I’ve been waiting since 1930 to see what we just saw from Villa last night. Okay, since 1975, more like. Doesn’t make it any less special. Four wins to open the 2020-21 campaign is all anyone could’ve asked for. And while opinions diverge a little on the performance, it’s nonetheless a quality win. Perhaps more impressive, in those four matches, Villa have beaten teams that finished 1st, 5th, and 9th in the league last year, along with the somewhat hapless Cottagers.

Not bad, Villa. Not bad at all.

The Good
A disciplined, professional performance. Another clean sheet…that’s three out of four, now. Matt Targett finally getting in crunching tackles. Trezeguet running and harassing like his life, more so than a starting spot, depended on it. Matty Cash really growing into it, showing and inspiring confidence. Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings looking quite assured. Great pairing. Emi Martinez barely tested.

Grealish, despite dwelling too long on occasion, coming away with another impressive performance. Ross Barkley grabbing a late winner. Ollie Watkins working all over the pitch on a day of few chances. Douglas Luiz doing what he does, calmly and effectively, seemingly everywhere. John McGinn doing what he does: fight, run, win and hold, and spray some lovely passes.

More than one-third of last season’s points tally in just four games.

The Bad
Villa seemed stuck in second gear for large parts of the match. But it was also scrappy, with the Foxes intent on playing rough and making it hard for Jack to influence the game. Few truly gilt-edged chances. A bad pass or two that could’ve been punished on another day.

The Ugly
I didn’t like the scissor tackle on Jack. Dangerous stuff that could well have been worth a red and easily done some serious damage. I also didn’t like Castagne apparently having free rein to put in hard fouls until he was finally booked for accumulation. Not a good look, Brendan.

Final Verdict
It’s hard to overstate what an important victory this was. No, we didn’t win anything, and no it won’t continue like this. But to come off the high of dismantling Liverpool, go away for two weeks, and return to grind out a win on the road against an undermanned but still highly capable and well-drilled Leicester squad shows a different mentality in the team. It’s not a game we’d have won last season. Neither was Liverpool, for that matter, whatever the score.

Further, when people point out we’re thin, it’s true. So making hay while the sun shines is doubly important. Lots of players were away, lots of travel and disruption, some playing a lot of minutes. They come back tired and without whatever momentum they might’ve been carrying. Bruce never quite got the knack of getting performances after international breaks. This time, Villa had enough structure, fitness, and individual talent to give a solid, professional performance.

And that’s the thing that caught the eye: Villa looked like they knew what they were doing. It wasn’t a desperate rear-guard action. We weren’t on the ropes, scrambling and chasing. It wasn’t a smash-and-grab.

Yes, Leicester are different with Maddison and Vardy starting. It’s a far different attack. But Villa stuck with it against what was in front of them, which wasn’t nothing. They kept their concentration. Knew when to try and force the issue and when to be patient. We tried to stay on the front foot. Leicester were going to have their moments, but Villa never let them grab hold of anything, and managed the game well. Leicester were also intent on keeping us from playing, but we didn’t shrink. The Liverpool game certainly had their attention, gave them lots of film to watch, and Rodger’s no mug. Didn’t matter.

And while it seemed Jack might’ve been at less than his best in terms of decision-making, he still tormented the Foxes, coming up with 4 key passes and 8 dribbles, second most in a PL game this season, to earn an 8.29 and MOTM from Who Scored. He may have dithered at times, but he still played a number of killer balls. Right now, he’s playing at a different level.

Ollie Watkins showed a lot of maturity working hard all over the pitch. It was a day of few chances for the striker, but that didn’t stop him playing for the team.

Ross Barkley was a strong anchor, a good outlet and passer (92.7%), and obviously a goal-scorer by not hesitating to have a go when it was on. I thought he’d score earlier when Jack defied physics getting into the box and found him. But his tidy take, turn, and shot were foiled by a stretching block in a very crowded penalty area.

I likewise thought Luiz had one to his credit, but the hard, clean shot flew straight into Schmeichel’s arms. Likewise, Konsa did well with his chance, but had been pushed just wide enough to see his effort go wide.

