It had been a pretty gloomy summer in which the fallout from last season and the dragging ownership situation had bred cynicism and indifference amongst many Villa fans. During the past ten days though, some reasons for encouragement have emerged.
After a couple of pretty uninspiring bosmans, some higher profile signings were finally made with Aly Cissokho and Carlos Sánchez both bought within the space of a week, and this was followed by an assured display on Saturday which resulted in a deserved three points for Villa.
Back to basics.
It’s no secret that Paul Lambert favours hard-working, behind-the-ball counter-attacking football and for a while it was effectively implemented during away games, resulting in impressive away form. That evaporated last season with Villa going nine games without a win on their travels, with the last away victory [before Stoke] coming on New Year’s Day and Lambert’s team actually finished with a better home record in the end.
So it was important to see the remastering of what is Lambert’s primary way of playing. Key to this was the vastly improved defensive solidity from a new-look backline.
Alan Hutton (on his self-described “second-debut”) played well, keeping Arnautović at bay and also pushing slightly up to provide an option when Villa were in possession. In fact, the Scottish international had more touches than any of his teammates. On the other side Cissokho exhibited great energy, covering a lot of the pitch and offering a fair attacking threat.
Most heartening though was the performance of Philippe Senderos who struck an instant understanding with captain Ron Vlaar. With questions remaining over Okore’s fitness and how much the injury may affect him, it’ll be a huge boost if Senderos can be a success.
The usage of the No. 10.
When Joe Cole revealed that the manager had assured him of a central role, it was clear that the much desired No. 10 role would be deployed more this season. But whether that was going to be a general tactical switch or only used mainly for certain home games was uncertain. The Stoke game may suggest the former with Kieran Richardson debuting in that role.
Although usually a left-back/winger, the former Fulham man handled playing there competently enough. He worked hard, did a good job of finding space and linked well with N’Zogbia at times. His persistence off the ball should’ve resulted in an assist, when he beat Begović to a ball only to be let down by poor finish from Agbonlahor.
Of course it’s conceivable that more industrial players like Richardson might be preferred in that position for away games while more ‘flair’ players like Joe Cole may be used for games that involve breaking down stubborn opponents at home. Regardless, it does seem like the No. 10 and a 4-2-3-1 shell is something we will see a great deal of during this campaign.
Lambert has never been the most proactive when it comes to making substitutions, so it was quite a surprise to see him bring on Jack Grealish when the team were actually protecting a lead. This surely underlines the faith in the teenager and that he is viewed as a full member of the senior set-up now. It is plausible that this is mainly down to Keane’s influence but positive news all the same. It will be up to young Jack to impress as much as possible from his sub appearances and probable cup starts to force his way into the first eleven.
The Keane effect.
Some of the best entertainment on Saturday came from the touchline antics of a certain bearded Irishman.
Roy Keane cut an animated figure, regularly bellowing instructions to the team and even offering the occasional ‘death stare’ to the officials. His presence even seemed to galvanise his boss, who had spent most of last season’s run-in despondently sitting in his seat, back to his best.
This may well have been reflected in the performance of the team. A performance that invoked incredible team ethic, work-rate and organisation, which suggests high motivation and morale at the very least. Could this be the Roy Keane effect? Let’s hope so. UTV
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