Different Players Same Problems at Aston Villa

The psychology of different players same problems for Aston Villa

The season started with new owner, different manager and a revamped squad. This  brought great optimism to Aston Villa supporters and why not?  It seemed the problems of last season had not just been addressed but decisively blown away.  Two new strikers of 20 plus goals per season, a couple of  proven leaders , defenders with excellent championship pedigree,  topped by a new and enthusiastic owner in Dr. Tony Xia who  has spent very  generously.  Aston Villa targeted players with good attitude, skill and experience.  What could go wrong?  

Everything it seems.  The new players haven’t done as well as they did last season and the leaders look lost. To a man, they have all under-performed as individuals and as a team.  Already, there has been a managerial change.  No wonder Villa fans are so incredulous.

But consider this:

‘For 20 minutes we played well.  So if you can do that for 20 minutes why can’t you do the same for the rest of the game?’

“The movement of the team was not good- they played without confidence”

“When they are nervous, they stop pressurising high and fast: they drop deep leaving the striker isolated and struggling to lift the yoke placed by the opposition defence”

It sounds like Aston Villa doesn’t it?  But wait, these criticisms weren't directed at Aston Villa they came from Fabio Cappello.  It is how he described England in 2012 “the problem is here" said Cappello tapping his head.   Roy Hodgson three years later complained of the “psychological barrier” the England players have.


Curse or no curse

There is no curse at Aston Villa and there is no psychological jinx at Wembley

The England team,  like Aston Villa has seen a change of players and managers but their players still look like the shadows of the players they can be.   Aston Villa and England share the same problem: lack of confidence. This is not the only issue of course but it can be addressed.

Lack of confidence is down to a combination and set of circumstances that triggers self-doubt.  If those circumstances are replicated then confidence soon evaporates.  This is why changing the players and the manager is not fool -proof because if similar circumstances and conditions reappear, (and by those I mean situations in games like losing repeatedly from winning positions) then no amount of personnel change will solve the problem completely.

The signs a player are struggling mentally

Not many commentators have described this as well as Gladwell on Novotna’s folding in the deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon final.  Look out for the similarities in the way some of the Villa players have performed... 

 “She wasn’t throwing the ball high enough...her head was down.  Her movements had slowed markedly…she inexplicably hit a low flat shot directly instead of a high crosscourt forehand that would have given her time to get back into position.   Novotna was unrecognizable, not an elite tennis player anymore but a beginner again.  “

Can you think of a time when the Aston Villa players haven’t looked like elite players?  Have there been occasions when they look laboured, drained of energy and couldn’t complete the most simple of passes?  Is is physical fatigue as Steve Bruce suggested on Saturday or is it mental over whelm.  There been bad decisions made, particularly in high pressure points of the game. These aren't  down to physical fitness but more down  to not coping  under pressure.


The part the manager has  played

The media suggests the general consensus amongst Aston Villa supporters was that Roberto di Mateo failed because of his tactics, team selection and formations.  This may be so, but doesn’t totally explain why individual players have failed to get the basics right compared with their quality performances last season.   Aston Villa are sixth place for shots taken and has three, twenty goal season strikers yet sit at a lowly 19th  position. 

The importance of security

Managers need to implement a system that compliments the players and most importantly one they feel comfortable with.  This is crucial from a psychological standpoint... 

Security and familiarity breed confidence.  A player becomes more prone to nerves and mistakes when he over thinks what should come naturally.  Think about technique and moves on the practice ground – never in the competition itself.  A client contacted me midway through a competition recently because the coach had changed the technique.  I got him to ignore the technique thinking and trust his instinct again.  He regained focus and won the competition.

So where players have to think too much about where to be and how to play, alert signals interfere with playing instinctively and fluidly.  Did the outgoing manager  pay too much attention to style of play and not enough to the players’ strengths and capabilities within the squad?

How Aston Villa are losing the mental game

Aston Villa have lost points  because they are not coping well at the high pressure points in the game.  These are defending your own goal and taking your chance to score. (or making the right decision to pass to someone in the best position to score)    Players can falter under pressure and this is when poor decisions are made like a keeper coming out at the wrong time or the striker over thinking the technique for the shot and firing over the bar.  On Saturday it was Kodija not seeing the ideal pass for Ross McCormack to score.

