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.
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.
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.
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.
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.