Aston Villa Squad Evolution
By Calum Slater
Lack of Boing Boing Bounce
Sam Allardyce has long been seen as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for clubs languishing near the foot of the table and it’s only his most recent appointment, West Brom, that has been met with scepticism as to whether he’ll be able to successfully avoid relegation. It’s not looking good for him, as it’s next stop Anfield, after an Anwar El Ghazi double and a slick Bertrand Traoré finish wrapped up all three points on a rather comfortable night for Aston Villa. Villa it seems will be involved at the other end of the table to their West Midlands rivals, as both Villa wingers showed vast improvements from the previous game, a frustrating no-score draw against Burnley, despite the side having 27 efforts on goal.
Although certain themes did reoccur, the final score at the Hawthorns left Villans with much more optimism than the previous outing. Derby games are always meant to be a great leveller, plus there was the fabled ‘new manager bounce’ in play and Villa were still missing a couple of key players.El Ghazi’s early goal and Jake Livermore’s deserved red card for a lunge on Jack Grealish, seemed to make the result a formality though, with an ever-tiring West Brom defending the defeat, waiting for a counter-attacking chance that never really materialised. The two late goals capped a much improved performance from the Villa attack.
Strength in Depth
The Burnley game was the first real test of our squad’s strength in depth. Certain players passed without question – Kortney Hause slotted in well against a physical Burnley attack. Other than a clumsy challenge against West Brom that VAR correctly didn’t intervene in, he once again looked solid, if largely unchallenged by a blunt Baggies front line. He’s proven to be a good understudy in lieu of Konsa, albeit against opposition that was perhaps tailored made for him. Hopefully he has the ability to replicate such performances against bigger and better sides this season that possess more mobile front lines.
Nakamba’s cameo in place of Douglas Luiz against the Lancastrians was less reassuring due to the difference in style and quality of the players – that’s not to say it was poor performance, but anything other than the basics often proved to be less than successful.
These defensive changes, in addition to Matty Cash’s suspension, fortunately fell on a game against a side not famous for their attacking prowess and so it was the changes in attack that needed to prove their mettle and, quite literally, take their chance.
The most scrutiny was put on the two wingers, Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traoré, and it’s their mixed fortunes that has given the most food for thought, now that the dust has settled after the two games. Added to the win at Wolves, the four points gives Villa a decent seven from nine points haul from December so far, although there is room for improvement still.
Firing from the Flanks
With Ross Barkley out for both games, changes had to be made to Villa’s attacking style – Grealish, on paper, filled the central attacking midfield role but still had free roam of the pitch rather than acting as the attacking pivot, as this role (filled by Barkley up until his hamstring injury) is most dangerous when Jack himself is playing off it.
A free role allows the No.10 to take on more responsibility, drop deeper and have more time to run at defenders with the ball. This worked to great effect against West Brom, drawing a red card and a penalty. It also allowed El Ghazi to play to his more athletic attributes on the left, making runs in behind the defense or diverting centrally, when required as opposed to intricately playing in the tight spaces in which Jack usually thrives.
The Burnley game was a missed opportunity for El Ghazi – after cooly slotting a last-minute penalty against Wolves to take all three points and respond to the social media trolls that overstepped many boundaries, there was a sense that he really wanted to push on and show his worth to the team. Unfortunately as the first game progressed, this resulted in poor decision-making and too many optimistic efforts that were severely lacking a clinical edge from his eight shots in the game.
Bertrand Traoré on the right wing also came into the Burnley game yet to fully prove his value and left the pitch having only further exposed a flaw in his game. His lack of confidence using his right foot was at times painful and led to the waste of one of the best chances in the 0-0 struggle. With Trézéguet also misfiring and Ollie Watkins going through his fourth game without finding the net, there was the worry that the Villa attack was not as strong as the early season form had indicated and that it had a lack of resilience to injury.
The performance of both wide men at the Hawthorns was a significant improvement and whilst it didn’t answer all of the questions that the previous game had posed, it was certainly not all doom-and-gloom as some feared.
El Ghazi, again had eight shots in the game, but this time is were on target. He opened the scoring with a well-timed run and a smart finish, effortlessly put away the penalty for his second and grew in confidence as the game progressed. It was the performance of a man fighting for his place in the team and he was unlucky not to complete the hat-trick in the closing minutes after calmly dummying a defender and producing a good stop from Sam Johnstone.
