Aston Villa their pre-season preperations with the continuation of the now annual pilgrimage to the Bescot Stadium. Sitting just behind a rumbling M6, Villa faced a clear run on the road to the Premier League by showcasing their attacking style in Walsall.
It took just over ten minutes to get started, but Dean Smith’s return to Walsall was a showcase of Villa’s style, aggression and intent as they get set to embark on a Premier League campaign.
His side showed urgency early on, and weren’t at all reluctant in their press against Walsall. Villa’s captain wearing the number ten urged his midfield counterparts to follow him into an aggressive and urgent press and testament to Jack Grealish’s developed leadership qualities, Lansbury and Hourihane followed him into battle. It is perhaps Villa’s biggest tactical asset that needs work - as while pressure is instinctive to players like Grealish and Wesley, the midfield seemed slightly reluctant to do anything other than follow Jack’s lead in the opening moments of the game. That changed quickly, though.
Frederic Guilbert unlocked the scoring for Aston Villa by trickling a ball towards the near post from the right flank - allowing Jota to steamroll in and deliver a slick finish. This partnership has found it’s strength and is becoming a highlight of pre-season and this goal simply adds to that - and Guilbert’s ball in was as good as a goal. Liam Roberts, in goal for Walsall, was left helpless.
If something good happens - you pay it forward. Jota was all too happy to do so - dropping into centre-midfield and collecting a ball that he pinged through to Wesley. As the game clock struck 12 minutes - the foot of Moraes called it as doomsday for Wallsall with a low strike that was going nowhere but in.
Wesley almost paid this forward himself after being allowed room to assist thanks to a Matt Targett pass, but Henri Lansbury couldn’t reach it in the face of goal. Conor Hourihane mirrored Targett not long after, but the pass escaped Jack Grealish - but only just.
Grealish enjoyed a better opportunity after Jota arced a pass over the defensive line to find the captain’s darting run into the box - but the boyhood Villan couldn’t find the composure to finish, and collapsed as he hit the volley.
Walsall’s new signing, Elijah Adebayo, looked the business for The Saddlers and hassled Villa’s midfield to the tune of a few chances - with one free run almost resulting in a goal. The finish was lacking, but it had Lovre Kalinic beat if not the post.
Wesley earned a penalty after James Clarke hauled the Brazilian down by his shirt when challenging for the ball. Villa’s record signing dispatched a third goal with relative ease after a stuttering walking run-up.
Walsall managed to enter the stakes upon the half-an-hour mark after Stuart Sinclair, another new signing, escaped pressure and lofted a ball over a stretching Lovre Kalinic to make the score 3-1.
Despite conceding their first goal of pre-season, Aston Villa kept the momentum and almost scored a fourth after a midfield triangle of Jota, Lansbury and Grealish combined with one-touch passes to allow Lansbury room to shoot. Thankfully for Walsall, Roberts was able to step up and save.
Villa’s creativity flowed on tap. Wesley found space to deliver a hat-trick, but instead set up an attacking Villa player twice. While those on the end of Wesley’s grace would miss their chances, Jota wouldn’t - creating his own effort to double his tally and bring Villa’s to four on the evening.
The second half saw an unchanged eleven take the field - and an unchanged style of play continue. Villa looked comfortable holding onto the ball and weren’t hassled, due to their positioning abilities. Wesley, Jota, Lansbury and Grealish were happy to rotate on the attack to offer a fluid approach in the face of goal to break compact defensive lives. Guilbert and Targett underlapped and overlapped to
Andre Green wrestled the game from a restful state with a graceful burst through the backline that offered him the space to shoot. Green pulled the trigger and the ball rattled off the crossbar.
Jack Grealish found a chance to finally take his place on the scoresheet at the hour mark - but the heavy lifting was performed by Wesley who assisted. The forward’s heavy touch removed him from the penalty area, but allowed him to hold the ball up and scoot it across to Grealish who only had to pass it into the net to make it five for Villa. Wesley almost picked up Villa’s first booking of the night shortly after his assist by confronting a Walsall player in front of the ref. He walked away spot-free under a rapturous roar of “Wesley! Wesley!” from the Villa faithful.
Bjorn Engels was able to enjoy some action on 70 minutes by stoutly delivering a commanding block to destroy a Walsall shot and convert it to a corner. The failed corner for Walsall heralded a mountain of changes for Aston Villa who switched their outfield ten players out for a fresh selection that included youngsters like Easah Suliman and Callum O’Hare alongside rotation options such as Scott Hogan and Kortney Hause.
O’Hare sparked the first attack of the final twenty minutes with a lofted pass that almost found a sparking Rushian Hepburn-Murphy. Hepburn-Murphy almost fashioned a chance of his own with a sublime touch to pick the ball from the sky after a Bjarnason pass. The young lion stuttered in the box and lacked the composure and perhaps the confidence to strike a shot though. His play did not suffer however, and he found a great pass for Scott Hogan - but the Irish international didn’t have the height to deliver a sixth goal for Villa.
Villa’s wait for a sixth continued - with Hogan and Hepburn-Murphy involved once more as the youngster pipped in a cross for an offside Hogan to finish. The linesman rightly flagged this goal as a fouled effort and it was scrubbed off during the strikers celebration. Despite all of that, it was another encouraging phase of play involving Rushian, who found the confidence to strike from miles outside of the box.
That particular shot, the final attacking action for Villa, may have crossed the M6 in the direction that Aston Villa will now be heading in. A jubiliant Villa crew may pass that shot as they head home - buoyed by a classy performance. Nothing but positives emerge from Villa’s annual visit to the Bescot Stadium - and the hope will now be that AVFC can take some of the energy shown tonight to their Premier League opener. Until then, preseason continues
Villa XI: Kalinic, Targett, Mings, Engels, Guilbert, Lansbury, Grealish, Hourihane, Jota, Green Wesley
Villa XI after 70’ changes: Kalinic, Bree, Hause, Suliman, Taylor, McGinn, Bjarnason, Hepburn-Murphy, O’Hare, Hogan, Davies (70’)
Villa Goalscorers: Jota (10’) , Wesley (12’), Wesley (28’), Jota (44’), Grealish (59’)