What’s going wrong for Carla Ward’s Aston Villa?

It’s been a tough start to the 2023/24 Barclays Women’s Super League for Aston Villa. Carla Ward touched upon the subject in midweek, acknowledging that her side’s ‘first five fixtures were, politely put, horrific.’

Yet their woeful start has continued, and Villa have now suffered four defeats in their opening four games. Admittedly, those losses have come against Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur – with the latter enjoying a phenomenal run of form under Robert Vilahamn’s guidance.

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But given that Carla Ward dreamt of closing the gap to the top four and emerging as European contenders, many would have expected her side to be picking up consistent points in these fixtures. Ahead of the women’s international break, we’ve taken a look at what could be behind Aston Villa’s poor run of form.

Conceding late and letting it slip

Aston Villa have taken the lead in three of their four league fixtures thus far this season. Against Manchester United on the opening day, there were just three minutes between Rachel Daly’s opener and Lucía García’s equaliser, with Rachel Williams going on to win the match for the Red Devils in the 92nd minute.

Villa failed to score at Prenton Park against Liverpool, but the trend of conceding late goals would continue as they headed to North London. Faced with an uninspiring Arsenal side that was also struggling to find form, Maz Pacheco opened the scoring in the first half – but as stoppage time rolled around, the Gunners found a way to net two goals at the death and seize three points, with the goals coming in the 92nd and 94th minutes.

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Where are the goals coming from?

Aston Villa have conceded ten goals thus far in the Barclays Women’s Super League – and although that is still a relatively small sample size to analyse, there are already some common themes beginning to emerge.

The first goal conceded this season saw Lucía García equalise following an inswinging corner, capitalising on uncertain defending and a pinball-esque moment in the penalty area before smashing home at the back post.

Eagle-eyed fans would have spotted a similarity between that goal and Tottenham’s third at the Poundland Bescot Stadium on Saturday, with Martha Thomas also rifling an effort into the back of the net after an inswinging corner sparked chaos amidst the home defence.

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Another goal in the match against Tottenham Hotspur would also leave Villa fans with flashbacks to their opening game of the season. Ashleigh Neville rose highest at the far post to nod a header back across the face of goal and over the line – in a move that was eerily reminiscent of Rachel Williams’ winner at Villa Park three weeks ago.

It’s important that fans do not overreact – this could be merely coincidental given the small sample size, but unless Carla Ward works upon these apparent weaknesses in her defence, opponents will look to take full advantage and exploit them.

Ward is aware of the defensive criticisms, but insists her team do not need new personnel. ‘Everyone talks about the defending, but we should be defending together as a team,’ she said after the Spurs defeat. ‘It infuriates me when people talk about us needing new defenders. No, we don’t. We’ve got top, quality international defenders. We need to defend as a team better. I’ll back our defensive unit to the ground because they’ve arguably been sensational, but at times, they’ve had to defend on their own. We have to defend together.’

What about the absentees?

There is no denying that Rachel Daly has struggled to find her shooting boots this season. After beating Manchester City’s Khadija Shaw to the Golden Boot last season, fans had high hopes for the England international. Thus far though, she has netted just twice – with one of those coming from the penalty spot.

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Carla Ward believes she has identified the cause of Daly’s dampened scoring streak. With Kenza Dali recovering from injury and Kirsty Hanson serving a suspension, Daly has been left to operate without two of Villa’s key creative assets.

Speaking after Saturday’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, the manager said that ‘when you don’t have the likes of [Kenza] Dali and Kirsty Hanson, if you look at last season, they were unplayable as a three.’

‘That always plays a part; you know what it’s always like with relationships,’ Ward explained. ‘That hurts sometimes, but Daly is a really honest player. She wants to be better all the time. She will look to come back stronger.’

Is Carla Ward to blame?

But understandably, in an environment as divisive and as fast-moving as professional football, many have already questioned Carla Ward’s position. If the idea had been floated around just three months ago, it would have seemed simply ludicrous – though some appear to have seen enough after four consecutive defeats.

And perhaps rather tellingly, Carla Ward revealed in her post-Spurs press conference that she is no longer sure if she has the backing of the club’s board. ‘Time will tell,’ she said, without revealing too much more.