Aston Villa: Has Carla Ward done enough to prove the doubters wrong?

As we enter the new calendar year, the second half of the 2023/24 Barclays Women’s Super League awaits eagerly on the horizon. Players and managers will return to their clubs in the coming weeks, keen to make amends on any areas of weaknesses brought to light in the opening half of their campaign.

For Carla Ward, the interval arrives as a golden opportunity to reflect upon what has been an undesirable start for Aston Villa – the Villans having only picked up 9 points in their league campaign thus far.

After what was a stellar closing run to their 2022/23 campaign, Aston Villa concluded their Barclays WSL campaign by securing fifth position in the league’s table. As a result, speculation surrounded what was to come for Ward’s Aston Villa side, whispers of discussion circulating whether the club’s future could see them prove damaging at the league table’s summit.

Though as nine gameweeks have passed us by, Aston Villa have proved to be far from dangerous, discounting the pre-season billing that they would perhaps contend at the top. As the new year arrives, Carla Ward’s managerial career now seems to be riding on a desired spree of results.

Delight in Birmingham

Aston Villa were the surprise of the season last year, as Carla Ward’s side wrapped up their league campaign with a stellar eleven victories, earning them 37 points in the league table. Pronounced displays of dominance saw the Villans cruise past both Manchester City and Arsenal, proving to the league that Birmingham was the home of a sleeping giant.

The summer transfer window arrived in anticipation for Ward, with the Aston Villa boss securing high-browed quality for her campaign in the 2023/24 season. Birmingham welcomed the arrival of youth talent in the likes of Lucy Parker and Ebony Salmon, as the Villans also signed both Anna Patten and Kirsty Hanson on permanent deals off the back of statement loan spells with the club. Adrianna Leon arrived as an exciting attacking threat, and the signing of Dutch goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar was more than enough to excite Villa fans.

After what was a stellar period in the transfer market for Carla Ward, the stage felt set for Aston Villa, with many anticipating the Birmingham side to enter the new season with hungry conviction.

A disappointing start

The opening fixture of the 2023/24 Barclays Women’s Super League season saw Ward’s Aston Villa side host Manchester United at Villa Park, in what was a nail-biting spectacle. Rachel Daly did enough to give her side the advantage at home, but it was only a matter of minutes before Lucia Garcia found the equaliser for the Reds. Proclaimed impact sub Rachel Williams broke the hearts of Aston Villa fans, as her added time strike saw Manchester United take all three points away from home.

Despite the loss, all felt very circumstantial upon reflection. Aston Villa had failed to claim a point from a dominant Manchester United in their previous campaign, and despite the circumstances in which the loss had arrived in, not all was negative for Carla Ward’s side. Losing to a formidable opponent in the fixture’s dying moments seemed to be something Villa could build from.

Despite what played out to be a nail-biting thriller in gameweek one, Ward’s Aston Villa side would return the following weekend in disappointing form. Matt Beard’s Liverpool side dictated play against the Villans with ease, the Birmingham side consequently falling to a 2-0 defeat. The form of Ward’s side appeared in stark juxtaposition to that of their 2022/23 campaign, where the opening weeks saw Aston Villa claim victory over both Manchester City and Leicester City.

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Heartbreak in stoppage time

A visit to the capital followed, as Aston Villa travelled to Emirates Stadium to face a down-and-out Arsenal side. The fixture was prophesied to be a desperate affair, as the Gunners had only gathered just a single point from their opening clashes.

Despite being held to minimal possession, Ward’s side broke the deadlock as Maz Pacheco’s aerial dual saw the net ripple. A desperate last-line effort saw the clock run down in angst, Ward’s side making no further attempts to double their advantage as the fourth official indicated an additional twelve minutes of play. Arsenal’s persistent knocking was answered by Katie McCabe, with the Republic of Ireland international finding the equaliser in the 92nd minute of play.

An Emirates Stadium atmosphere saw the temperature rise exponentially, the Gunners breaking down Ward’s efforts at a low block within minutes. Beth Mead broke away from fleeting Villa defenders to find Alessia Russo, as the England International sent her strike past an awaiting Daphne van Domselaar to seal victory for the North London side.

Ward expressed her dissatisfaction regarding the result in her post-match press conference, describing her confusion surrounding the extensive period of extra time awarded. Despite her dismay, Arsenal had completed the comeback before the fourth minute had served, and Aston Villa’s attempts to halt their charge lacked the conviction that Ward may have hoped.

