Analysis: First half of the season for Aston Villa under Carla Ward

Ramona Petzelberger of Aston Villa celebrates with team after scoring during the Pre-Season Friendly Match between Aston Villa and Everton at Bank's Stadium (Photo by Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Aston Villa are currently sitting nine points clear of the relegation zone. This is in stark contrast to this time last year, when they were struggling to adjust to life in the top flight and were precariously just four points above the drop.

Since then, Carla Ward has come in as Head Coach and she’s having quite an impact. She came with a reputation of getting the job done — having secured Birmingham City’s survival last season, against all odds. She also had a very succesful season at Sheffield United, finishing second in the Championship.

When Ward first arrived at Villa, the first task the club undertook was to release seven first team players from last season. Then Ward went about building her own team around the nucleus of what remained. She brought in some of her existing backroom staff from Birmingham, including assistant coach Alan Reeves.

Over the summer, Villa made 10 new signings — Alisha Lehmann, Remi Allen, Hannah Hampton, Sarah Mayling, Meaghan Sargeant, Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah, Mayumi Pacheco, Gemma Davison, Ruesha Littlejohn, and Emily Gielnik.

Aston Villa’s Chief Executive Christian Purslow is very ambitious and the club have already invested significantly into their women’s team. But the question remains — is simply being above both Birmingham City and Leicester City enough to satisfy the owners or how far do the club really want to go?

Goalkeeper Hannah Hampton

It is without doubt that Hannah Hampton is one of the most talented and high achieving goalkeepers in the WSL. In terms of saves per match, according to FotMob, Villa are the fourth highest ranked team of 3.7 saves per match.

Hampton, together with Sian Rogers (who played the final 25 minutes against Man United), have made a total of 37 saves this season.

However Villa have only maintained two clean sheets from ten games and they’ve conceded 22 goals in their other eight matches.

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Defensive back four or five

At times, Villa’s defence have had some outstanding games. In an impressive 50% of their matches, Villa have conceded either only a single goal or no goals at all. This included, credibly, only losing 1-0 to champions Chelsea.

In five of their ten league games, Villa stuck with the same back four of Maz Pachecho, Anita Asante, Meg Sargeant, and Sarah Mayling. With this defence, the team achieved wins against Leicester, Brighton and Birmingham. They also narrowly lost to Tottenham but were surprisingly beaten by Reading.

In all the other five games, Elisha N’Dow played in place of Asante and Olivia McLoughlin played right-back in place of Mayling against Arsenal. In the heavy defeats of 4-0 to Arsenal and 5-0 to Man City, Villa played with five at the back.

Some may argue that five at the back doesn’t work but in Ward’s defence, Villa only lost 1-0 to Chelsea with five defenders, and they still lost 5-0 to Man United with four.

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Midfield engines and playmakers

Ward has tried various formations in midfield. In the four games where Villa picked up points, she went with the same formation of 4-2-3-1. In all the other games, except for the defeat at Reading, Ward went with either 5-4-1 or 4-3-3.

When it comes to defensive midfielders, the Clarets have plenty of choice — Remi Allen, Chloe Arthur, Olivia McLoughlin, and Ruesha Littlejohn.

In terms of successful tackles per match, Villa have the third highest ranking in the WSL of 12.1 tackles per match. Looking at the number of accurate passes per match, Villa sit in tenth place with a 64.1% pass success rate.

The Villans creativity is coming through Ramona Petzelberger, Remi Allen, Marisa Ewers, and Laura Brown. The average possession is 43.1% which is the league’s ninth highest.

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Forwards and wingers

Up front, Villa have only one recognised out-and-out striker, Australia international Emily Gielnik. The striker has scored one goal which was a well-taken strike on the break against Brighton.

However, afterwards Gielnik missed several matches after suffering from a broken toe.

In her absence, the No.9 role has been split evenly between Chaney Boye-Hlorkah and Alisha Lehmann. Both players are more established as wingers and they’ve been unable to find the net in the league. Shania Hayles is also a recognised striker but she’s only started one WSL game where she played on the wing.

Gemma Davison has taken time to regain her fitness but in more recent games she’s now showing why she’s had such a long and successful career. Freya Gregory, a natural left-sided winger, is also giving Ward food for thought, with her impactful runs down the wing.

Aston Villa are the lowest ranked team in the WSL for shots on target per match. Leicester City have managed 27 shots compared to Villa’s 17 which works out as a lowly 1.7 shots on target per match. Looking at the statistics big chances created and big chances missed, Villa lie in tenth place for both. These stats shows where the coaching staff need to address matters for 2022.

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Consolidation and strengthening

In analysing their season so far, Aston Villa made a flying start to the season with two wins and a draw from their first three matches. However, ever since, life at Villa has not been the same.

No doubt, Carla Ward will be looking to strengthen her side in the January transfer window. The loan market has proven very fruitful for her before so one wouldn’t be surprised to see Ward calling upon her mentor, Emma Hayes.

Villa are in desperate need of an additional striker. However true No.9s are like gold dust, as every team wants one. Villa have been relying on their midfielder Allen to pop up at the right moment. Allen has scored three of their six league goals, all from open play.

It’s likely Villa will also look to strengthen at the back with another centre-back. Asante has been outstanding, but at 36 years of age, she’s not going to play forever.

It’s also possible they may bring in another full-back. Mayling is currently Villa’s highest-rated player, according to FotMob, but she is also highly effective as a winger. If Villa are looking for more chances to be created then playing Mayling on the wing could be the answer. Providing assists via crosses with pinpoint accuracy is what she is known for.

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Promote from within

An alternative solution could be for the club to look closer at their Academy team. Laura Brown been a revelation and for her age, she does not look out of place. Isobel Goodwin has recovered from her injury and is now showing what a threat she can be going forwards.

The Academy is overflowing with talent all over the pitch. They deservedly won the WSL Academy League last season and are on course to do the same this time round. They are also in the semi-finals of the WSL Academy Cup.

There are too many players to mention them all, but Ward has already given first team playing minutes to Olivia Rabjohn, a central midfielder, and Evie Rabjohn who can play at centre-back. She also gave minutes to Deearna Missy Goodwin, who has a phenomenal goal-scoring record for the Academy.

Villa need to build for the future. Of course they will be looking to finish higher than the tenth place they achieved last season. The long term goal must be to continue investing and challenge for trophies in all competitions.

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Continental Cup campaign

Aston Villa were in Group A alongside four teams from the Championship. Many predicted Villa to easily qualify for the quarter-finals but instead they finished bottom of their group.

Ward has previously been quoted as not being particularly interested in the Conti Cup. However, it is still a competition where the players could win medals. Equally, it gives the boss the chance to see other players in action.

Whilst most other WSL clubs made extensive use of their academies to give young players vital minutes and experience, Ward only took this opportunity once in their four group matches. Instead she used the opportunity to give more time to fringe players like Jodie Hutton, Natalie Haigh and goalkeeper Rogers.

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Looking ahead to 2022

Aston Villa have 12 league games left to play. With over half the season still ahead of them, it’s difficult to predict where they will finish.

Given the right backing and support, it’s possible Villa could finish as high as seventh or eighth. However, this has got to be counterbalanced by the fact Villa have only won one game in their last seven.

The team have already proven they have the quality to win more games so now it’s a matter of applying themselves. From Villa’s point of view it’s vital that they take points from the teams around them.

When the going gets tough, Ward will always stand by her players and get them motivated. Ward is bound to get them fired up for an exciting new year ahead.

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