looks like one of our best performances of the season. We’ve got Leeds next and I’d settle for the same result again. At least against Sheffield United and Arsenal, and even in the disgraceful Cup defeat to Brentford reserves (which I stupidly thought was the low point, at the time), we kept it at 0-0 for a while. Here, we lasted only eleven minutes.
Villa’s first goal, from Ollie Watkins, came from a series of errors. Shelvey, in typically lazy fashion, didn’t track his man. When does he ever track his man? Is this something that is worked on in training? Do we have training? Fucking hell. Schar, who Bruce has turned from a stylish ball-playing sweeper into a hapless donkey, spooned the cross up and straight on to Watkins’ head. Darlow flapped aimlessly at thin air, and it was 1-0.
Given his performances this season, Darlow is entitled to the odd howler, and might justifiably have hoped that the rest of the team might bail him out for a change. Fat chance. The game was already over at 1-0. Villa stroked the ball around with implausible ease – we stood off them so much that we made Grealish and Barkley look like Xavi and Iniesta. Zero urgency, zero pressing, zero game plan or visible shape whatsoever. The game plan consisted of Shelvey or Almiron firing aimless crosses from anywhere, the crosses being cut out easily, and Villa proceeding to retain possession and do much more with it. If there was going to be a second goal, it was only ever going to go to the home side, and so it did, just before half time. Traore was not closed down on the edge of the box. Of course he wasn’t. We don’t press. We don’t hassle. We don’t compete. Go on, pick your spot. He did. 2-0, and that was that.
It could have been worse. Watkins had a goal (rightly) chalked off for offside. That was lucky – Watkins was looking across the line. Early in the second half, Jamal Lewis passed the ball straight to Douglas Luiz and was lucky that Luiz didn’t make it three. Towards the end, Trezeguet should have made it three, and would have done but for Darlow’s fingertips. Villa saw out the rest of the game with an ease that was incredibly unnerving. It’s one thing when Man City beat you without getting out of second gear. Villa barely had to turn the key in the ignition.
Not one player emerges with credit. What does Hendrick do, apart from inexplicably marking his opposite number when we are actually in possession? What does Almiron do, apart from charging around like a headless chicken and never clearing the first man with his final ball? Manquillo? Ponderous. Lewis? Liability. Carroll? Forlorn. The list goes on.
The reality is that we have no choice but to hope that this truly is the low point, and to rely on that same group of players to drag us out of it. Our only hope is that the leaders among them – the likes of Lascelles, Hayden and Wilson – take personal charge of the situation, and do the complete opposite of what that arrogant, myopic, pig-headed charlatan in the dugout is telling them to do. Post-match, Bruce said he was encouraged by what he had seen. Either he was watching something else on his phone on the touchline, or he needs to be institutionalised. This was unprecedentedly, unremittingly, discombobulatingly shite.
The worst shite yet. The shitest of the shite. But with Bruce at the helm, the saddest fact is that none of us can say, with any confidence, that the only way from here is up. It is hard to see how it could possibly get worse from here, but, without an immediate change of manager, it’s hard to see it getting any better either.