Trezeguet was inches away from pouncing himself, put off by an incoming, lunging challenge that’s not a foul only when it happens in the box and the shot is away. While he doesn’t pose the direct attacking threat of many wingers, his work without the ball is invaluable (3 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 3 clearances: second only to Cash, overall) and he has a knack of popping up enough at the right time and place to add attacking value. Lose him, and he’ll deliver an assist or good effort on goal.

For his part, Traoré’s cameo showed how good he is on the ball. Given Trez’s efforts, he’s getting time to be brought on slowly, see what’s required, and find his feet in a new league. But when he’s out there, he looks dangerous, and links up well. He will provide a true attacking threat teams have to respect. But Smith’s right to keep the balance as-is, for the moment. Villa are 4-0 with Trez starting, after all.

Emi Martinez is inspiring confidence and has really taken control of the back line. His distribution and decision-making are top notch, and his hands are good. I can only think of one save where he was stretched, and then the near-post effort where he was big and showed strong hands. I see Martinez’s expression when he’s getting the team set for a dangerous free kick and I feel like only a worldie is going to beat him.

When people say it’s hard to define our style, I think we saw it in one way against Liverpool and in a different guise against Leicester. What’s making it take shape is Barkley’s presence and Ollie’s movement and athleticism. They clearly make the team less one-dimensional, give Jack players to work with, and allow McGinn to play to his strengths. Luiz has provided an anchor at the back to sweep up, but he also plays an increasing role in transition and provides cover and an outlet higher up. In short, we finally have a spine.

The ball sticks more up top, and players have the freedom to move and make runs knowing Luiz and the back line are there with plenty of quickness and recovery speed. Not to mention pretty good decision-making of their own. We counter when it’s there, build and cycle when it’s not. But we attack. We’re always looking to score, and the free-flowing style is a lot to handle for 90 minutes.

In the end, it was a day where the opposition were tough, had quality on the ball, posed their own not inconsiderable attacking threat, and Villa were not quite in full flow, in many ways down to Leicester’s set-up and tactics. The side still ground out a deserved three points by always looking the more likely to score after the half and not getting discouraged when it wasn’t happening. They didn’t get caught out, they didn’t get outfought. They stayed organized and kept coming.

Job well done.

Over to you.

Comments 51

  1. Thanks JC- Pretty much how I saw the game, I think the most impressive thing was how we wrestled the game from them and dictated the pace. By the second half there was only us in it when looking for a winner. Some pundits are saying it was a boring match but I didn’t think so, it was very technical.

    When Smith was at Brentford they could play 2-3 different ways and that was why I wanted him. What could look like them retreating was a ploy, Going long if the chance arose, running the ball if the space opened up but never in a robotic way.

    Finally I think we have twigged and I think the likes of ElGhazi and Conor may not be direct like for like replacements but I think the confidence and how the team play will raise them up. I know a few don’t like Targett and Trez but they don’t make the team weak. If that was so then buy two players and give us the title now because we look pretty impressive 🙂

  2. MK,

    Agreed. Not boring (but we’re far from neutral). Was finely poised and very professionally executed by both sides. But like you say, we took it over, and it would’ve felt like a sucker punch had we conceded in the 2nd.

    And I think we’re starting to see that variation in play now that we can hold onto the ball better and not have Jack as our only outlet. Or, starting to see it work, anyway.

    I’m enjoying watching the phases, when the hard press is on and off, the zonal press, how well they’re filling their lanes, what they’re willing to give up.

    Might have seemed a bit pointless, some of the long balls to Ollie, but the idea is to keep the opponent honest, and if one produces a goal, as it will, so much the better. But the CBs can’t relax or push up too far. With Ross, we seem to be winning and holding on to more of the second balls.

  3. JC – yep it’s about keeping them guessing, I think players like mcginn, grealish, traore, Barkley (and if you look at our u23’s them too ) will be in demand when teams begin to copy. The ability to dribble when needed rather than just pure pace is at the heart of our team . I thought at one point we had to much of that but now I see why.

    Thanks wolves for softening Leeds up 🙂

  4. I just read a tactical review of the game

    As we all know, first 20 minutes we were actually a bit poor, especially on the ball we couldn’t get build up and lcfc jad a lot of space with the right back getting forward and nobody tracking him

    This was because we played 433 high and the front 3 were very high and narrow, and the midfield 3 were narrow to which left the right back in space.