He was much more measured in his decision making, pushing to create for the team and providing a genuine attacking problem for West Brom – when playing like that, he is a quick, powerful and skillful player that can prove to be a real handful.
Traoré on the other flank set up El Ghazi’s first with a fantastic ball to the far post and posed a threat all game, making space for a Cash cross that Ollie Watkins diverted home, only to find that, once again, a blurred image had him marked as millimetres offside.
Traoré’s goal was delightful too – taking the shot half a beat earlier than expected, left the keeper rooted to the spot, and had shades of Ruud van Nistlelrooy’s famous finish vs Fulham (although Bertrand didn’t have to beat five players in the build up). He acted as a dangerous attacking outlet all game with his running, link-up play and ability to provide good service into the box.
Granted, there were occasions where El Ghazi made the wrong decision to end an attacking move and better defenses may not give Traoré the perfect opportunity to whip an early cross in from his left foot, but that should not detract from the work put in and the improvement shown – no player can be expected to have a completely perfect game.
With Barkley potentially back for the next game (as has been said prior to the previous three), they have navigated us through a fixture that a team with our ambitions should be winning with ease – whilst patience was required, that is exactly what was achieved.
After such strong performances, Dean Smith will be left with the proverbial ‘selection headache for the right reasons’ over the remaining winter fixtures. The perception amongst some of the fan base in the early stages of the season was that Villa had a set first XI, but that the drop off in quality between the first team and their understudies could limit Villa’s success as the season progressed.
Whilst time, injuries and other opposition will prove just how accurate this is, the performance at the Hawthorns suggests that it may not entirely be the case. Both El Ghazi and Traoré have made their case to start, so the return of Barkley will be interesting.
Smith is very likely to revert to the usual system, with Jack on the left but often occupying the traditional No.10 role and Barkley running from the centre to take some of the creative burden, but expect to see more of both Traoré and El Ghazi. Both have shown that with game time, their confidence has grown and they provide the attacking edge that is expected from wingers in this division – this will also allow a change in system if the game requires it, which could be very useful when trying to unlock a stubborn defense; they seem to have thrived with Grealish as playmaker from midfield and so there is the opportunity to pose a different threat for oppositions that sit behind the ball should Smith need it.
After both wingers put themselves on the score sheet (El Ghazi doing so three times in as many games) there will be pressure on Trézéguet in particular to perform. Even if the Egyptian does immediately regain his place in the squad, expect earlier or more frequent introductions of the other two in order to keep them content and hungry.
Impact on Transfers
Cries for another winger may not completely dissipate after this performance, but it does remove a sense of urgency around doing so. If performances like this continue and the relatively young wingers (both 25) show further improvement, then there is no need to draft a replacement unless they would be a substantial upgrade. This may have moved this position down Smith and Lange’s list of priorities, with the two games highlighting other areas that may require attention first.
The preference of Villa to attack down the left side is more of a reflection of Grealish’s usual position but does leave Targett with a more technically responsible role. Due to this, Targett has often had more interaction in our build-up play than Cash and the left-back role has added importance under the current tactical set-up. He has performed well in the role to date, but injury to him may be more damaging to the team than we would currently estimate. Adequate back-up would offer reassurance without needing to break the bank.
A key element that switched between the Burnley and West Brom games was the reintroduction of Douglas Luiz. Whilst he may not have had too much to do, his composure and ability on the ball allowed Villa to launch successive attacks and prevented the opposition from gaining any real foothold in the game. The home side being unable to keep the ball or break Villa’s rhythm was a key reason behind why the result seemed so comfortable and Luiz was crucial to this even if it didn’t require the full extent of his abilities.
Comparison with the Burnley game highlights this as a key area for reinforcement as Nakamba is stylistically too different whilst not being of the calibre to force a tactical change.
The strong effort from both wingers against the Albion granted their first win in the game immediately before Christmas Day for the first time in eight seasons. Villa go into Christmas in 9th place as it stands, with a game in hand or two on all those above them – a world away from the situation we were in 12 months ago.
Merry Christmas all, here’s hoping you’re not too hungover when watching the Boxing Day game vs Palace!