By Calum Slater
Finding a Greater Attacking Threat in Difficult Month
It was easy viewing for Villa fans as two first half goals saw off a dire Newcastle and secured the first three points of 2021. The varied attack from Villa was too much for Steve Bruce’s men to handle in the first half and the win looked confirmed without ever pushing into second gear. It was a welcomed relief after a difficult January so far – facing the two Manchester clubs back-to-back in the league is difficult enough without some very controversial VAR decisions. Considering that a Coronavirus outbreak also had to be managed, the three points seem to signal the end of the difficulties before two games in four days to see the month out.
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Variation in Attack and a Solid Defense
Much of the success early in the season came from attacks down the left hand side with tidy play to work the ball into a promising position, before a killer pass or finish. The increased responsibility of the full-backs as the season has progressed has added to the side’s creative repertoire, providing early crosses, overlapping options and cut-backs from the byline from either side.
The variety of options from the flanks, supported by the ability in the centre of Barkley and Grealish to push forward with the ball and play the smarter short passes and make for a multi-faceted attack. Whilst it may not have fully clicked into place in the second half of the match against Newcastle, the potential is undoubtedly there to break teams down in many ways. Smith has created a system and bought in the players to fit it; as they become more comfortable, we are increasingly looking like a team with real attacking intent.
Whilst the defense was not particularly tested, the aerial threat of Andy Carroll was nullified with ease by both Mings and Konsa, whilst Cash and Targett gained more plaudits for yet another pair of energetic defensive contributions. A solid set up of two banks of four throughout the game with Barkley and Watkins pressing from the front on the rare occasion the Newcastle defense held onto the ball proved very difficult to break down. Smith has now got the balance right, after perhaps overlooking the defensive side of Villa’s make-up at the start of his reign, it has always been solidity at the back that has been the first piece to fall into place whenever we hit a good patch of form.
‘Juggling Balls for Christmas’
Smith may consider himself fortunate that his touchline ban came against a side with low morale and very little attacking output. He may even consider it a price worth paying after asking Jon Moss whether he got “juggling balls for Christmas” – he’s instantly gone up further in the estimation of Villa fans (even though his stock was already sky high) whilst drawing more attention to the inconsistencies and often unfathomable implementation of VAR.
In fact, referees have already been instructed to alter their interpretation of the offside rule, after the widespread disagreement caused by Bernardo Silva’s controversial Manchester City goal. The football family should perhaps cover Smith’s £8000 fine, in an incident that helped shine a light on the problem.
It is easy to see why Smith is such an effective man-manager and how this benefits the team. Villa’s own Project Restart at the end of last season began with a team meeting, involving his squad in the analysis of games and gathering their contributions to ensure that it was a different Villa side that appeared in those key matches. After that was achieved, the recruitment of Watkins was secured because of the relationship between manager and player.
His success at Walsall stemmed from a solid defense and an underratedly sophisticated attack, never resorting to an aimless, frustrating ‘hoofball’ game. At Brentford, he managed to combine the attacking talents in the team to overachieve against the more established sides in the league. Both of these are in place so far this season, and underpinning it all is his down-to-earth approach and ability to form strong relationships with players, retaining huge influence in the dressing room.
The ease with which a weaker Newcastle side was dispatched was comforting, but arguably not as much as the defeat at Manchester City. Whilst they were the better team, there was always the feeling that we could grab a point or even potentially cause an upset. At full time, it was one dubious decision and one debatable one, that had cost Villa, and there was a genuine sense of a missed opportunity against one of the best sides in world football.
There is a feeling now that Villa can beat anyone on their day; Smith may have produced his own quotable line during his touchline rant in the Newcastle game, but he’s made Ron Saunders’ “do you want to bet against us?” as relevant as it’s been for decades.