There is an old idiom that suggests a day can make a difference. When it comes to Aston Villa, they might want to contemplate what a difference 396 days can make.
Last year in this fixture, Aston Villa lost 2-0 at Deepdale. That Preston North End side was managed by Simon Grayson. Villa, as we all recall, were under the guidance of Roberto Di Matteo. That loss was ultimately the last straw for Dr. Tony. The Italian was sacked after just twelve matches in charge.
Fast-forward to tonight, and the man who replaced him, Steve Bruce, had his Aston Villa side clearly raring to go in what was a massive road fixture in the Championship.
Villa’s manager opted to keep Alan Hutton as the starting left-back. That decision, along with the choice of formation (i.e. 4-4-1-1), paid dividends as the claret and blue were dominant straight out of the gate.
In the very first minute, Keinan Davis’ strength allowed him to knock down a ball played into the box. Robert Snodgrass found the end of it, but wasn’t quite able to position himself to get a proper hit. However, his attempt did graze the top netting. That was undoubtedly a sign of things to come.
Villa started brightly winning the majority 50/50 battles and defending in a way that did not allow Preston to keep the ball consistently.
Eight minutes in, a good spell of attacking play saw Albert Adomah’s pass into the box land right at Keinan Davis’ feet. Davis struck the shot well, but an outstanding save from Chris Maxwell prevented Villa from going up 1-0.
A breakthrough seemed imminent and it came just four minutes later. Aston Villa took advantage of Preston’s slack zonal marking as James Chester got on the end of a Robert Snodgrass corner and headed it home to give Villa a well-deserved 1-0 lead.
The 19th minute saw Preston get their first real opportunity of the match as Conor Hourihane conceded a free kick that led to a Daniel Johnson corner. A really clever set piece nearly earned a goal scoring opportunity for the Lilywhites. However, John Terry cleared the danger as he headed a threatening ball out over the crossbar for a second corner that amounted to nothing.
Fourteen minutes later, a cheap piece of play from Preston was taken advantage of. The enigmatic Josh Onomah, who tonight showed why he is so highly rated, broke down the right flank. His squared ball found Robert Snodgrass in the box and the Scot comfortably slotted it home.
The irony was that ‘Snoddy’ was getting an earful from Steve Bruce just a minute or two prior. At the point, the claret and blue appeared to be the dominant force in the match.
For the rest of the first half, that same trend continued. Alex Neil’s side never really looked a threat. After three minutes of stoppage time, Villa went into the locker room having not conceded a single shot on goal.
Villa came out of the locker room and very quickly looked as if they were going to add to their lead as John Terry nearly got his second goal for the club. Villa’s captain got on the end of a Robert Snodgrass cross in the 47th minute and headed it just over Chris Maxwell’s goal.
From that point on, the match stayed fairly true to form as Alex Neil’s side were never able to fashion any true threat on Sam Johnstone’s goal.
As per Aston Villa, they were incredibly strong at the back throughout the second half. John Terry, in particular, really stood out. He and the rest the back-four allowed Villa to have some quality counter-attacks out of defence. It was probably the best transition play from Steve Bruce’s side this season.
There were some moments worth noting in the second half. Unfortunately Josh Onomah, who was having an impressive outing, went down with what appeared to be a groin knock in the 60th minute. The youngster tried to continue, but he was quickly subbed off and replaced by Mile Jedinak.
Keinan Davis had another outstanding performance up front. However, he picked up a yellow card in the 62nd minute after agressively leaping into an aerial challenge. From that point on, it appeared as if Preston were trying to goad Davis into a second yellow.
After getting into a brief shoving match, Steve Bruce replaced Davis with Scott Hogan. The talented lad did not appear too pleased and the manager had what surely was, a teaching moment in the 71st minute.
Preston managed just two shots on target and Sam Johnstone handled them well. Villa’s keeper, and Preston native, was in command of his box all night.
As for Villa, they had a few threatening opportunities in the second half. Alan Hutton almost got on the end of a Conor Hourihane cross in the 79th minute. Two minutes prior, Albert Adomah’s open attempt just fizzed over the bar.
All in all, tonight’s performance was impressive. The outcome and the team’s play was a stark contrast to what Villans saw in this fixture last season.
Onwards, and surely with more clean sheets as well as play like that, upwards!