Follow us on Twitter @claretandview // Words by Mark Jirobe (@VillaMarkPGH)

After a disaster of a week to say the slightest, Steve Bruce and his Aston Villa side needed a statement game against Norwich City. Many supporters were up in arms over this game being a decider of Bruce and his time with the club moving forward. What would his team selection be? What tactics would be employ? Would we see Mile Jedinak come back from injury? Many of those questions had answers and here we are to discuss them:

The Team Selection

With a must-win game coming after a less than deserving Reading result, Steve Bruce did all he could in terms of team selection with a laundry list of injuries. If there’s one thing that needs to be given credit, it is Steve Bruces’ attention to detail in player selection with so many injuries at the club at the present time.

Giving young starlet Keinan Davis a start in this game was a bit of a surprise, but a welcomed one. Most pundits had Gabby Agbonlahor to be the starting striker for Villa, but Steve Bruce had a bit of a trick up his sleeve in the form of a 19 year old. Davis would play 87 minutes against Norwich, and the youngster made quite the impression with the Villa faithful. In 87 minutes against Norwich, Davis had an impressive assist, 3 shots on target out of a total of 4, and completed 19 of 22 passes for an 86% success rate. Davis also tantalized the Holte End with a strong shot that just hit the woodwork and into the crowd behind the goal-mouth. This would be the first instance of the fabled Holte End supporters cheering “Keinan Davis; He’s one of our own!” This is a good sign for Villa, as Jonathan Kodjia is still recovering from his injury and Scott Hogan seems to have reaggravated a previous injury. If Bruce can keep Davis focused and hungry, one may see Agbonlahor on the bench a lot more than on the pitch.

What is there to be said of Conor Hourihane that has not been said already? What a shift he put in for Aston Villa. Not only did he contribute in the way of a hat trick, Hourihane also solidified his Man Of The Match performance with an 81% pass success rate. The Ireland born midfielder re-payed his faith from the supporters with a magnificent strike set up by Keinan Davis in the 22nd minute. Hourihane would go on again to put the ball in the back of the net in the 42nd and 85th minutes. It goes without saying that this performance is exactly what Steve Bruce had in mind when he brought in Hourihane, and here’s hoping that form continues with more goals from the midfield. 

With Joshua Onomah going off with a head injury in the 30th minute, Henri Lansbury trotted onto the field to try and at least live up to the speed and ferocity that Onomah plays with. On this day against Norwich, Lansbury got on with his job in a fantastic fashion. Twelve minutes into his day at Villa Park, Lansbury fed a ball to Andre Green who beautifully curled a ball into the top left-hand corner. Norwich keeper Angus Gunn had a better chance of getting his hand on a pie than he did the ball, and the eruption of cheers at Villa Park rang loud and true. Chants of, “Andre Green; He’s one of our own!” rang throughout the Holte once more, and for good reason. The goal is not only a good sign for Green, who has missed his fair amount of chances early in the season, but also a good sign for Aston Villa as a whole as well. 

Ahmed Elmohamady had a very decent game, especially for a man who had 30 stitches in his mouth. Most people would have taken the day off, but Steve Bruce has said time and time again that ‘Elmos’ will to play, and play well was the reason for his acquisition. He paid back the gaffer with timely clearances, astute crosses and a tireless work ethic. Good to see from him, as a lot of supporters are still on the fence when it comes to his desire and passion. 

Glenn Whelan didn’t have as much of an exciting offensive game, but that comes at no surprise. That isn’t what he is on the pitch for, and he wasn’t beaten one-on-one all game long in a statistical sense. He drove a hard bargain in the middle of the field against Norwich, and it is a breath of fresh air to see an experienced player pressing the opposition when it’s needed, and falling back when it’s smart. That is something defensive minded midfielders have had trouble at in Aston Villa squads, save for Mile Jedinak.

Speaking of Jedinak, Villa supporters all over the world were clamoring to see the bearded midfielder back in action. Steve Bruce hinted that he might play, but it was not meant to be against Norwich. Supposedly Jedinak was a little sore after being put through his recovery paces the day before the match, and the coaching staff agreed to let him continue his rehab. Smart bit of business as well, seeming that Jedinak will most likely get the start or at least some playing time against Wigan in the EFL Cup tie on Tuesday with the international break on the horizon. The wild statistic kept floating around that Villa have not won a game without Jedinak since he joined Villa, but after this win I’m sure that the entire club is ready to put that fact to sleep. 

