‘the Great Wall of China wasn’t built in one day’

 

As I walked up to Villa Park for the first time since dropping out of the Premier League, I entered Villa Park without any expectations. Despite last season’s miserable, painful football, though, I did feel a sense of renewed hope and optimism.

Was it just the optimism that all football fans feel in preseason, when last season’s slate has been wiped clean?

When it comes to Aston Villa, I’d say I’m one of the most optimistic fans. Even in the most excruciating defeats last season, every part of me was searching for that light at the end of the tunnel. Although it didn’t come until Randy Lerner bid farewell, my optimism has now returned.

With the arrival of Dr. Tony Xia and his claims of making the club one of the best in the world, we appear to have an owner who is determined to get Aston Villa back on track. As well as voicing ambitious plans in interviews, he’s made noises in the past week or so with his daily interaction with fans on Twitter. After Randy Lerner admitting he was romantically nourished by Ashley Young’s winner at Everton, then maybe we shouldn’t be too alarmed by Xia’s disorganised tweets.

The new chairman has promised money, but with only three incomings so far this season, alarm bells might be ringing in some of the Villa faithful’s ears. But the optimistic side in me is telling me that the Great Wall of China wasn’t built in one day. It takes time. Let’s be honest, this team, this club as a whole needs to be knocked down and built back up again.

Xia has called for patience, which is a message that has been reiterated by newly appointed boss Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian, who previously guided West Bromwich Albion back into the Championship, started preseason well, contrary to what we have become used to.

 

During preseason, we have also witnessed the return of former captain Stiliyan Petrov, who unfortunately will not receive a playing contract by the club. Although, aged 37, it would have only been on sentiment alone. The return of Petrov though should act as inspiration for the group of players as they encounter the unknown battle ahead of the Championship.

If Petrov can do it, so can they.

However, if anyone was under any illusions regarding the coming season, the final preseason game against Middlesbrough brought us right back to the harsh reality of the long, hard slog in the Championship that is to come.

Starting XI Verdict:

On the whole I was generally pleased with the starting line-up. Yet my conscience kept on reminding me that the majority of this side was the same group of players that finished last season land sliding into the Championship with 17 points.

New boss Roberto Di Matteo set his side up in a 4-2-2-2 formation (what’s happened to the good old-fashioned 4-4-2), with Gardner and Westwood playing as the deep-lying midfielders, with Bacuna – yes, you read that right, he’s still here – and Grealish just ahead of them. Rudy Gestede played as the central striker, with Jordan Ayew in a slightly deeper role; coming to collect the ball in the middle of the park.

In what was a pleasing first half, the players dominated their Premier League opposition, who offered very little. The new role for Ayew suited the Ghanaian, who was allowed free rein. Although, at times, it meant there was no one on the end of a series of decent deliveries deep into the Boro box.

If there was one absentee I was disappointed about not seeing, it was Rushian Hepburn-Murphy. After impressing in several preseason games, I was surprised to see him left out of the first team. The 17-year-old has so far stepped up to the plate, yet there was no place for him in the game against Middlesbrough.

Di Matteo’s Game Management:

This sounds so much better than ‘Black’s game management’, which I hope to never be reminded of ever again. God help all the Southampton supporters if they are ever to sack Claude Puel.

In his first game as Aston Villa boss at Villa Park, Di Matteo casually strolled to the dugout. Cool and composed, characteristics which were continued throughout the game, he looked at home in his new surroundings.

So far I’ve been impressed by the Italian, but for the first time this season, I saw him first hand. I wouldn’t want to judge the man on a preseason friendly, seeing as I have watched both Black and Remi Garde try and fail at this job, but he didn’t live up to my expectations.

He doesn’t command the dugout like Tim Sherwood or Martin O’Neill, dare I say the names, which is one of the things I personally like to see in a manager. On the other hand, he handles the players well. He doesn’t continually give them grief, but he knows when to get up off his seat and shout out his orders.