    Smith realised this and we changed to a 4132 off the ball. Barkley came out more and tracked the right back. Luiz sat deeper. Trezeguet tucked on with Mcginn.

    It also mentioned when we struggled on the ball, we moved Barkley deeper and mcginn number 10. Barkley is better at retaining the ball and finding forward passes

    So Smith showing some tactical ability. Or its Shakespeare.

  5. Also Martinez, a sign of a good keeper is when they have to do nothing and then he pulled off a good save that deflected off Mings

    The good thing with Grealish, Barkley, mcginn we have the ability to play different formations. All can play wider, or deeper, or more narrow

    We have to pray none get injured because then the likes if hourihane come in who is just slow and one dimensional

  6. It’s just a nice change. We have been professional off the pitch this summer, with our owners, appointing Shakespeare, improving the starting 11.

    And finally, following on from last 4 games of lock down, we look professional on the pitch

    We are acting like the big club we are

  7. Frem,

    Yeah, I don’t think Smith gets enough credit. You’ll see lots of things in games that don’t get mentioned after, and it’s very fluid. Unless you’re neutral or tasked with it, me, I get caught up in the game, and you do have to go back and watch again to chart those things out. Otherwise, you just notice them in passing unless it really persists.

    Like I was saying to Mark, you’ll see changes in the tactics/shape off the ball, how we pull off the hard press and you see Jack and Ollie at the top (4-1-3-2), then others coming up or not, etc. Barkley dropping back deeper (commentator wondering why he was), Trez’s role being much more defensive in many ways. Remember Jack finding a streaking SJM down the left wing? This was all happening before, but people were saying Smith was inflexible, and he wasn’t. It was just down to the squad, really, what they could and couldn’t do, injuries, understandings and responsibilities.

    So I think it’s hard to say we play 4-3-3, Jack’s not a winger, Trez, etc. Same with all teams, but it’s never that simple. If you compare Liverpool’s basic 4-3-3 with us, Trez does a helluva lot more work off the ball than Salah, for example. Salah scores a helluva lot more goals. Ollie’s expected to do different things than Firmino. So, same basic setup on paper a lot of the time because they have to put players’ names in dots on a pitch before kickoff, but it ends up working much differently more often than not.

    Right now, going forward, I’d say we’re as much a 4-2-3-1 as anything most of the time. But it depends on how the team’s positioned when you get the ball.

  8. Or even a 4-1-1-3-1 going forward because McGinn is moving into that space ahead of Luiz.

    You get up the pitch, it flattens out. Targett and Jack combine on the left, we know, and now it’s Barkley who’ll come over and make the triangle instead of Hourihane, sometimes Ollie, though he’s usually expected to get to the box for the ball from Targett or Jack unless he’s just been pulled out there from chasing a pass or pressing.

    But Barkley will do more than Hourihane, who was more comfortable as a pivot/passing outlet than someone who’ll hold in the middle, or take it and go to goal, etc. McGinn arrives, Trez is being forgotten wide right. Then if we’ve really got them penned in, Luiz arrives.

    So, Barkley and Hourihane often with the same responsibility, but Barkley being better and stronger on the ball, it changes things. Hourihane was defo there for the cutbacks, etc., but he’s just more lightweight.

  9. Mark, even without Phillips, Leeds will be a tough one. But we have a chance to roll Bielsa over and as we’ll be shooting for top spot, I can’t wait for Friday night.

  10. Last season Villa lost more points from a winning position than anyone else. I think there was good talent on the team but little confidence, in awe of the premier league and thus folded. This year which actually started last July with the team staying in the prem was all due to an increase in confidence. Then, some amazing transactions in the transfer season. Picking up Watson, Barkley, and especially Martinez has improved player’s game and confidence all the way down to the Solihull Moors. The ingredients that have transformed the team are firstly the owners who have bought into Villa 100% and Dean Smith. Not only very good on the sideline running the game but his ability to attract some of the best in the industry to be his right hand men and women. All of them inspirational in their own way. I’m sure this is a team that is going to solidify and become a top 6 side for the foreseeable future.

