Premier League preseason has started to heat up for Aston Villa as the newly-promoted side prepares for a return to the top flight.
Ahead of a Wednesday night friendly against Major League Soccer club Minnesota United, Villa practiced at the American team’s training complex. Players battled through the mid-July heat as temperatures neared 35°C.
Cheered on by a handful of local supporters who were invited to observe the session, Villa worked on defensive marking schemes, small-sided games and running – lots and lots of running.
Stamina has been an area of emphasis for Head Coach Dean Smith as he prepares his side for first-division competition. If Villa are going to solidify their place in the Premier League, players will have to be able to keep up.
“The big thing that we’ve been focusing on is we need to run further this year,” said winger Andre Green, an academy product who was sent on loan to Portsmouth for the first half of last season. “The gaffer’s been talking about stats and how much we need to run more, now we’re in the Premier League, not the Championship. You look at the best teams – Liverpool, [Manchester] City – they make it look easy, but you don’t understand how quick and how long they can run for. That’s the standard we need to get to. And that’s what we’re pushing for.”
Green will need to show his manager plenty in that area to earn a spot in the first team for the upcoming campaign. He doesn’t know what role he might find himself in, but he knows he wants to remain a top-flight player.
“We’re in the Premier League now, so I want to stay in the team,” he Green said. “This is my chance now to make a good impression to the manager -- to keep me at the club, to produce on the pitch. I think that loan helped me last year to be where I am today. Great experience coming back and getting promoted. My main aim this year is to make an impact whether that’s off the bench or what.”
Green finds himself in a similar position to many other Villa players. He’s not alone in fighting for playing time, which is part of Smith’s plan for the team.
“My idea, with our recruitment, was I’ve got two players in every position fighting for the spot. We’ve got that at the moment,” the gaffer explained.
James Chester is another player embroiled in a battle for a spot in Smith’s starting eleven, albeit on the defensive side. After succumbing to a knee injury that took away a significant portion of last season, Chester has to compete with his replacements. Luckily, his knee is now just something to “monitor.”
“I’m pleased with it,” Chester said. “But since I’ve come back, I’ve been pleased with how it’s been. Certainly frustrating to miss out on such a large part of last season.”
Smith won’t be deploying his first-choice starting lineup during the friendly against Minnesota, hinting instead at two “balanced” units with a mass substitution at halftime. He’s plenty satisfied with the options he has at his disposal, though.
“Thankfully, after the first couple weeks of preseason, we’ve got no injuries,” Smith said.