The quick-turnaround part of the season gets underway this week, with Arsenal hosting Aston Villa just three days after traveling to Frankfurt to open the Europa League. Aston Villa return to the Premier League this season after three years in the Championship, so this is a perfect time to check in with Andy Bates of SBN’s Villa blog, 7500 to Holte, and see what the Villans have been up to in the last few seasons, and how they’re finding life back in the Premier League. I did the same for 7500, and here are my answers to their questions.
TSF: After three years in the Championship, Villa are back in the Premier League. Was this past summer full of dread or excitement?
7500: Definitely excitement! The levels of positivity around the club, starting from the 10 game winning run, to winning the playoffs generated a spirit around Villa which we haven’t witnessed for an awfully long time. Of course there is some trepidation, but seeing Aston Villa back on the Premier League fixture list, combined with the business we were able to get done has really captured the imagination of the fan base again. The fact that the club had to cap season tickets at 30.000 and we have a further 10,000 on the waiting list is unprecedented as far as I can remember and shows the level of interest and excitement amongst the fans.
TSF: I know this question might not have an answer until May, but did Villa do a good job of retooling the squad prior to the start of the season?
7500: They certainly got through a hell of a lot of work! Contrary to popular belief the recruitment was entirely necessary due to the number of players who left, 8 released and 5 loan players returning. Some pundits were saying that we were signing too many players, but given that we are still short in some areas, particularly up front, it just shows the job that Christian Purslow (CEO) Jesus Pritarch (sporting director) and Dean Smith had to do. Also they are working to a recruitment model designed to identify potential and raise their value through coaching.
This has meant that aside from Tom Heaton in goal, we have signed under 25s, so they will take time to realise any potential, but they are hungry and keen to learn and improve. This sits very well with most Villa fans who are fed up of the club haemoraging money on aging players who see the club as a meal ticket. There have been some interesting recruits for whom the jury will remain out, in particular the record signing Wesley who joined from Club Brugge for £22m. He is already dividing opinion, but to me he looks like he has all the tools to be a dangerous striker in the premier league. Of course re-signing Tyrone Mings was the one we all wanted and even at £20m plus, he already looks like a bargain for us, on and off the pitch.
TSF: Has the season started as you would expect, or has it been surprising (in either a good or bad way)?
7500: It’s been a strange one. Obviously with the levels of excitement during the summer, there was hope that we would take the league by surprise and start well. However this was based on very little, as in reality we had no idea how the new players would fit in, or indeed how our stars from last season would step up. For myself, I wanted us to establish Villa Park as a fortress so teams knew they would have to be at their best to get anything there.
Sadly in the first game against Bournemouth, two poor defensive errors early on cost us, so we did not make a great start to that. Away from home, The Crystal Palace result was extremely disappointing, as whilst we did not play well, we were denied and equaliser by that inexplicable ‘brain fart’ by referee Kevin Friend. So we have 4 points from 5 games, which isn’t disastrous, but we could do with a quick couple of wins to get us to 10 points so we can relax into the season a bit more.
TSF: Villa’s lone win so far this season came against Everton, two matches ago. What went right in that match, and what can Villa take from it as they look to start picking up a few more wins?
7500: We defended very well, kept it compact and were clinical on the counter attack. This however is not really how Smith wants us to play. He is all about possession, pushing high up the field and creating lots of big chances. This is clearly something that will be a work in progress as dominating the ball will be far harder in the Premier League. However off the ball, in terms of the counter press and then using it effectively in dangerous areas, we were on point in that game. Maybe not so against West Ham on Monday night however, where we were possibly guilty of pushing too hard and made too many errors on the ball and simply ran out of steam too early to fully take advantage of the player advantage after West Ham’s red card.
TSF: What’s the biggest difference that people might not be aware of between the Championship and the Premier League?
7500: It purely about technical quality. The players are able to execute a game plan easier in the Premier League. The Championship is a coaches league as it is usually the best tacticians who get the most joy. The ones who can make their team more than the sum of their parts, as we are seeing with Norwich under Daniel Farke. The financial restrictions mean that it is virtually impossible for clubs to make any inroads to improve their team and are reliant on picking up bargains, either youth players on loan, or journeymen that no-one else wants.
It is also relentless in terms of fixtures, Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday. It is brilliant for the fans though and I actually really enjoyed the chaos in the Championship. It was also nice to follow a team that won 25 games a season, rather than the 3 we won the season we were relegated. That being said, it always felt like Villa were on loan there and being back in the Premier League feels right, even though it will be more of a slog.
TSF: Fill in the blank: if Arsenal want to beat Aston Villa, they must (blank)
7500: Get past Mings and Engels! These two guys are forming a formidable partnership in central defence for Villa. Both read the game and position themselves well, are good in the air, make blocks and tackles and are incredibly comfortable in possession. Bjorn Engles might not be a player who many people are aware of. I know I wasn’t, but he looks every inch a premier league player and the latest product of the Belgian centre back factory.
Obviously Arsenal have a top quality attack so I feel that something will have to give on Sunday. If Pepe and Aubameyang have the beating of our defenders then it could be a long afternoon for us. By the same token, it would not surprise me if your expensive strike force is trying to find it’s way out of Tyrone’s back pocket on Sunday evening!
TSF: Tell Arsenal fans about a Villa player or two they should look out for on Sunday and why.
7500: John McGinn, John McGinn and John McGinn! I cannot stress enough how good this fella is. Signed last summer from Hibernian for £2m, he is possibly the best signing, pound for pound, that Villa have made since Paul McGrath. He just does not stop, like the Duracel bunny, he does not know when he is beaten. He is often described as a ‘throwback’ as he is a classic box-to-box midfielder, excellent at winning the ball, has a turn of pace to beat a man and a great range of passing.
It is slightly unorthodox which confuses opponents and he has a ferocious left footed shot. Last season he was clearly head and shoulders above so was able to dominate midfields alongside Jack Grealish. And this season he has not looked out of place, although not finding things so easy to come by. He is like a likeable version of Roy Keane, although he does have a nasty streak too, as shown by his 13 yellow cards last season. I want him to be a Villa player for a long time, but I foresee some strong interest from elite clubs during next summer.
TSF: Finally, a predicted lineup?
7500: We tend to play a 4-3-3. Tom Heaton in goal. The back four will probably be unchanged, right to left, Guilbert, Engels, Mings, Taylor. Smith will probably stick with Nakamba as defensive midfielder, but whilst we have had two number 8’s in Grealish and McGinn, I think he may move Grealish into the front three and bring in Hourihane for some extra midfield control, not to mention his set piece expertise. Trezaguet should return to the right hand side of the front three with Wesley as the number 9. That’s what I would do anyway!
Thanks so much to Andy and 7500 to Holte for chatting with us!