    I posted this last night

  11. We’ll see what top 6 means Ian, now Liverpool and United want to revive the Super League. We can see what they were after in scrapping the cup and a couple league games.

    Greedy bastards want a closed shop for global TV money, don’t want the Villas coming up and crashing their party. The PL should just boot them now.

  12. Excellent leader JC,
    and some good comments from many, but perhaps only Frem has touched on the major difference, which is the recruitment of Craig Shakespeare, and how things have changed on the pitch. I think that John Terry may also be having more influence since Craig’s arrival.
    Villa have become the opposition now, making sure that we see the game out, and if there is going to be a late winner, then we are going to score it.
    Of course the team has changed too, and we now have the best spine since our European legends , with Martinez, Barkley and Watkins being recruited to cement that spine. I have no problem with the squad, and playing the same players week in week out, as that is what many of the great teams do, breeding such a close understanding.
    We will use subs, but on a much more limited basis for now, and the squad will be strengthened with the return of Wesley, sooner than originally expected. I agree also that the more and more the squad train together the better they will all become, along with some very good under 23’s vying for a place.
    Was lucky enough to be in a pub in Paignton on Sunday night, surrounded by Villa fans enjoying Box Office on big screens, and the atmosphere was electric throughout the match, and enjoyed by neutrals too!!
    The beer flowed well, and the magic moment of Ross Barkley’s added time goal was a memory that will last a long time, and the icing on the cake after the thrashing of Liverpool.
    Let no one under estimate how big this win was! To win the first four games of the season at this level is a first, never mind that we have not done it for 90 years in the top division of the time.
    I am grounded that we may not manage a fifth win on Friday, but it is within our sights and capabilities, so lets make sure we are all onside for Dean Smith, his management team, and our wonderful boys in claret and blue, ably led by Captain “Marvel” Jack Grealish.

    Please can people stop underestimating the value of Trezeguet and Targett, as they are growing in their roles week by week, along with the rest of the team.

  13. Was wondering why we need 5 assistant coaches and a manager but we can see the impact on the field. The ability to weather the early pressure, get into position quickly and trust in team mates shows. We are thin and it may show as the season as the season progresses but we have to live with it. Luiz needs to cut down on the cards, he’s invaluable in protecting that back line and moving the ball forward.

    Kalvin will be a big miss for Leeds but their midfield with the high press will be a big threat. Need to be on top of our game, bring it on.

  14. what I love about our mid is even though they are all well rounded they bring different things.

    Luiz is very technical and breaks up play and starts attacks. Mcguinn is like a terrier. And Barkely can drive and carry the ball. It really is exciting.

  15. PP – no doubt Shakespeare has had an effect or why employ him. As for how much? Game management and knowledge of the opposition definitely but smith was behind our revival after lockdown and I feel the main man in the transfers for this window, this is his idea of how he wants to play not Leicester mark 2.

  16. MK,
    In agreement with your thoughts about Dean, but what Shakespeare has done, is exactly as you say, to bring game management, knowledge of the opposition, and maybe a little more tenacity, which Villa have lacked.

    I feel Leicester, like Burnley and many other sides are much harder in the game and are set out to intimidate the opposition. Castagne was a prime example, who got away with far more than he should have done.
    McGinn getting booked for a tackle that was not even a foul, was a joke.

  17. Phillips out for Friday is huge for us. He’s everything for Leeds. Very good DM so should make them worse

    DAVIS should be fit for Friday. Good. We need him off the bench in games. Watkins can’t play every second

    Can’t wait to Friday

    It’s a pleasure watching Watkins, Barkley, grealish, mcginn, Luiz and our back 5

  18. PP- theres an article underneath that one and its an eye opener

    “Averaging 1.9 clearances per game and 2.7 interceptions per game may not initially seem too eye-catching, but when you learn that McGinn averages less than half of this, and Grealish musters up even lower numbers than the Scot, Trezeguet’s defensive input is emphasised. Additionally, Trezeguet has made 11 tackles across Villa’s 4 Premier League games so far, edging out Jack Grealish’s nine and totally eclipsing John Mcginn’s four.”

