The international break was a dizzying cocktail of hat-tricks, passion, intense training, scrutiny and a more-than-minor symbolic victory over racism.
Now, Villa return to Premier League action after the second international break - hosting a Brighton team that is on a high.
The story so far
Villa left off by battering Norwich at Carrow Road. Brighton left off by shocking Tottenham Hotspur. Both teams are riding the wave of optimism that follows victory. Both teams will be ensuring that the wave doesn’t come crashing down.
That is easier said than done in the Premier League, though.
Villa needed their win over Norwich, it was a resounding and crushing away victory against a potential relegation rival. It gave them breathing space. On the other hand, Brighton have been impressing and finally earned the plaudits with a smashing victory over a beleaguered Spurs team.
AVFC hammered a Brighton side in the League Cup a few weeks ago, but note the language there. A Brighton side is not the Brighton XI that Graham Potter will deploy on Saturday, and we can take very little from the past meeting other than that the Villa won.
Who are ya?
Brighton have fought well this season and are a team - like many - in a period of transition. Brighton’s own transition is a transformation from an under-fire team hoping to dig their way to safe that hope to change into a team that can play with the best and move up the table. So far, so good. Brighton’s performances are great, and while they have been unlucky, they signed off in a really good way last time out by thumping Tottenham.
Things are looking up for Brighton. It wasn’t so long ago that their shirt sponsor described the inventory of their club wallet. Skint.
Things change though. Leaves fall, snow falls, the sun plunges and rises. Brighton invested in themselves, they helped construct a nice new home for themselves. They earned their Premier League status with grit, fight, courage, identity and capital. They did it all the right way, after a fairly inglorious few years.
After securing their Premier League status, taking it to the big clubs and fighting for more - you have to doff your cap. Really.
Additional note: The Premier League is now full to the brim with teams on the South coast playing nice football and competing for a place in the Premier League - and one of them has gotta’ go in my opinion as we crusade for a diverse Premier League covering the entire country. Will it be Brighton? Maybe. Maybe not, but Brighton, Bournemouth and Southampton should definitely hope that I am not put in charge of the Premier League. They are on notice. Please do not let Portsmouth back in.
Graham Potter has been the poster-boy for the New Wave of English Football Managers (of which Dean Smith is a part of, and of which I have coined) for a while, and that’s mostly because he didn’t take the easy way into the Premier League. He spent almost eight years at Östersunds Fotbollsklubb - and turned the Swedish team into a real decent outfit. They played good football, they won games, they qualified and succeeded in the Europa League, he bought low and sold high. Potter, like Smith and others is the blueprint for the next generation.
He’s not just a schematic though. Potter has earned his role through success, commitment to a philosophy, and financial savviness. Preferring to coach and improve rather than splurge cash, he is a chairman’s dream.
He understands the human condition, and is an incredibly intelligent person. Success at Brighton this season isn’t guaranteed, but his team are impressing and that has been the narrative for Potter’s time in England and Wales so far - pretty footballing teams that don’t amount to a great deal, yet are still more than the sum of their parts.
The real question surrounding Potter isn’t one of his ability, but one that should be posed towards other English football clubs. Why did it take them so long to notice Graham Potter?
One to watch
If this section was called ‘Three to watch’ then I would pick the midfield triumvirate of Aaron Mooy, Pascal Groß and Dale Stephens. However, it is called ‘One to watch’ and I must now sever this trio and pluck one player forth, isolating them from their teammates, to highlight.
Dale Stephens is my pick. Someone has to keep the clock ticking, someone has to keep the brigade chopping & frying, someone has to keep the ducks in a row. Stephens is a pace-setter, a tempo-decider and a play-maker. He finds himself starting the moves that end with shots on goal, he removes any intention of sacrificing his team, and he allows Mooy and Groß to harry teams and flit between the lines to open up space.
Potter’s Brighton can’t play their way without Dale Stephens, and for every goal that Maupay and Connolly score, and for every pass played in by Mooy or Groß, rewind the clip.
You’ll find that Stephens started that particular fire, and he shouldn’t be ignored. He makes a decent side that much better. Traditional stats avoid mention of Stephens, but like your pancreas, he is silently vital.
What about the Villa?
Villa took the edge off of their season with a good away win over Norwich. Villa got away with a lot of blocked shots, and a missed penalty, but still managed to score five goals and win three points.
That win is important, because it allowed Villa to increase the tempo of their optimism. It’s now more in line with ‘Robot Rock’ (111 BPM) than ‘Galvanize’ (104 BPM). The same Aston Villa, just refreshed, slightly faster and leaner. What’s not to like?
The new ‘free role’ on the left for Jack Grealish has helped Aston Villa. Instead of plugging their midfield with the same bodies, pushing Grealish out wide now allows for one rotational spot to refresh the team.
As for Grealish, he is far more effective in the ‘do whatever you want’ position than being chained down to the side of John McGinn. Grealish now flits out to the wing and darts to the centre instead of controlling the match like McGinn.
And controlling is what McGinn has done. Alongside the composed Conor Hourihane, McGinn is a force of nature that drags attention from Hourihane. This gives McGinn the challenge he relishes as he beats three people to the punch, and it gives Hourihane space to be effective.
This means that Marvelous Nakamba, the breakout star of this Villa side, has to do a lot of work - and he has to do it well. With Villa’s left-side tilted to a full-on attack, Nakamba has to play his defensive game perfectly. So far, so good - but Villa are asking a lot of him. Something will give at some point and Villa will have to adjust their tactics once again to cope with midfield runs but Nakamba is doing a, well, fantastic job right now in defensive midfield.
Anwar El-Ghazi and Matt Targett will keep their places, but their might be a little bit of pressure on Frederic Guilbert. The right-back might lose his place to Ahmed Elmohamady for a game or two if he is consistently caught upfield. Guilbert has been classy for Villa, but a more composed direction in his playing style would be welcome.
Wesley really showed his stuff against Norwich and has cooled off the criticism. His two goal performance was much needed - and his casual ability to storm in with goals should start to make him a force at the front. We hope.
Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels will continue their partnership after blocking the kitchen sink that Norwich chucked at them. As long as they can keep their performance levels up, Villa will be just fine.
Villa are about to rock, and I salute them. Let’s show Brighton what we’re made of in front of a packed out Villa Park.