James Chester and John Terry partnered in the middle of the defensive core as expected, and had a lot of work to do. Giving up 2 goals is never a good thing, especially in the Championship. Although early in the season after a few bad results, you have to give the partnership credit where it is due. Norwich has impressive speed and skill in their side, and the two Villa centre backs did all they could to keep the ball out of the back of their own net. James Chester also had a near goal, which veered over the crossbar. It seems almost every game that Chester and Terry are building a stronger and more communication driven partnership. It also seems that Terry is starting to break out of his shell a little bit at Aston Villa, as the 36 year old could be heard and seen barking orders to his teammates when the opportunity presented itself.

Neil Taylor featured at left back, and did his job as expected. With Jordan Amavi leaving for greener pastures, Neil Taylor is now the man Aston Villa will call upon for the defensive left side of the pitch. Something unorthodox about Taylor’s play is his long-ball efforts. They looked in another class with Davis up front. This may be something to look into as a few of Taylor’s long efforts immediately spelled trouble for the Canaries back-line. If Taylor gets the chance to do that magic with a taller striker by the name of Jonathan Kodjia, teams will be hard pressed to stop relentless over-the-top play by Aston Villa if the opportunities present themselves. 

For the second game in a row, Alan Hutton seemed a little out of sorts. Absent were the long runs from the right, the midfield link-up passes, and his overall passion. Norwich blatantly threw long-balls, men in numbers, and pressure his way all game long. After picking up a booking in the 58th minute, Hutton started to crawl into his shell and stopped getting forward. It’s a good thing the Aston Villa coaching staff took notice, and brought on young James Bree in the 64th minute. Bree looked to be on more stable footing for the rest of the contest, making smart plays with the ball and not hesitating to put the ball out to touch when Norwich came knocking late. 

Manchester United loanee Sam Johnstone continued his decent run of form, even with two goals leaking past him. It could be argued the back line let him down a few times over the past week, but alas Johnstone has been very solid in a positional sense. It would be a good bit of awareness to give him a break for the Wigan game on Tuesday, and I’m sure Steve Bruce will do just that. Remembering the Colchester game, it is fair to say that Jed Steer is more than ready for more first team action. After that impressive performance in the EFL Cup, it is vital to make sure Steer keeps his match fitness up in the event of an injury of fatigue with such a congested schedule in the Championship. 

The Tactics

Steve Bruce meddled the best that he possibly could during the course of the game. What seemed to be a 4-4-1-1 out of the gate saw Elmohamady and Green get a little more forward past the central midfielders, turning the formation into a slashes of 4-2-2-1-1. The speed of the Aston Villa side seemed to surprise Norwich, especially on the counter. After Conor Hourihane solidified his hat trick and the game itself, Bruce took off Keinan Davis for Chris Samba. But this time, Samba was not put into a striker role. Bruce decided to lock down the midfield by playing three defenders at the back, and moving his fullbacks up and down the field in a modern day wing-back role. This could be a breath of fresh air for Aston Villa when they are playing more pace-driven teams, and already have the game in hand and under control. 

The Verdict

With very few things to criticize in a 4-2 result going Villa’s way, this was a result everyone needed. From the supporters, to the players, to the owner, to the tea ladies…three points were on the minds of everyone even slightly interested in the club. Full marks go to Conor Hourihane, Andre Green and Keinan Davis. All three men…alright, one man and two boys…put in a fantastic shift and all three of them have made selection all that much harder for Steve Bruce and the coaching staff. The only point of concern was the unusually low possession rate of 37%. But if you take into consideration that Villa ran pace for pace with Norwich all day, and frustrated them in the first half to the point of madness, it becomes a moot point. Aston Villa will be looking to capture points in any fashion. It matters not if the football is attractive, a grind, or pure luck. Of course the supporters would like to see fast, attacking football every week. This will most likely not be the case, as there are a multitude of teams in the Championship that pride themselves on a possession and ‘defend first’ mentality. This result speaks volumes to the possibility of playing the “right way”. Although an identity of playing style has been absent since the selling of Christian Benteke, Steve Bruce seems a determined man to find the right personnel, the right tactics, and the right inspiration. A result such as this one could spur the team on and make them hungry for more points. With only one league game left before the international break, it would be a massive boost to the club to bag three more points on the road against Bristol City on August 25th.

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