    “It isn’t just defensively however that Trezeguet stands out, with his offensive numbers further proving his enviable fitness and desire. Not only does he come out on top against Grealish and McGinn when looking at take on success, but he also embarrasses other selected wingers from outside “the big six”, with his 83.33% success rate per game comprehensively beating Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin (70%), West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen (50%) and Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha (33.33%), all highly important players to their respective teams.”

  19. I think with The Bard, it’s a question of time and attention (and knowing what he’s doing, of course).

    One of the takeaways from lockdown was that the staff, as it was, didn’t have enough time to do all the coaching with each player on their individual games/weaknesses, etc., in the normal course of a season. Seems odd, but I guess the results point to that.

    We’re still playing the same system, trying to do the same things. But now we have better players at key positions, and the remaining players are now more familiar with their responsibilities, each other, and the league.

  20. JC- I’ll tell you why I don’t think its a massive lot to do with Shakespeare as such, we did a lot of our business late, the only players in pre-season friendlies were Cash and Watkins, Martinez’s 1st game was Sheff utd, Barkleys Liverpool and Traores was Bristol. If Shakespeare has made that much difference then he’s a fast worker.

  21. The article also highlighted the language difficulties that can occur for foreign players, and confirms the comments I made some while ago on how Elmo had been making a difference to Trez.
    It was also one of the main reason that the money ball players failed in Tim Sherwood’s time.

  22. Apparently Gabby is on for sky at our game and has been stirring the Leeds fans up, getting spicey, I read this from one lot.

    “Who would have thought that Leeds would be travelling to Villa Park to face the in-form team in the Premier League?

    And Leeds go there with huge injury problems, with Kalvin Phillips and Diego Llorente out, and Liam Cooper a big doubt.

    Pascal Struijk is set to replace Phillips and we’re hoping Cooper is fit so Bielsa doesn’t have to perform major surgery at the back.

    Villa can’t keep winning, though. They might have added Ollie Watkins but they haven’t turned from relegation fodder to Premier League winners overnight.”

    The last paragraph should be hung up in the dressing room, Gabbys comments might give Leeds incentive but two can play at that game 🙂

  23. Read an article by The Athletic:

    Villa defenders said Martinez is biggest difference for keeping clean sheets as they know he catches everything. Last season if the goalie saved the ball it would come back out to a striker or defender would have no clean up.

    Martinez is an angel

  24. Very tough game tonight. Probably harder than Liverpool and Leicester as Leeds will completely adapt to how we play and have a game plan

    They will probably have a plan to stop grealish

    Hope we make it 5 from 5.

  25. I’m not so confident tonight

    I think Leeds are fantastic. They don’t have a set way of paying.

    If we win this I think its more impressive than any win so far

  26. Frem- Leeds don’t have a set way of playing? are you sure mate they seem to me to be all out attack. Hence the stupid scorelines against attacking sides.

  27. I think that although they are fit and go man to man Leeds will find that we have three or four that can beat their markers. I think this could get heated (they did in the Champs) just hope the ref is strong and looks after Jack. Ironically we are 3rd in the yellow card league with 11, Leeds have 6 in 13th.

  28. Frem,

    For me, not as impressive as destroying Pool and going on to beat Leicester.

    But, it would be impressive to extend the streak (which obviously gets harder and harder) by having played all sorts of teams and it would be lovely to shut up some of the “Bielsa’s the Messiah” talk.

  29. Mark. I mean Leeds will have more a plan to stop Grealish than anyone else we have played will.

    No surprise with the starting 11

    But our bench is so so poor. Needs sorting in January.

    I don’t get why we don’t have Ramsey on the bench. He’s so much more dynamic than Hourihane. Of hourihane comes off it stops our game completely. We don’t need marvelous and Hourihane on the bench.

    And I see Ghaizi not even in the sqaud again. Obviously not impressing or fighting for his place. I’ll never know why we kept him and didn’t sign another winger

  30. January will depend an awful lot on where we sit by then, Mid table and I don’t think we will do a lot, still top 6 or dare I say it top 4 they might be tempted. In the event we are struggling with injuries then we might get some loans or recall Samatta 🙂

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