Aston Villa returned to league football with a last-gasp victory - bagging their second victory in a row in the Premier League.
Now, they will dive deeper into this latest chapter of the 19/20 season by heading to Manchester to take on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
The story so far
Lewis Dunk deserved a spot in the England team. Brighton are good and will definitely beat Aston Villa at Villa Park. Jack Grealish is a flash in the pan and not many Villa players will get into this Brighton team.
These are the opinions that people held before 5pm on Saturday and these are the opinions that people certainly don’t hold anymore.
In the great stories of the world, there is always an unlikely hero at the forefront. They might not start in the spotlight, but through hard-work and courage they always end up there. Enter Targett. Matt Targett crushed Brighton’s hopes with a last-minute goal to give Villa their first back-to-back league wins in the Premier League since 2015. It was a shocking result, and one that wasn’t entirely earned - but Villa didn’t give up. So they won.
Saturday’s opponents Manchester City were tested midweek against Italian side Atalanta. City, in no uncertain terms, thrashed la Dea in the Champions League and sent them scurrying back to Lombardy. Before that, City beat Crystal Palace. We are in the latest cycle of the City revenge tour that has seen them fight-back after surprising and slightly concussive losses to both Norwich and Wolves. The Champions have fight.
Who are ya?
Manchester City are nothing if not winners. The Champions. They have won the last two Premier League titles, have competed well in Europe, claimed cups and barnstormed league games.
Under Pep Guardiola, City’s narrative is not one of a competitive and well-funded cosmopolitan team, but one of near-dominance. Manchester City do not lose games easily, and have claimed supremacy in their city, in the league and on gameday.
If you thought United’s reign was terrifying - then this is a whole new ball game. A team full of likeable characters led by a genius manager and backed by oil money. Political opponents have disappeared, outspoken journalists must feel impotent at questioning City’s wealth. Apart from Liverpool, there exists no serious competitor. City are no longer the second club, or nearly-rans. They are the high-bar.
For the long-suffering City fan, this is an age of realisation. Childhood dreams coming true in middle-age. Blue scarves held high with all the old songs beating into their fabric. Our nightmare, their dream.
Pep Guardiola is perhaps the modern day realisation of the total-football coach. His coaching tree lines up to former Villa manager Jimmy Hogan, and winds through Johan Cryuff and Marcelo Bielsa before it finds him. Guardiola’s schooling in the game is sound, and he is the elite football manager. Naysayers will ask him to repeat his feats at ‘lesser clubs’ - but managers like Guardiola do not belong at ‘lesser clubs’ - they belong at clubs with the facilities to realise the footballing philosophy, otherwise it’s a waste.
Pep has adapted to the challenges before him, and as we know, money doesn’t necessarily win titles at the rate that Manchester City want them. There must be a underlying quality that carries the team forward, and transforms a set of highly-paid elite individuals into a dominant footballing unit. At Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester City, Guardiola has shown that it is perhaps he himself that is the underlying quality, a general leading his well-drilled troops into battle.
His time at Manchester City will come to a close in the next few years, it’s his way. Then the next challenge will emerge. And then the next.
One to watch
The correct answer for this selection is ‘the Manchester City XI’, and even without picking all eleven players, there are still obvious focal points like David Silva, Ederson, the iconic Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus. However, in Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City have a technical genius on the park, and a player that we should focus on above all others.
There are plenty of footballers who are have a high footballing IQ, but there aren’t an incredible amount who can bring their footballing ideas into reality. Fake outs on the ball leave them stunted, their runs aren’t noticed, they don’t pull off all the passes they want, blood rushes to the head and they miss shots when they pull the trigger. Kevin De Bruyne can back up his mental intangibles with fantastic and unbeatable technical ability on the ball.
This intelligence and ability means he is an across the pitch weapon for City. De Bruyne can play as a winger, and turn players around with smart ball skills. De Bruyne can play as a central-midfielder and play passes across the field. De Bruyne can play in the attack and run into channels. De Bruyne can play as a full-back and whip in damaging crosses. Hell, put him in goal and he’ll probably rack up an assist or two.
He’s a jack of all trades, and he is close to mastering them all.
Not a single player in the league comes close to De Bruyne in the expected assist metric. He is the best player in the PL at delivering passes that create quality scoring chances. He’s also City’s 5th best player in terms of xG. He’s an attacking force to be reckoned with.
If you’re Aston Villa - you probably don’t ask yourself how you can stop De Bruyne, but how you can contain him best. When a player can pass the ball like De Bruyne, it’ll take some doing to even slow him down.
What about the Villa?
Two wins in a row has given Villa plenty of breathing room. The defense is blocking shots, the goalkeeper is keeping Villa in games, the midfield is running the show and Wesley is chipping in with goals. Things are pretty rosy and Villa are sitting fairly pretty right now.