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Bottom of the table

A dark cloud began to loom over Birmingham as Aston Villa’s desperation to gather momentum exponentially increased. Gameweek four saw Ward’s side fall to a 4-2 domination at the hands of Robert Vilahamn’s Tottenham Hotspur, with Lucy Parker’s 96th minute contribution only working to lessen the blow experienced on home turf.

Ward was now 0-4 on the trot, and the manner in which the defeats were arriving in only made matters worse for the Aston Villa manager. Her defensive line proved shaky at best, and their attacking conviction seemed to rely far too heavily on the form of Rachel Daly.

Despite losing the opening four fixtures of the 2023/24 season, the league defeats did not seem to motivate an out of form Aston Villa. Ward’s side would host league leaders Chelsea at the Poundland Bescot Stadium in the league’s fifth weekend, an occasion that would be certain to farther dampen the spirits of Aston Villa fans.

The home side appeared disorganised and lacking in bite, as Emma Hayes’s Blues showcased 90 minutes of domination in what resulted in a 6-0 defeat for Carla Ward’s side. Now occupying the last spot on the league table, questions directed toward Ward began to tower before her.

The Villans had conceded 10 goals in a fortnight of play, placing an unwanted spotlight on a clear defensive predicament that Ward had found herself in. Daly was no longer occupying the responsibility of the scapegoat, as the absence of midfield service continuously eliminated the star-striker’s ability to impact play. With a looming fixture against fellow strugglers in Bristol City soon to arrive, Ward’s desperation for victory continued to mount.

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The first win

Aston Villa found their first sign of life as the Villans travelled to their struggling counterpart in Bristol City. The fixture arrived as a highly anticipated occasion for Ward, as questions surroundin the future of her managerial career in Birmingham continued to flood through in numbers. She insisted that the players still had confidence in her, but nonetheless, a victory over a newly promoted Robins side was nothing short of imperative for Ward.

It was an own goal by Megan Connolly that saw Ward’s side break the deadlock, before a finish from Ebony Salmon saw the visitors double their advantage in the game’s final stages. Although the victory had arrived against an unthreatening opponent, the three points were a vital obtainment in lieu of the recent discussion that surrounded Ward’s future.

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Two on the trot

It was a trip to the capital that would see Aston Villa make it two in a row, a 2-3 win over West Ham United at Chigwell Construction Stadium saw Carla Ward add to her lifeless tally. The game went down to the wire in Dagenham, as an extra-time rocket from Rachel Daly saw Ward let out a breath she had been holding for five long weeks.

The return of Kenza Dali in midfield catalysed a significant breakthrough in Aston Villa beginning to find their footing on the park, as Ward’s side now operated with a fluidity between the lines that had been starkly absent in their previous performances. Although a nail-biting affair, the three points was still cause for celebration in Birmingham – a glimmer of hope that perhaps there would be more to come.

2023 draws to a close

A 2-1 defeat against a Manchester City side flexing their muscles may have provided more hope than grief for Aston Villa. Despite the defeat, it was a statement performance from the Villans defence. Ward’s back four finally showcased their ability to appear organised, a structural integrity that began to see them regain the ability to play from the back that had seemed to be lost during the summer interval.

The closing weekend saw Ward’s tally grow, as Adrianna Leon’s second-half strike proved enough to grab the three points against Brighton Hove & Albion at the Poundland Bescot Stadium. The victory in Birmingham saw Aston Villa leapfrog into ninth position on the league table, with nine points now gathered in their inventory.

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So, is there still trouble in Birmingham?

Aston Villa were exceptional in last season’s campaign, and to compare the two seasons could be an unfair juxtaposition to illustrate. Football often hosts common instances where a club may have to face a period of regression in order to catapult forwards, though in Ward’s case, this conclusion would seem to appear as more of an excuse.

The summer transfer window saw greater ins than outs, with Ward signing an impressive calibre of talent on to her side. As we can now reflect on the opening game week through a more circumspect lens, marginal defeat to Manchester United seems far less impressive due to the questionable current form of the Mancunian side.

Pair this with the fact that Aston Villa have already fallen to seven defeats, equal to their total losses in the entirety of their 2022/23 campaign, Carla Ward’s side still walks the line of danger as they head into the latter half of the season. Aston Villa showcased glimpses of excellence in opening months of the 2023/24, though the moments seemed to arrive in few and far between. As the new year approaches, Carla Ward will be eagerly working toward a turnaround for her Aston Villa side.