Aston Villa’s performance on a sun-soaked afternoon at Fulham’s Craven Cottage was akin to that of an empty vehicle stationed on a level crossing - sooner or later, a freight train at full speed will pass through, blasting apart it’s chassis and rendering it to crude, broken pieces that scatter far and wide - useless and broken debris.
To say the least, it wasn’t good.
If you’re looking for a good analysis, Alex Carson can provide you one through his xV, Expected Villa, column - which is a must-read. Spoiler alert though - I can tell you that one man, above all, shined.
He’s not a permanent Villa player, he’s not Sam Johnstone or Lewis Grabban, he is Axel Tuanzebe. On loan from Manchester United, Axel was injected into possibly the most difficult matchup of his senior career so far, and boy, was he good.
We haven’t seen much of Axel due to Ahmed Elmohamady’s relative stability at right-back, the emergence of Birkir Bjarnason in defensive midfield, and of course - the winning partnership of James Chester and John Terry at centre-back. He’s only made his starting debut due to an injury to Albert Adomah, which forced the aforementioned Elmohamady up the pitch to right-wing.
Axel put in a commanding shift for Villa on the right-side yesterday, and was a bright spot for a team that lacked identity and authority. His herculean performance put the Manchester United man in the spotlight, and for good reason. He was able to mark Ryan Sessegnon adequately until the England wonderkid adapted and adjusted his game to lead Fulham to victory, and that in itself was no easy task. Tuanzebe was able to cover the right flank, deep, and came to Villa’s rescue on more than one occasion to stop Fulham from blowing Villa away. The Kinshasa-born defender was composed on the ball, and despite a few poor dribbles from him, seemed to be patient and willing to push up the pitch.
Tuanzebe was far and away Villa’s best performer in a mediocre performance, and the shift he put in is shown in the numbers. He was able to total eight tackles, which puts him five above Mile Jedinak, who wasn’t polite to his counterparts and rushed in with three tackles himself. It was also five more than any Fulham player. He also led both teams in clearances, with only James Chester and Tim Ream coming close to his nine punts to safety.
The loan man may want to slow down on his long balls though - they didn’t go anywhere and he was as happy to hoof it as Sam Johnstone. Even so, Alan Hutton, his left-sided counterpart, showed a reluctance to launch the ball and that didn’t exactly get anyone anywhere, with Birkir Bjarnason being Villa’s best chance at creating a goal. Still, he did better than most Villa players by putting in a single key pass, two behind the three that ‘Thor’ was able to thread through.
Villa have enjoyed the aerial dominance of Mile Jedinak, John Terry, James Chester and sometimes Birkir Bjarnason in the middle of the pitch, and defense, throughout this season. Add Tuanzebe to that list, as winning nine aerial battles against Fulham truly puts him head and shoulders above anyone else in the match.
Finally, Axel’s 86 touches made him the Villa player who enjoyed most of the ball in terms of individual touches. That’s usual for Villa’s fullbacks, though - who do enjoy a fair bit of the football during a standard game. Still, it’s good to see he’s not out of place in the position!
That was Axel’s first full game for the club, and if it was this good - we all have plenty of reason to be excited about his coming performances as Villa hit a stride of important games. If he grows from this, he’s going to be some player.