If there’s one thing I’ve got used to over the years, it’s the lack of substitutes. In the last game of preseason, I can understand Di Matteo sticking to just three subs, as they will be trying to replicate a competitive game. But it is frustrating when you can see, even from the stands, that things desperately need changing.

Following Middlesbrough’s first goal, where Negredo was the quickest to react to Gollini’s parry, it was evident that Villa’s left side was weak in comparison to the rest of the team. Aly Cissokho, barring some fine crosses in the first half, had been caught out of position on various occasions. In fairness, with Bacuna and Grealish interchanging, the Frenchman didn’t have much support from either player defensively. However, he was always at least four yards away from his man.

It was clear that something needed changing. Yet it wasn’t until the 80th minute, where Villa were 3-1 down for Cissokho to make way for Amavi. Too little, too late; a cliché that still rings true around the terraces at Villa Park.

Ref Analysis:

If there’s one thing I’m not certain of when it comes to the Championship, it’s the referees. Unfortunately for Steve Martin, I’m not too confident in the standard of the refs we may encounter. Not that the Premier League’s referees are much more competent.

I know it’s only a preseason friendly but Villa, on three occasions, were denied a penalty which could have resulted in the claret and blues leaving Villa Park feeling confident going into the opening game.

It will be interesting to see how the referees influence Villa’s games this season.

Rating: 7/10

 

 

Villa’s MOTM:

If I could base it on the first half alone, Tommy Elphick would be the name that springs to mind. It’s no wonder Bournemouth fans were so sad to lose him.

Walking out as captain, he commanded the back line and the rest of the field. Something we have lacked for a number of years, stretching back to Stiliyan Petrov. As he shouted instructions, it didn’t go unnoticed by neither fan nor player. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve seen players respond to another one of their team mates. Even Jack Grealish was following orders.

Unfortunately, despite a valiant first half display from our new centre half, he was at fault, arguably, for the first goal. Despite the mistake, he would be my first choice centre back this season. Who alongside is a difficult question. Baker looked comfortable next to the captain, but fell apart during the second half. Clark can do well, but as demonstrated in the Euros he is prone to game changing mistakes, whilst Okore has the potential to be one of Villa’s best, yet he hasn’t proven it so far. As for Lescott, I’m hoping he is nowhere near the starting 11.

If the other ten players follow the example set by Elphick, it will go a long way to returning Villa to back to their rightful place in the Premier League.

Rating: 7/10

Middlesbrough’s MOTM:

Former Ajax winger Viktor Fisher, Middlesbrough’s first summer signing this year, looked like a key component in their victory, netting their second goal. The Danish came away from Villa Park with a goal and an assist and was excellent on the counter attacks that destroyed Villa’s defence.

But it was more a case of two sides getting their “fitness up” ahead of the upcoming season. The second half almost mirrored several away teams’ performances from the last year – sorry to remind you all – as the opposition hardly had to break sweat.

Rating: 7/10

VTID

Follow Molly on Twitter at @m0llyfaith 

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7 COMMENTS

  1. I have sent this as an Open Letter to Manager and Owner, but the Birmingham Mail hasn’t published it.
    I must speak for many many Villans as we head towards the weekend opener . . . .
    ______________________________________________________

    Dear Mr. Di Matteo and Dr. Jiantong,

    I will keep this letter brief.

    You have two players – Joleon Lescott and Leandro Bacuna – who have become emblematic of everything rotten at our poorly managed and dysfunctional club. Last season their performances lacked technical ability and too often displayed a shocking and unforgivable lack of energy, professionalism and pride in playing for AVFC. They have become hate figures – booed from the moment they appear pitchside – and are toxic individuals at the club through the anger and resentment they generate among supporters. I’ve never witnessed the kind of abuse they attract (all self-inflicted), and this will continue I’m sure. They’ve crossed a line of acceptable behaviour as far as I’m concerned, and there’s no way back because of their dire performances and more so their poor attitude – on and off the field – which has shown complete contempt for the supporters at times.

