In the opening week of the Premier League season, Aston Villa have lost two important players to major injuries.
Words: Daniel Bettridge | @DanielBettridge
If you asked at the start of the season who Aston Villa couldn’t afford to lose to injury and you would have been told two names: Ollie Watkins and Emi Martinez. Two players the Villans simply lack the squad depth to replace.
Ask for two more and a duo of players would have instantly sprung to mind. Given the injuries that have befallen Aston Villa in the opening weekend of the season, then it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to work out.
First, before a ball had even been kicked in anger, Unai Emery lost Emi Buendia to an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury. Then in a cruel twist of fate – and an even crueller twist of a knee – Tyrone Mings was stretchered out of St. James’ Park with what looked suspiciously like the very same injury.
At the time of writing, there has been no confirmation around Tyrone’s injury, though judging by his reaction on the pitch and his subsequent visit to a Newcastle infirmary, fans suspect it’s not going to be good news.
It’s a tragedy for the players and a huge loss to a squad that was being touted as one of the strongest in the league. Above all, however, this one-two of misfortune has reached in and ripped the beating heart out of this team.
So why are Emi Buendia and Tyrone Mings so important to this Aston Villa, and what will we miss in their all-too-long absence?
Aston Villa is a team that leaves just about everything out on the pitch. A team full of bravery and work rate.
With Buendia, it’s all too easy to see. What the diminutive Argentine lacks in stature he more than makes up for in sheer will. To watch him on the pitch is to watch the full spectrum of emotion play out in front of your eyes. You see, while many Premier League players are poker-faced, Buendia lets everything out. And I mean everything. Every misplaced pass, every pulled shot, every miscontrolled reception is greeted with self-flagellation. Every mistake of his teammates is met with exasperation and every challenge from the opposition is met with gritted teeth and dogged pressing.
It’s passion. Pure, unfiltered, raw passion. And it’s infectious. Buendia is often the spark plug for Villa’s attack, a quality that will be sorely missed throughout the season.
Of course, he’s not alone. After Buendia, there’s another player that lives and breathes every moment of the match. He thunders into tackles. Puffs out his chest. And bellows at his teammates so loud you can hear him in the stands. He may not wear the armband these days but Tyrone Mings is everything you expect of a captain. He sets the standards and the tone both on and off of the pitch and is nothing short of the beating heart of Aston Villa football club.
His importance cannot be understated. Fans can see how valuable he is by the response of his teammates to what looked like a horrific injury. They were shell-shocked. Subdued. Rudderless. This Aston Villa team lacks leaders, and after Mings went off we saw exactly what happens when you don’t have someone calling the shots on the pitch as well as off of it.
Emotionally the chasm left by the injuries to Buendia and Mings is something that’s hard to quantify. There are no metrics for vibes. No way of working out if the lack of leadership or energy on the pitch will impact our performance. Tactically however things are far easier to analyse.
Unfortunately for Villa, Buendia and Mings are as important to that, more ethereal side of the game, as they are to the blood and thunder element of it.
Buendia, as already mentioned, is a spark-plug. His attacking prowess has been in scant supply since his move to Villa Park. Villa’s number 10 hasn’t hit the highs of the man whose shirt he inherited, and the lack of goals and assists has seen him questioned in some corners of the fanbase. But even when he’s not delivering attacking output, it’s what Buendia does off the ball that makes him so invaluable to Unai Emery’s team.
He is the most effective counter-pressing weapon at Unai Emery’s disposal. In fact last season he led the squad for tackles in the final third, ranking among the top 20 players in the league for the metric. Put simply, Buendia is great at not only winning the ball back, but winning it back just after Villa has lost the ball. It’s a skill that Emery prizes, which is why Buendia was the only player to appear in every match under the Spaniard across all competitions last campaign.
Those transitional moments are key to the way that Unai Emery’s team plays. Get them right and more often than not the boys in Claret and Blue come out on top. Get them wrong however and our finely tuned tactical machine can suddenly start to tear itself apart, just as it seemed to as Aston Villa slumped to defeat against Newcastle.
Though operating at the other end of the pitch, Mings is just as important to the way that Villa play. The Villa number five topped the interceptions charts for Premier League defenders last campaign, finishing sixth in the overall rankings, surrounded by a bevvy of ball-winning midfielders. He is the man who steps out of the defensive line. The one who snuffs out danger before it enters our box.
On the pitch, he also seems to be the voice that commands the back four to step out or drop off. Unai Emery might be the man who sets things up on the training ground, but it’s Mings who barks out the orders once they cross the chalk rubicon.
His importance to the way our team plays cannot be underestimated. Aston Villa have won just one of the 12 Premier League games that they’ve started without their talismanic defender. It’s perhaps no wonder then that Villa’s high line went from well-honed to near suicidal after the big man’s exit after less than half an hour against the Magpies.
In Emi Buendia and Tyrone Mings, Aston Vila have two players who, physically, couldn’t be any further apart. But while there is clear daylight between the 5’8 midfielder and the 6’5 centreback, one thing this duo share is physicality.
Buendia of course is not afraid to put himself about. He’s a hard tackler, a dirty one occasionally. A practitioner of the dark arts who adds a much-needed bite to our midfield.
Mings’ physicality is more self-evident.
Whether it’s a crunching tackle or a towering header, the Claret and Blue colossus offers a much-needed presence in a backline that otherwise comprises more elegant defenders like Torres, Konsa and Cash. Now those lads are all great defenders. As are the midfielders and forwards who offer earlier lines of defence in front of them. But they go about their business in an entirely different way.
Take Mings out of the equation and suddenly we look a lot less imposing. In Konsa and Torres (and in fact Kamara and Luiz) Aston Villa have a wealth of talent to pick from, the problem is that they’re more technical than terrifying. It’s probably an overgeneralisation, but in the absence of Mings we look like a team of ballers in a league that also needs a few bullies. As we saw against Newcastle, for all of their attributes Konsa and Torres do not make an imposing double act.
That means if Mings’ injury does turn out to be as bad as we all fear, Diego Carlos (who let’s not forget suffered a similar misfortune just 12 months ago) will have a vital role to play for Unai Emery. The Brazilian is an imposing specimen, but he’s also aggressive in the tackle and strong in the air. Worryingly, he’s probably the only defender currently fit to play who specialises in those areas. All of which means he could well be the most important part of the team’s defence as we go into the remaining 37 games of the Premier League season. A panic-inducing thought given that he’s only just returning to active duty.
The worst possible start
Forget the result on Saturday. Most fans felt as if they had the stuffing knocked out of them after seeing Mings writhing in pain on the pitch. Many of those fans were comfortably perched on their sofa, far away from the pressures of Premier League football. So for me, the players get a free pass. They were clearly rocked by the injury and frankly, who can blame them?
The worries, however, are not the result against Newcastle but the impact that these two injuries could have on our season as a whole. In the space of 48 hours Villa have lost two of the most important players at this club. They’re the emotional hearts of the team. The driven, combative warriors who drive their teammates forwards and the tactically astute operators who bring the manager’s plans to life.
One result won’t define Aston Villa’s season. But one (or two) injuries, may well do. This may have been one of the worst-ever opening-day defeats in the club’s history, but it’s the loss of two such crucial cogs that could prove to be altogether more damaging than the scoreline ever will be.