Jack Grealish enjoyed his best Premier League performance of his career on Saturday, and an England call-up looks to be a reality. Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate will be heading to the Etihad to watch him for the second week in a row. The signs are promising, and destiny awaits for Grealish. His game against Brighton was something. A goal scored, a goal setup. Villa’s offence ran through him - so it’s easy to forget that Grealish was plugging defensive holes and helping out to ease the pressure on his team. He was everywhere.
He might start out on his free role on the left, but it might be likely that Villa bring him back into the middle to play against City, allowing for Anwar El Ghazi and Trezeguet to offer direct threat on the wings on the break.
Assuming that he does start on the left, Douglas Luiz will likely come in for Conor Hourihane in the centre while John McGinn will return to his eternal position in the centre of the midfield. Marvelous Nakamba will be Villa’s main midfield defender and will ensure the team can play on the ball without losing ground.
Matt Targett and Fred Guilbert will be in for the game of their lives on the flank, but are Villa’s best options at the back. They will be tasked in assisting Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels in keeping Manchester City at bay. Not many people can do that.
The biggest question mark remains over Wesley. Wesley is desperate to impress, but hasn’t found his feet at Villa Park this season - and has looked better in some of the away matches, especially Norwich. Keinan Davis is hot on his heels, and Wesley will come up with another goal to earn his spot anew at some point. With this being an away match, and with it being two games since Wes last bagged a goal, it’s about time for him to do his thing.
A word to the wise - just because Manchester City haven’t been playing with traditional centre-backs due to injury shortages doesn’t mean that it should be considered a ‘weak spot’. Manchester City thrive on philosophy based on overwhelming possession of the football, and the ‘centre-backs’ are part of this, except that Manchester City’s centre-backs aren’t really centre-backs. They are just two more players who will play a small part in a possession and passing chain that will result in an attacking play. For Pep Guardiola, a centre-back is a mobile, strong and physical player who also possess outstanding technical abilities along with strong vision for a pass. These centre-backs, as Villa, Manchester United and an array of other clubs have discovered, are hard to find and are expensive. However, Manchester City can still boast defensive-minded players in Rodri and Fernandinho who are excellent on the ball, and in the short term, this will do. John Stones will return to bolster the back-line, but don’t expect a great deal to change.
Will there be moments when two regular centre-backs will be preferred? Of course! But due to Manchester City’s style of play, these moments will be few and far between. It may cost them points here and there, but the overall gameplan isn’t greatly damaged. Even a limping, wounded Manchester City are still Manchester City, and every single club is prone to mistakes at the back. Vulnerable? Perhaps. Weak spot? Not a chance in hell. For every flaw in City’s centre-back pairing, look for excellence out-wide and behind them. There is an elite goalkeeper to save their blushes - so even if Wesley can break through, he still has to test the wits of one of the Premier League’s best in goal.
If you want to look for strength look at the front-line - and the supply to the front line. Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne are players who can press Villa into mistakes and cut them apart at the back. They are all dangerous with and without the ball and Villa’s defensive line and midfield trio will face their toughest test of the season so far.
However, there is reason for belief. Marvelous Nakamba is a shut-down defensive midfielder and has proven to be more than adept at cutting out counter-attacking opportunities. John McGinn is making a name for himself as a rabid presser and master of improvisation in midfield. The bravado of Jack Grealish could be a difference as well, with his elegant ball-playing skills matched up with an unnoticed toughness making him a handful for Manchester City.
Villa shouldn’t be obliged to sit back and be forced into playing a different game than the want to, yet Manchester City will want them to pass fast to force errors themselves. Playing into City’s hands is deadly, and inviting them into attack with a low-block is deadly.
So what do Villa do? They be the goose.
Hang on? What?
Just hang on here. Untitled Goose Game is the new hot thing, but there is a lesson to learn from the protagonists unruly anarchy in that video game. Picture the scene, a quaint British village on the banks of a lake. The leaves are neatly collected and piled. The farmer is busy and productive. The village centre is a hive of joy and local commerce. It is all rosy, and the villagers have not a worry in the world. The tabloids can’t panic them and the broadsheets can’t educate them. Strawberries and cream are the opioid, warm ale is the distilled spirit cleanser to wash away the graft. It is calm, and peaceful.
Enter the goose.
His honk is alarming and disruptive, his splayed and feathered wings are threatening. His beaky interference is unwanted. He is whoopy-cushion under the backside of the frail hearted. He nips at the strawberries and waddles away with shoes. He is anarchic.
So Villa? Be the goose. Press Manchester City when they are expecting you to drop off. Drop off when they demand the press. Sit back when they want you to rush out, and push forward when they are harried. Expend all of your energy in an anarchic burst, unsettle the team that wants a clean and easy day of victory. Do the unexpected, and when they start to expect that, do something else.
Take a pop, enjoy the day and test yourselves Aston Villa.
Villa will lose this, but football matches are not played out in the passages of previews. Predicting a win against an elite team is folly, but giving up on this Villa side is just as silly.
4-2 to Manchester City. Flip that one, Villa.