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Aston Villa have now lost three home games in a row in the Premier League and FA Cup but I still believe they will finish in the top four – there is no chance that their season will just fizzle out.
Sunday’s last-gasp defeat by Manchester United will hurt, of course. It was an especially big blow psychologically, because a draw would have maintained the eight-point gap between the two clubs.
Not only that, it was the second time in the space of a few weeks that Villa have dominated against United for long spells and been beaten. After losing another thrilling game 3-2 at Old Trafford in December, Villa have now seen six points go to a direct rival for a Champions League spot.
It is a setback, but I have been following Villa closely all season after spending time with their squad in the United States during the Premier League Summer Series in July, and I am confident they will respond.
With the organisation I have seen from Unai Emery – his game plan, and the tactical tweaks he makes during games – I still think they will have enough.
Watkins has lost his scoring touch
Villa have not suddenly started playing badly, despite some poor results recently. The biggest difference now, compared to the start of the season, is they are not taking their chances in close games.
Up front, Ollie Watkins is going through a bit of a spell where things are not quite falling for him in front of goal, when they were earlier.
Watkins has only scored twice in his past seven Premier League appearances, compared to the nine goals he managed in his first 17 league games of the season.
He is getting the same number of chances per game, but his shot conversion has almost halved and he has gone from over-performing to under-performing with his expected goals.
|Up to 21 Dec
|Per 90 minutes
|Since 22 Dec
|Shot Conversion %
Behind Watkins, Moussa Diaby’s form has dipped too, and he has been involved far less.
He started Villa’s first 13 league games of the season but, although he has appeared in all 15 games they have played in all competitions since the start of December, he has come off the bench in eight of them.
They have missed having him at his best, but they are still creating opportunities – as we saw against United, when they had enough chances to win the game.
It is obviously frustrating when you don’t take them and lose, but I look at what Villa are doing and think they will come good.
It would be far worse for Emery and his players if they were losing games without having those openings and thinking, ‘well, we don’t have an identity, or a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve’.
‘Adaptable’ Villa are hard to keep quiet
When I watched Villa train in the summer, and spoke to Emery, I was extremely impressed with the level of detail in his coaching – and his players’ understanding of why they were doing it, and why they were playing in a certain way.
That’s why I tipped them to make the top four before the season started, and they have put all of that preparation I witnessed into practice on the pitch.
We’ve seen over the past six months that there is a clear identity and a pattern to their play, and it was the same against United.
One of the things that stands out for me about Emery is how adaptable he is in his approach, and he showed that again on Sunday.
No matter how United tried to counteract what Villa were doing, they still found ways of getting in behind them. It was just the end product that was missing, and even then it would have been a very different game if not for Andre Onana, who made some great saves.
So, I am certainly not panicking about Villa on the back of that result or performance – there were lots of positives for them to take out of the game.
My concerns are more about whether their squad is deep enough to keep them at the required level to the end of the season.
Do Villa have the depth they need?
Given their position at the top end of the table, I was surprised Villa didn’t sign more players in January.
They signed four young players but Morgan Rogers, who joined from Middlesbrough, is the only one to go into their first-team squad.
To stay near the top, I always feel you have to keep on improving as a team – but that comes down to the quality of your players. To keep on winning games consistently, you need clinical players, or game-changers.
Diaby was that game-changer for Villa at the beginning of the season but, if his form has dipped, who do they turn to?
Emi Buendia is out with a long-term injury and I don’t feel they have the depth they need to carry on their progress. They signed Nicolo Zaniolo on loan from Galatasaray in August, but he has only really done okay in short bursts.
Despite that, I still think Villa’s squad are capable of qualifying for the Champions League, especially because fifth place may be enough if England secures an extra spot.
|Team & rank
|Starting XI changes
|1. Aston Villa
|2. Crystal Palace
|*13. Man Utd
But at the moment it looks like they are in a fight with United and Tottenham for fourth and fifth, and my worry is the amount of European football Villa have already played – and still could play – in the Europa Conference League will catch up with them.
Villa have used 27 players in the Premier League this season, which is about average and similar to United and Spurs, but their outfield players have played more minutes in all competitions and been rotated less – the least in the Premier League in fact.
|Aston Villa (10)
|John McGinn (2,884), Ezri Konsa (2,823), Douglas Luiz (2,759), Ollie Watkins (2,711), Boubacar Kamara (2,410), Matty Cash (2,239), Moussa Diaby (2,055), Lucas Digne (2,022), Pau Torres (1,831), Leon Bailey (1,810)
|Man Utd (5)
|Bruno Fernandes (2,815), Diogo Dalot (2,683), Rasmus Hojlund (2,096), Alejandro Garnacho (2,057), Marcus Rashford (2,055)
|Pedro Porro (2,247), Dejan Kulusevski (2,049), Destiny Udogie (1,948)
United and Spurs do not have European football to worry about in the run-in either, and it already feels like they have both been getting stronger in the past few weeks as their players have returned from injury, or international duty.
That’s not been the case for Villa, who have already lost key defender Ezri Konsa to injury this month and saw Boubacar Kamara forced off with a knee problem against United.
It all makes their task even harder but they have put themselves in a great position and, with Emery’s know-how and guidance, I believe they can push on.
Stephen Warnock was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.