Two games, two losses - Villa haven’t enjoyed an easy entry to the Premier League. Now, Everton are banging on the door looking to give Villa a hard time.
Villa? Clench your fists and fight back!
The story so far
Tom Heaton lashed out and Bournemouth were up in seconds. Douglas Luiz passed to a shadow and they doubled their tally. A wonder goal from the Brazilian brought it back but it was far too late. Villa won some plaudits, but gained nothing tangible from their home opener.
Meanwhile, Everton have accepted their promise and lashed out. A tough and stodgy opening match against Crystal Palace made way for a victory against Watford, with Bernard scoring the only goal of Everton’s campaign so far.
They’ll fancy a breakout performance against Aston Villa on Friday, while the Villans will be aiming to stem the flood of questions coming their way.
Who are ya?
Everton have been around a while and haven’t had a sniff of greatness in a long, long time. Success in Liverpool has a more welcoming home at Anfield, while Evertonians have been turning out to see teams led by Sam Allardyce and Ronald Koeman falter and splutter.
After undergoing a small revolution of ambition under a new ownership group, and Director of Football Marcel Brands, Everton have been making waves in the transfer market. Optically fascinating, Brands’ buys have yet to transmute into silverware.
Alex Iwobi, Moise Kean and Fabian Delph are a few new standouts in a team that can also deploy Richarlison, Seamus Coleman, Bernard, Jordan Pickford and Yerry Mina amongst others. There’s a high talent ceiling in this squad, and Marco Silva - the current boss - has a job on his hands in transforming a list of players tipped for greatness into a squad that can actually threaten the top six.
While The Toffees have made inroads, and have built foundations, their progress has been rather slow - and they have had to deal with upstarts in the form of Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers challenge their claim as ‘the best of the rest.’
Marco Silva once found himself as the squeaky toy being pulled apart in an audacious chest-thumping display from the two wannabe pitbulls of the British sports media, Phil Thompson and Paul Merson. Back in 2017 the pair loudly, and almost violently, decried Silva’s hire by Hull City. Merson’s eyes flitted about the studio, scanning for someone to laugh at the next joke that fell limply from his lips while Thompson constructed invisible foundations for the argument in his mind. Marco Silva wasn’t good enough for Hull because Thompson and Merson had never heard of him.
No doubt, they’ll have heard of him now. Silva won hearts by galvanising a beaten Hull side, almost leading them to safety. He was quickly drafted into Watford, where he stayed until Everton tapped him up following a good run of form during his start in Hertfordshire. Watford quickly grew tired of Silva, and Everton, and dismissed Marco in January 2018. Everton finally moved in for Silva in May 2018.
A smart and adaptable manager, Silva has struggled to balance his new side in the wake of Idrissa Gana Gueye’s depature. Gana, a standout ball-winner in the Premier League, has left a massive hole in the midfield that Silva can’t really fill. Jean-Philippe Gbamin was shipped in to replace Gueye, but will take time to settle. Fabian Delph, if he can stay healthy, might also present a solution. The final answer to this question might unlock Silva’s true potential, and might be the final piece in an incredibly expensive jigsaw.
One to watch
Everton’s capture of Moise Kean is a true showcase of their might in the transfer window and their plan under Marcel Brands. Needing a goalscorer, Brands refused to settle - and refused to budge in negotiations - and eventually bagged one of Europe’s top talents at striker from Juventus. He’s still only 19, but it’s an ambitious signing for The Toffees.
Kean should give Everton what they’ve been missing from a leading striker - goals. The explosive forward will relish a starting chance against Aston Villa and will be a big test for Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels (again). Villa’s back two can’t switch off - for a second. Kean’s awareness and tactical knowledge bely his young years, and he’ll drift around them. Able to read crosses and passes into the box, Villa won’t get a rest when facing this young striker.
What about the Villa?
After seeming superhuman for most of 2019 - Villa had never looked so mortal when a Bournemouth team came to Villa Park and shoved two goals down the Villa. Within twenty minutes, Villa looked lost, confused, broken and out of the game.
A typical fightback almost brought the goods, but almost isn’t enough. The game state required Villa to push back. Villa weren’t able to. Key chances were missed, players weren’t gelling and frustration seemed to emerge.
Villa now have a real test against Everton - a side that themselves have a lot to prove.
The big question for Dean Smith is on the wings - up front and at full-back. Not much has clicked for Villa out-wide this season. Elmohamady and Trezeguet have performed decently enough - but Neil Taylor and Anwar El Ghazi have stuttered in their link-up play.
Dean Smith might opt to position Trezeguet on the left, a more natural position for the Egyptian winger, and bring in Jota for his first start of the season.
Interestingly, if he plays, Neil Taylor will be up against Seamus Coleman. Coleman sustained a double fracture after a high challenge from Taylor in an Ireland vs Wales match a few years ago. There will surely be a huge mental challenge for both players to compete to their highest levels when facing each other.
The full-back question at Villa is interesting - because neither player has performed poorly. Frederic Guilbert and Matt Targett may offer an X factor, but with Ahmed Elmohamady stepping up his game, it would seem that Targett would have the first chance to break into the team on the left and give Guilbert a spot on the bench. Villa may even opt to bring Guilbert in as a winger, or push Elmohamady up, should they require an additional option.
John McGinn and Jack Grealish, those two names. Last week on this preview I stated that they would take some beating to replace, and that’s twice as true now as it was back then. Grealish showed his attacking quality by giving Villa six chances last time out, while John McGinn was incredibly unlucky not to score himself. Question marks over the duo’s ability to step up should now be exchanged for exclamation points. They are here to stay and are an adept Premier League pivot.
The real question in midfield took an entire match to answer. Douglas Luiz was brought in for Conor Hourihane - and almost immediately condemned Villa to a defeat via an early mistake. Thankfully, Luiz didn’t hideaway from his error and grew into the game, capping it off with a thunderous volley that served as penance for his earlier sin. Luiz showed his ability, and should keep his spot for another game.
Everton’s true might is on the wings. Bernard, Digne, Richarlison and Coleman present immediate and obvious direct threats. Silva will take liberties and ask his wing-backs to push up and overload wide positions. This gives room to creators like Gylfi Sigurðsson, who can find the killer ball to the inside-forwards or Kean up front.
The danger here is not in a cross, but the mass of bodies able to take advantage of striking positions. Everton may be able to field as many as six forwards on an overload, with Gomes and Gbamin lurking. Ideally, Villa will be able to deal with the aerial threat with Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels - but even the best defender in the world can be reduced to a mere bollard to be passed around by a fruitful and well-thought out attacking plan.
The easiest counter to Everton’s wing attack is simple - attack. Villa need to use their own attacking impetus to strike heavy blows, and early on. Everton’s wide players are not any use when facing attacking pressure, and cannot overload or attack themselves if they do not have the ball. Villa need to keep possession, take the sting from the tempo and invite the press.
However, committing mistakes when playing a defensive trap will only damn them, again. Villa under Smith play with speed, and intelligence. These two attributes do not combine well, or cope, under pressure. We saw that in the last match. Dean Smith likely won’t change too much about his approach just yet - but Villa cannot afford to commit any more mistakes. Their playing style won’t aid that, so this is on the players to step up under pressure. It might be asking a lot from Villa’s wing-game to step up and go toe-to-toe with Everton’s, but this is Premier League football and AVFC cannot shy away from the challenge.
Villa cannot afford to make any more mistakes - if they do, they will be punished by a formidable wing attack. I expect some improvements from Villa, and they might be able to earn a draw here, if not a statement victory.