Alan Shearer column: ‘Ollie Watkins is key for amazing Villa – but don’t count Man City out’

18 December 2023 0 By Total Football News
Alan Shearer column

If you'd told me Aston Villa could be top of the Premier League on Christmas Day after Newcastle thrashed them 5-1 on the opening day of the season, I probably would have laughed.

But if Villa beat Sheffield United on Friday - which you'd expect them to, with their superb record at Villa Park - and Liverpool draw with Arsenal on Saturday, then Unai Emery's side will be at the summit when everyone tucks into their turkey.

That would be a fantastic achievement, but just for them to be up there in third place at this stage is amazing when you consider the way they started the season with that heavy defeat at St James' Park and also lost a key defender, Tyrone Mings, to a serious injury on the same day.

Snapshot of the top of the Premier League table: 1st Arsenal, 2nd Liverpool, 3rd Aston Villa, 4th Man City, 5th Tottenham & 6th NewcastleVilla were last top of the Premier League in August 2011 when they led for a single day. The last time they were top on Christmas Day was in 1998, when they eventually finished sixth

Being in the Europa Conference League has meant they have had to play a lot of games too but, as they showed when they beat Brentford, they are still able to find a way of getting a positive result even when they appear to be tired.

Villa certainly weren't anywhere near their best for large parts of Sunday's game but they stayed in it even when they trailed 1-0, and were able to turn it around once the Bees went down to 10 men.

After Ben Mee was sent off with 20 minutes to go, they managed to find space in the Brentford defence that wasn't there when it was 11 versus 11, and they were also able to exploit it - so well done to them.

Emery deserves great credit for that, and he has done a remarkable job to get Villa where they are in the table. The question now is how long can they stay there?

My biggest concern with their squad would be their depth in forward positions, particularly as back-up to their leading scorer Ollie Watkins, who has started all 17 of their league games so far.

Watkins is such an integral part of what they do, and I am not sure how they would cope without him, although it is noticeable that Villa have done a good job of keeping most of their key players fit so far.

They will also have the chance to bring in some reinforcements when the January transfer window opens, and it is going to be interesting to see what happens then.

Right now, they are doing everything right and, as well winning themselves, they had a great weekend with two of the other teams in the top four, Liverpool and Manchester City both dropping points.

Man City are used to having things their own way

Compared with the high standards they set themselves, City have hit a sticky patch with only one win in their past six league games.

They conceded another costly late equaliser against Crystal Palace on Saturday, after the same thing happened against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham in the past few weeks.

It just shows you that, even if you are as great as they are, when games are tight at the finish then uncertainty can creep in when you are on a run where you are not winning.

They are just not used to that, because they have had things very much their own way for such a long time.

Their points total is the lowest at this stage of the season since Pep Guardiola took charge in 2016, which is a concern, and if they are going to win the title again then it looks like they will have to do it in a different way to the years where they have been the dominant team.

Even so, it would be foolish to write them off, because they are far too good for that.

They will have ground to make up when they get back from Saudi Arabia and the Fifa Club World Cup, but I still expect them to go on one of their long winning runs at some stage.

When you consider they have got Erling Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne to come back into the team in the next few weeks, then of course they are going to figure in the title race.

Liverpool were very flat up front

Liverpool also had a frustrating time after going into their game against Manchester United as huge favourites.

All the talk beforehand was about how many they would win by, but in the end they were very flat up front.

Liverpool did not really move United's back four around, or at least did it nowhere near as much as we thought they might do - yes, United did well defensively but Liverpool played into their hands a lot of the time with the number of crosses they put in that were dealt with by Raphael Varane and Jonny Evans.

There has been plenty of criticism thrown at United in the past few weeks about the lack of effort from some of their players, and talk of unrest in the squad.

So, the one thing they had to do on Sunday was be together as a group, and give absolutely everything, and they certainly did that for their fans. It meant their gameplan worked, and a draw was a great result for them.

That togetherness has to continue, though. It can't just happen where they do that in one game at Anfield and then, when they play West Ham next weekend, go back to the way they performed in their defeats against Bournemouth or Newcastle.

United were set up to contain Liverpool but I think they had to play that way, because they did not have the tools to take the game to them and open them up.

In the end, though, it was United who had the best chance to win it through Rasmus Hojlund, who was denied by Alisson after being put through.

Hojlund is still yet to score in the Premier League after his £72m summer move from Atalanta, but I felt a bit sorry for him at times on Sunday.

He played such a difficult role, toiling away on his own against two of the best centre-halves in the top flight, Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate.

United were not exactly direct in terms of creating a load of chances before the break, and in fact they only manged two touches in the Liverpool box in the first 45 minutes.

It wasn't Hojlund's fault he wasn't in the game then, but where he had to do better was in the second half when the ball went up to him more but he sometimes struggled to bring it down and keep possession or win a free-kick.

Then of course he had that one big opportunity, which is all you want and need at Anfield, but he could not put it away.

Still, his side left with a point and there is no doubt they would have taken that before the game.

Rice has made the difference for Arsenal

Liverpool's draw left Arsenal in top spot, after their comfortable win over Brighton earlier in the day.

It is clear the Gunners have improved from last season, when they pushed City close until the final few games, and it is Declan Rice who has made the biggest difference.

I would go as far as saying he has been the stand-out signing from the summer, and the £100m he cost from West Ham looks like money well spent.

Rice has made the Gunners more solid and also gives them an extra little bit of bite in midfield, but everything he does on the ball is top class as well.

Arsenal haven't been quite as exciting as they were last year going forward but, along with Liverpool, they have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League so far and I think they will be delighted with the progress they have made.

I know my fellow pundit Ian Wright is very happy with the way things are going after watching Arsenal's win with him on Sunday.

We will all miss Wrighty a lot when he steps down from Match of the Day at the end of the season, and the office will definitely be a quieter place without him.

He brings such great energy and enthusiasm to the show every week, and not just when Arsenal are playing - but he is especially loud when they are winning and top of the league.

Alan Shearer was speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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