Aston Villa: How high can they climb under Carla Ward?

Carla Ward embraces Rachel Corsie and Danielle Turner after a match
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 18: Carla Ward, Manager of Aston Villa embraces Rachel Corsie and Danielle Turner following their side's victory in the FA Women's Super League match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park on September 18, 2022 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images)

Aston Villa finished the first half to their season with a 4-1 defeat at home to Arsenal. The Villans have amassed 12 points from nine games and finish the year in seventh place under Carla Ward.

Goal scoring has improved significantly, with Villa already matching last season’s league total of 13 goals.

In the Continental Cup, Villa topped their group above Manchester United and Everton, and are through to the quarter-finals.

Progress is steady under Carla Ward, but could Villa be achieving even more?

Closing the gap on the top four

Ward has spoken about narrowing the gap between the top four and everyone else in the league. From Villa’s perspective, last season they finished an astonishing 21 points off fourth placed Manchester United. The team who finished 5th, Tottenham Hotspur, were 10 points from United.

This season, albeit only part way through, Villa sit just seven points off fourth placed Manchester City and fifth placed West Ham United are only four points behind them.

There’s a strong case to say, even with projecting forward the likely total points tally, the gap beneath the top four is definitely narrowing. This is tremendous for the league and strengthens the argument that the league should be expanded to 14 or 16 teams.

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Standout players for Villa

When it comes to standout players for Villa, there are two names on everyone’s lips.

Rachel Daly and Kenza Dali. Incredibly, each player has played a part in all 13 of Villa’s league goals. Daly has scored eight, while Dali has scored two and provided three assists.

Daly is ruthless inside the box and instinctively knows where to find the back of the net. Her teammate Dali holds the impressive record for the highest number of completed passes in the final third throughout the whole WSL.

Daly and Dali may be getting all the credit in terms of goals creation but Villa have some other very impressive players throughout the team.

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First off is Danielle Turner who is predominantly a left-back for Villa, but Ward has slotted her into the centre-back role like a duck to water. Turner has made a number of crucial blocks and tackles to keep her team in the game.

Kirsty Hanson, a winger on loan from Manchester United, has been very impressive on the left flank. She’s a constant threat for Villa, driving the ball at the opposition and causing them all sorts of problems. Two of Villa’s penalties this season have resulted from opposition players fouling Hanson.

These four players were all signed last summer but looking at the established players, one player who stands out is Laura Blindkilde Brown.

Blindkilde, only 19, came through the reputable Aston Villa Academy.

She is a creative midfielder but her versatility means she’s equally effective in a more defensive, holding midfield role. Her pressing high up the field has caused opposition teams all kinds of problems this season.

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Squad down to bare bones

What makes Villa even more impressive right now is the fact Ward has so many injured players to contend with. Ten players have been or are still injured this season.

Remi Allen, Simone Magill and Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah have all suffered ACL injuries. Natasha Harding is also out long-term with a quad injury. On top of this, there have been a range of injuries to goalkeeper Hannah Hampton, defenders Evie Rabjohn and Meaghan Sargeant, midfielder Ruesha Littlejohn, and forwards Emily Gielnik and Freya Gregory.

New Zealand goalkeeper Anna Leat has stepped in remarkably and is very unlucky to lose her place as the regular number one. Full-backs Sarah Mayling and Maz Pacheco alongside centre-backs Turner and Anna Patten have been the rock of Villa’s defence and prior to the two most recent fixtures against United and Arsenal, had only conceded 10 goals in seven matches.

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Captain Rachel Corsie’s switch from defender to holding midfielder has certainly been an inspired one. She was pivotal in the clarets 4-3 victory over Manchester City on the opening day. Her experience as Scotland’s captain will be invaluable in maintaing a sense of togetherness in this young Villa squad.

Silverware on the cards?

Even though progress in the league will be the priority, Villa have a good chance of winning some silverware this season under Ward.

Villa are through to the quarter-finals of the Continental Cup after topping their group. And having beaten both Manchester clubs already this season, Villa should fear no one in this competition.

The Villans will also be hoping for a longer cup run in the FA Cup. Having been drawn against top three WSL team two years in a row, they have a chance of making it through to round five having drawn the winners of Solihull Moors or AFC Fylde.

Progress off the pitch

Last season, Aston Villa were regularly getting some of the lowest crowds in the WSL. For a variety of reasons, they are now achieving far bigger crowds (three to four times bigger) at their usual ground at Walsall. When they play at Villa Park, they’re regularly enjoying crowds of more than 6,000.

However welcome these large increases in the fanbase are, they may be coming at a price. Feedback from fans has been very mixed with some saying the player interaction is not what it used to be.

To give just one example, at the end of the Old Trafford match, as the players started heading towards the tunnel they were asked to return so they could say thank you to the large contingent of travelling fans.

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By contrast, when at the Bescot or Villa Park, more players do interact with fans for selfies or autographs so there’s certainly a fantastic, strong bond being developed between these fans and the players. Strong connections built between the fans and the players make such an important difference for the togetherness of any club.

January will be a crucial time for Villa, who have been naming only two or three outfield players on their substitutes bench. Reinforcements in several key areas are vital if Villa are to achieve their aims of top six or higher.

Bringing in the likes of Daly has not only been a genius masterstroke for performances on the pitch but it also puts Villa in the shop window for other big name signings. With some careful management by Ward and her backroom team, Villa could be the standout team in 2023.

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