Whilst Aston Villa are doing ok in getting shots on goal,  only 39 per cent of those are on target.  Is this down to the poor form of the strikers (due to confidence) or players making bad decisions? Nerves can cause vision to narrow which interferes with the broader vision that players need to select the right passes, particularly in front of goal.  Or it may just be a case of failing to think and pick the right pass.  It is also why players go for the safe pass : the fear of losing possession and getting the blame.

The solution for Aston Villa

It is not just a case of the players “manning up” as some people suggest but understanding how to think under pressure.  e.g. when the brain either goes into panic mode and stops thinking altogether or it goes into over thinking mode which is bad. In this state players go through the motions and their game never flows. They are easily distracted and everything is an effort.  

When you first learn a move, you think it through in a deliberate and mechanical manner. With practice, your unconscious takes over and you can make the move without thinking.   That is the optimum state to perform in, but  when the nerves kick in the over  thinking interferes and trust vanishes.  Things done so easily in practice become ten times more difficult.  This is when elite performers go back to being beginners like Novotna did in the Wimbledon final.

 It is also the state of mind that has dogged the English players, particularly in penalty shoot outs.

Penalties – the English way - an example of not dealing with pressure

So famous are the English team for choking in penalty shoot outs that there is even a research study specifically on England.  Rushing and avoiding eye contact with the keeper are two symptoms of a fragile mental state.   As AshleyCole said “you can’t help but thinkabout Southgate, Batty, Pearce, Beckham and Waddle and all those penalty nightmare misses of old….. Adding more pressure and fear”  

But it starts even before they get to the shoot outs, as English players have admitted that when they line up in the tunnel, their minds are ablaze with the ‘what ifs’ of negative thinking.

England and Aston Villa’s albatross

Negative thoughts of future “what ifs” and revisiting past mistakes have become Aston Villa’s and England’s albatross.  Regularly conceding goals in the last eight minutes as Aston Villa have done needs to be eradicated from the collective memory.   Ironically, the more you don’t want to do something, the more you are likely to end up doing it – because to think of ‘not doing it’ the mind has to think of doing it.  Mistakes can go in pairs, the initial mistake and then the mistake caused by the emotional reaction to the mistake.

The new Manager Past Closure

From a psychological perspective, a new Manager can boost confidence as change represents renewed hope.  With di Mateo changing tactics and team selection frequently, the players will have sensed uncertainty if not desperation

But if there is a honeymoon period it can be short lived though and research shows changing manager makes little difference to points gained over the season as a whole.

Aston Villa needs to put their first twelve games firmly behind them and start with a mental clean sheet.  If they don’t, then things will not improve as easily as they could do.  A change of manager will help the process as it is a symbolic closure of past weaknesses.  Forget the past and talk of how few games have been lost,  silence the 'we failed because'  look to the games or parts of games where Aston  Villa have excelled.  

The Wolves game

"Confidence is everything in life and those Villa players look like they haven't any" Ian Holloway after the 1-1 draw

Whilst far too early to assess the impact of the new manager, the signs of anxiety and confidence continue.  The second half saw Wolves come out determined and confident, playing a pressing game whilst Aston Villa reacted rather than took control.  The positive was the first half penalty, confidently taken by Jonathan Kodjia.  Unfortunately, later on in the game he was criticised for not passing to McCormack who was in a better position to shoot.  Maybe Kodjia fancied it himself - hes a striker after all.  But if he didn't see McCormack this can be down to stress narrowing vision - anxiety does affect peripheral vision and the ability to read the game fully as discussed earlier.  One professional footballer described it as "like wearing blinkers - you only see what is in front of you"

Steve Bruce commented after the game that the reason for Aston Villa shipping late goals has been down to fitness.   Whether it is tired legs or mental fatigue, the fact remains Aston Villa  have the potential to do much better.   If you are in any doubt, take a look at the way they played against Newcastle in the second half. Aston Villa shocked both the Newcastle  players and Benitez with their attacking aggression and energy.  For 30 minutes they had Newcastle pinned to the ropes. They played like a good premier league  team.  

 Forget how many games Aston Villa have lost, it is performances like this Newcastle one that should be foremost in the Villa players minds.  As the old cliche goes 'class is permanent, form is temporary'.  If Aston Villa have the players to produce this against Newcastle then this can be replicated.  They need to focus on this and not on the past disappointments .   Because right now one of the things stopping them  is themselves .


Jenny Truman  

Performance and Mental Skills Coach specialising in Confidence for sports people