Four games into pre-season (and a behind-closed-doors match versus the Kuwait national team, if you want to count that) and things are starting to take shape for Aston Villa.
These friendlies provide ample opportunity to experiment with different systems, gel new signings in and generally provide match fitness after a well deserved summer break for the players and coaches alike. With only two weeks until the start of our return to the Premier League, and a final pre-season game upcoming in the form of a trip to RB Leipzig on Saturday, how are things looking prior to the big kick-off at Spurs?
Arguably the most noticeable aspect of July has been the free-flowing football being played. If you log on to YouTube and watch some of the goals that we’ve scored, you’ll notice how incisive and creative our passing and movement has been. With Jack Grealish at the heart of many of these attacks (not surprisingly), it’s good to see he’s started where he left off from last season. This is exactly the sort of style Dean Smith demands from his teams, there’s no place for static by-standers letting the game pass them by under this boss. Overlapping full backs, forwards dropping deep when necessary and movement between the lines is a must. It appears to be working, albeit against lower league opposition so far.
Our first signing of the summer, before the shopping spree began, was Jota from rivals Birmingham City. He’s probably been the stand-out performer so far and looks every penny worth the £2m (plus Gary Gardner) fee we paid for him and more. His display against Walsall in particular was a highlight, scoring two and putting one on a plate for Wesley. His neat footwork and flair are proving to be a hit with Villa fans, who were maybe a little skeptical about signing him in the first place. There’s a debate arising about where he’d actually fit in this system - out on the right wing, cutting inside, or in the No.10 role. The problem lies with Grealish occupying the current attacking midfield role with hardly any chance of him being ousted. On the wing, we’ve also brought in Trezeguet and El Ghazi on a permanent basis, not to mention the question marks over Jota’s pace. Nonetheless, I love what he could bring to this team, whether it’s from the first minute or off the bench.
One thing me, and many around me noticed, against Shrewsbury was how easily Frederic Guilbert was beaten by the Shrews left winger in the first half. I’m willing to forgive him some mistakes as it’s only pre-season but it does raise eyebrows about his defensive prowess. Clearly an excellent attacking option out wide, will he be able to cut it against players at the pinnacle of the football pyramid on the defensive side of things? He’s improved more so in the following two games providing comfort and reassurance for anybody who had concerns, myself included, but is it El Mohamady’s position to lose at the moment?
A topic which has been at the forefront of the rumour mill has been whether we’ll bring in a new goalkeeper this transfer window. With Nyland and Kalinic performing less than spectacularly last season, the responsibility between the sticks lies with Jed Steer - the man who arguably played the biggest role in getting us to the Playoff final in the latter stages of last season. For me, he’s done enough to start the new campaign as our No.1 which could save the club around £25m, the figure being reported that Stoke City want for Jack Butland. How true the Mattia Perin from Juventus rumours are, I don’t know. Jed has been in and out of the team in the last few friendlies, like most players, and hasn’t had a great deal to do. But, when called upon, he’s looked mostly assured except for the moment he wiped out Shrewsbury’s striker on an attack; an incident that surely would’ve led to a red card in a competitive fixture.
On to the big man: Wesley! I’ve been impressed with his willingness to drop deep to collect the ball and lay it off to the midfielders. He’s clearly not a selfish striker, even if he wasn’t letting anybody else have the ball when the penalty was awarded versus Walsall. His assist for Scott Hogan during the Shrewsbury game was excellent. Not to mention his first time finish at the Bescot along with his bustling assist for Grealish to round things off that night. He could be a huge addition to this squad. A very different player to Jonathan Kodjia, who has been blamed for lacking direction and not getting his head up at the vital moments in the past. Keinan Davis has also played quite nicely recently too, offering similar attributes to the £22m Brazilian.
Also, who pairs alongside Tyrone Mings at the back? The man who revolutionised our defence in the second half of last season will certainly start. Bjorn Engels, Ezri Konsa, Kortney Hause and James Chester have all been making their claim to partner him. Engels is a defender who offers sheer dominant size and looks like a no nonsense stalwart. Konsa appears to be more of a composed ball-player. We know all about Chester who has been brilliant for the claret and blue over the past three seasons, but has this injury that he picked up last season damaged him for good? If I had to put money on who plays with Mings at the start of next season though, I’d pick Hause. He and Mings formed a good partnership during spells last season so maybe Smith will go with what he knows to start with. Or, seeing as we’ve got one of the tougher fixtures all year to begin with, he may well play three centre-backs - further confusing fans as to what combination it’ll be.
I’m hoping we get to see Douglas Luiz play in Leipzig next week, assuming his work permit has all been sorted out. It’s a position of need for Villa. Can Hourihane perform capably in this role at this level? That remains to be seen. He covered nicely in games where it was required last term but this is a big step up. Luiz is a natural defensive midfielder, whereas Hourihane naturally likes to drift forward. Perhaps even Marvelous Nakamba, the other midfielder whose arrival is imminent, will fill that hole from day one. I believe this position is the last piece of the puzzle for the starting eleven, everything else is depth or slight upgrades.
It doesn’t seem like too long ago that Grealish and Chester were holding the Playoff trophy aloft, cementing our return to the big time. We couldn’t have asked for a much tougher place to start so can we cause an upset from day one? If pre-season is anything to go by, there won’t be too much parking the bus at Villa Park this season. Hopefully this fluid football will continue into the regular season and we’ll start winning further praise from pundits and fans around the country for a style that oozes confidence and flamboyance.