‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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