For the past few months, an Aston Villa victory has usually been determined by one of a trio of players. Matches usually follow the course of the path chosen by one (or more) of Tammy Abraham, John McGinn or Jack Grealish. If one of those players want Villa to win the match - Villa will at the very least not lose the match.
The tremendous abilities of the above trio are clear for all to see. The ‘as-good-as-a-goal’ presence of Tammy Abraham, the swashbuckling antics of Jack Grealish, the marauding force of John McGinn. We can appreciate those and offer more plaudits out to Anwar El-Ghazi, Jed Steer and Tyrone Mings among others. Villa’s core has been boosted by the coaching abilities of Head Coach Dean Smith and his able deputies - Neil Cutler, Richard O’Kelly and John Terry - so now we are seeing a very capable Villa side acting very capably indeed. Villa are much better because they are being coached to a higher standard and that benefits all players.
While Villa have benefited massively from the presence of a new coaching team, I’d argue that the player who has benefited the most has been Glenn Whelan. The Irish veteran plays with a commanding freedom that is just as awe-inspiring as the constant pressing of John McGinn. The midfield, every part of it, is his domain.
It’s Whelan’s quiet confidence in Dean Smith’s game-plan that is an obviously underrated attribute. While moments of individual brilliance win games, Whelan’s composure ensures that he plays the part of a cog in the build-up of a greater machine - and not one that is willing to step above the station and ruin a perfectly good, if patient, attacking opportunity by going for glory. He’ll make the right pass more often than not. He’ll make the right decision ninety-percent of the time (more on the other ten-percent after the jump). At every counter-attack there’ll be Whelan - picking his moment to make a cameo after hunting down the attack. He’s become an incredibly important part of a stacked midfield.
Nobody is saying that Whelan is a world-beater. He gets suffocated by the opposition press. He often can’t adapt a pass to benefit a teammate. His willingness to play the space instead of the player often means he is usually the bollard in which a one-two pass takes place around. He is often overly aggressive and combative to the detriment of the team. There are opportunities for him to shoot and potentially score which aren’t taken. However, these are the flaws of all players across the world of football. Football is not a game of perfection - those moments are few and far between - and so asking for footballers (human beings) to achieve perfection every single week is asking for the levels of wish fulfilment rarely seen outside of creative fan-fiction. Whelan? He’s good enough.
While ‘good enough’ might not seem like high praise, it is. Whelan was cast aside by many Villa fans who found it hard to see the qualities he brought to the team. What was the point of him? He’s aged. He’s done!
Well, no. He fought back, not just into your mind, but onto the teamsheet. Whelan is perhaps one of the first names on it. He’s ensured that a question mark hangs over Villa’s third spot in midfield when often enough it was given to another player by default. He has started to win praise on his own offerings in a big way. His name is often boomed around Villa Park - earnestly. You can’t measure how monumental that is. It’s not often that a player can fight back to earn praise from a football fan who has already started digging an entrenched opinion base about you - but that’s what Whelan has done. He’s fought back.
While this will likely be his last season in a Villa shirt, Whelan won’t be forgotten by us. And neither will football move on from him. A few months ago, he was a player on the out - but his stock has risen. There’s a number of quality seasons left in Whelan, and as long as a team wants to use him in a correct manner, he’s still got a legend to build.