By Jonathan Parkin
The second of three relegation battles over the festive period came in the form of Daniel Farke’s Norwich at Villa Park. There needed to be bounce back after a woeful performance by Villa against Southampton. Dean Smith emphasised that there was ‘work to do’ in training, and the Villa faithful were hoping for some sort of change to make up for the same consistent mistakes.
The Villans needed to show more fight and be less soft in midfield, and more of a stable unit at the back. Slightly shuffling his pack, Smith changed up the midfield and defence, bringing Elmohamady, Konsa, Nakamba and Trezeguet into the starting XI. This meant moving Jack Grealish into the centre of the midfield, a change that some Villa fans have been demanding for weeks.
The majority of the tie was very cagey, and there were times where there was a lack of quality on show. Norwich looked dangerous from set pieces and on the break, but the boys in claret and blue battled hard to secure a pressure releasing win.
The fight shown was a far cry from the limp display against Southampton. The only goal from Conor Hourihane was greeted by celebrations of relief after what has been a rather nervy Christmas for Villa supporters. The midfield had a strength that was missing in other games, and the centre-backs were fantastic. Norwich had some good chances, but some huge saves and blocks meant the Villa clung on to the three points in an admirable fashion.
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Tom Heaton – 8.5 MOTM
My word Tom Heaton has good reflexes. On two stand out occasions the England international saved the Villa when a goal looked certain. With Heaton between the sticks, the team will be kept in games, the rest of the team just needs to back him up and get a goal at the other end. This time, the team obliged and got the win.
Ahmed Elmohamady – 6
Ahmed Elmohamady put in an unspectacular, and at times shaky, performance. Despite this, he got the job done and even looked decent going forward when he pushed on. He knows his limits, and so thinks before overlapping the winger, meaning that he was caught out of position much less often than his French counterpart Fred Guilbert last time out.
Ezri Konsa – 7.5
Ezri Konsa was pretty solid in the centre of the defence. His passing was the best of any of the backline in terms of accuracy, and his range of passing is very good. He made mistakes in the first half a couple of times, but he had the pace to recover and made good challenges to snuff out the Norwich attack. This pace makes him a good partner for Kortney Hause, who isn’t quite as quick.
Kortney Hause- 8
The best of the defenders, Hause was fantastic. The aggressiveness of his play to nip in front of the attacker and win the ball time after time was refreshing. He dominated in the air, winning more aerial duels than any other Villa player. though the 24-year old’s passing was as no-frills as ever, having someone with the passing ability of Konsa next to him benefitted him greatly, and he didn’t have to lump the ball forward as often.
Matt Targett- 6
The offensive side of Matt Targett’s game wasn’t as on show as usual (Grealish ws visibly frustrated at one of his sloppy passes), but in defensive areas he was a little more solid. He was beaten one or two times, but he marshalled Emi Buendia well and thus the Norwich winger didn’t affect the game as much as expected.
Douglas Luiz – 7
Douglas Luiz looked so much more up for the fight than ever before. He scrapped in the centre of the park, and despite a couple of silly fouls in relatively dangerous areas, his defensive game was better. The block on the line from the Brazilian in the second half was nothing short of sensational, and provided the crowd with something to get behind in a period where Norwich looked likely to score.
Marvellous Nakamba – 5.5
Marvellous Nakamba certainly didn’t have one of his better games. The man from Zimbabwe nipped in to win the ball on a few occasions, but gave the ball away and committed fouls equally as often. He also nearly gifted Norwich a goal after not clearing the ball in the box, if it wasn’t for Luiz’s heroics, it would’ve been 1-0 Norwich.
Jack Grealish © – 7.5
Consistent as ever from Jack Grealish. It looked at times in the second half as if he would have to do it all by himself yet again, and it was a bit of his brilliance that led to the goal. He sent Norwich’s Alex Tettey to the shops for a pack of mince pies before playing the ball on a plate to Hourihane. Having a player of Grealish’s quality was the difference yet again for the Villa.
Anwar El Ghazi – 6
Anwar El Ghazi is such a frustrating player to watch. The ability going forward is clearly there, but his complete lack of desire to track back and be a willing runner is infuriating. He has the pace that the team desperately needs on the field, but he leaves his full-back so isolated and without support that he becomes a hindrance. His attacking play was decent and he does well to beat a man and put a cross in the box or shoot, but his all-round game needs work.
Trezeguet was almost the exact opposite of El Ghazi. His willingness to run and work for the team is great to see, he just offered little quality when he got the ball. His tracking back helps the team greatly and he ended up making the third most tackles of any Villa player.
Wesley – 6.5
Wesley was a handful for the Norwich defence, he helped start a number of promising moves and he was much less isolated up top. The big Brazilian needs to start shooting however, and though his confidence will be low from a lack of goals, the only way to get his confidence up is by having a go and pulling the trigger. He worked hard and pressed very well in spells and looked knackered after the 80th minute, which makes it odd that Smith didn’t substitute him.
Off the Bench
Hourihane (55) – 8
What a difference a few days makes. Conor Hourihane looked a different player to that which ghosted his way through the clash against Southampton. The commentators on Amazon will have had their Villa cliché book out to talk about his ‘wand of a left foot,’ as he slammed the ball home for the winner. This wasn’t the only pleasing part of his display, he tracked the runs of Cantwell in behind well, and moved the ball quickly at the base of the midfield. The team looked much improved with Nakamba off and Hourihane on.
Jota (83) – 6
Jota didn’t really have enough time on the ball to affect the game at all. The situation that the team was in meant he didn’t have the freedom to play that a place in the starting XI would give him.
Henri Lansbury (91) – n/a
Wasn’t on the pitch for very long and touched the ball once. More of a time-wasting sub than anything else.
Dean Smith – 7
The changes in the starting XI that Dean Smith made, amended a lot of the mistakes and it was clear that he had got the team more up for the fight. He said on BBC Radio Five Live, after the game, that he wanted ‘enthusiasm, attitude and application’ from his team and for the most part he got exactly that.
His substitutions were as ever rather late, but bringing on Hourihane changed the game. He acknowledged the lack of quality in the game, but the result was the ultimate goal, and he got it.
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