    You need to understand that there are probably a number of fans who will abandon the club so long as these two characters are around. You simply must ship them out, or sideline them until an opportunity arises to move them on. You owe this to the thousands of loyal supporters who have stood by the club over the last few years and had to witness its slow demise and eventual relegation. Last season was unimaginably bad, and Lescott and Bacuna were at the centre of much of Villa’s slow death. I personally never want to see them in club colours again, and I am not alone. They embody everything that the fans do not want to see – an overblown sense of self-importance, and an arrogance that beggars belief at times. The fact that they are at best mediocre players just adds to the insult fans feel. We deserve better – much better. To include either of them in the opening game at Sheffield Wednesday would tick all the wrong boxes, and would more than take the edge off any optimism for the season ahead in front of a big away following. Please get rid, a.s.a.p., and do the club and the fans a favour. If the squad needs trimming, these two chronic underperformers and malign influences surely have to be at the top of the Exit List. They are a drain on the finances of the club, and on the emotions of supporters.

    I wish you both and the team good luck this coming season.

  2. I have to agree Shropshire Lad I wanted Nigel Pearson too as on Saturday we again saw all the weaknesses of last season.Middlesborough are no great shakes and I fear for them in the premiership but because our full-backs were caught up field and the so called defensive midfielder was not covering them,two passes and we are cut wide open yet again.I feel we still play at too slow a tempo passing sideways and backwards and finally to the keeper who then has no choice but to lump it downfield.Why can’t we pass it quickly get it wide to a winger and put early crosses in to the box where a switched on striker would be anticipating this and looking to finish clinically.This requires hands on coaching to address the faults thes players continue to have as I fear we cannot bin them all as their contracts are too long and lucrative.At present the players are too content to stroll along tippy tapping the ball when we need an intensity to our play which puts the opposition on the back foot and encourages players to get in the box and have more shots.What I found alarming was the lack of fitness,again another hangover from last season suggesting the pre-season regime hasn’t addressed this issue when it was obvious to us supporters.I hope RDM has the skill set to address these concerns and I want to be patient,but I can’t help feeling a stronger character was needed like Pearson to sort out the wasters and set clear goals and create a winning mentality.

  3. Bacuna had a decent game from the reports I read, can’t get to live games admittedly. However a collapse like that signals to the other teams we are the same old spineless team, pretty good if you’re an away team to know it doesn’t matter if you concede first when Villa will self destruct later. Cissokho and Hutton aren’t good enough.

    Also RDM said there were no more players with release clauses, yet I read Ciaran has had his met by NUFC? (Ridiculously low figure again).

    Finally. Patience, it can also be found in hospitals.

      • Oh how I love to see that name linked with Villa again. 🙂 Yes, they should all now have them, pretty standard clause and any Agent worth their 20%+ should include it.

        My real point being, RDM is not being entirely honest with the fans. That is pretty unforgivable. In my head I wonder if it doesn’t raise questions within the squad too. And it isn’t as though I am naïve enough to think he has to tell the whole truth, just not complete lies. And on the release clause side, its a no win because the Agents will always find a way to let the “secret” out. So far I count two blatant lies (release clause and Clark’s commitment to Villa), and one upcoming if the move to West Ham works out for Ayew.

  4. Unfortunately it will take an awful lot more to get me back to Villa Park this season. Having paid homage to the Lions for 50 years plus it was always going to be about the appointment of the manager this year and honestly speaking Di Matteo was way down my list of the men to do the job. It doesn`t help when my friends over in the East Midlands tell me that Nigel Pearson has done an incredible job already at Derby.
    Apologies for seeming so negative, Villa have played a big part in my social life for so long, but no longer. I will always maintain an interest, but nothing more.

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