Complete Preview follows up on Aston Villa’s first Premier League of the season, as they prepare to face Crystal Palace this Saturday.
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By all accounts, Aston Villa have had a good week.
They picked up their first win of the Premier League season last Friday, against strong opposition in Everton. Wesley, Jota and Guilbert linked up well to provide the Brazilian forward with his first competitive Aston Villa goal, and the game was capped off with an assist for John McGinn as he slid a ball through to Anwar El Ghazi – who nutmegged Gomes and Pickford to stake a claim in the starting eleven.
The week couldn’t be topped, as Aston Villa were the most entertaining side of the Second Round of the Carabao Cup, dismissing Crewe in a 6-1 affair.
The next test couldn’t be more different to Villa’s match against Everton. Dean Smith’s men will travel to Selhurst Park, a glorious away day, to play Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. The Villa faithful will provide unbelievable support as ever, and the atmosphere with two such excellent fan bases will be mouth-watering. But this will be a game for Villa to go and win on the front-foot, away from home and the comfort of Villa Park. Sitting back won’t be as high on Dean Smith’s agenda, though he must get the balance right.
Palace have had an okay start, with a draw against Everton, defeat against Sheffield United and a shock win away at Old Trafford to start their campaign – the Eagles have four points. But as ever with football, the results don’t tell the full story:
Eagles with Blunted Talons
Crystal Palace have been a bit subdued and a fortuitous win has masked a few problems early on in their season. Notably, they are not scoring a lot of goals. Against United, they managed 5 shots with 3 on target. That’s not too bad against a side with United’s personnel, but the stats were similar against lesser opposition in Sheffield United and Everton. 6 with 4 on target against Sheffield and 6 with 2 on target against Everton. All this shows why Crystal Palace’s total expected goals are only 1.79 – which is the lowest expected goals tally in the league.
Zaha’s ongoing transfer speculation won’t have helped his form, which looks to have been affected. Their talisman has only scored a rating of 6.59 this season and he’s failed to impact any games directly with goals or assists. Instead, it’s ex-Villa man Jordan Ayew and Patrick van Aanholt who’ve scored their two goals, with Jeffrey Schlupp grabbing their only assist of the Premier League campaign. All of this, compiled with a performance that yielded no goals against Colchester mid-week, and Palace looks a side who have a lot of work to do in order to get the goals firing.
Too Early to Assess Their Defence
The Eagles have only conceded two goals, to be fair. Although their expected goals against is much higher, at 5.31 – though Watford, Norwich, West Ham, Newcastle, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Bournemouth and Villa themselves, all have similar records at this stage. This early into the season it may be too soon to properly analyse Palace’s defence.
It is worth noting, that in Joel Ward, Patrick van Aanholt, Scott Dan and, of course Gary Cahill, Crystal Palace do not have a backline that looks weak in terms of personnel.
Crystal Palace: Guaita, Ward (Knock), Cahill, Dann, van Aanholt (Knock), Milivojevic (C), Camarasa, McArthur, Townsend, Zaha, Ayew.
Aston Villa: Heaton, Guilbert, Engels, Mings, Taylor, Douglas Luiz, McGinn, Grealish (C), Jota, Trezeguet, Wesley
This will be the battle of the 4-3-3. Palace like to tackle and win the ball from the opposition, they are effective on the counter particularly with the dangerous Zaha who creates chances from the left. Expect to see a number of long balls to van Aanholt and Zaha as Crystal Palace will look to give the right-hand side of Villa’s defence a lot to think about.
With Ayew playing up front, after Benteke’s poor performance mid-week, Palace will have more of a goal threat by trying to link up play between Townsend cutting in, Ayew with his movement, Zaha, McArthur and either of the fullbacks. For that attacking group of players, this sort of game at home to a rival will give them a bit more chance to go and express themselves.
Despite Villa’s excellent defensive personnel, we do look a little vulnerable from build-up play, as we are one of the least effective teams in the league at tackling in our own half. For this reason, I actually expect Palace to score at least once, and it’ll probably be a game for Zaha to rediscover some form – he must know by now that a move abroad isn’t on the cards for Crystal Palace.
We can only hope that the on-going saga is still playing in Zaha’s mind and that he’ll need a couple more weeks to get his head right. Otherwise, it’s been shown by the five goals that Villa have conceded so far that we do struggle against tricky players. A frustration of watching Aston Villa for many years has been our lack of tackling, and I hope that Guilbert, in particular, can showcase some of the defensive qualities that made him so effective in France last season. On the other side of the defence, Taylor against Townsend will be an interesting match-up.
Seeing a poor performance from Targett as Crewe’s winger gave him a torrid time on Tuesday was a shame. Even more of a shame was the injury he then sustained from making a pass – while Taylor is a good servant, I can’t help but like to see glimpses of when Targett has put in good slide tackles and offered a bit more going forward than the Welshman. I think that improving the left-back position defensively and going forward still remains vital for Dean Smith, as we do look weakest in that position.
What Can We Expect from Aston Villa?
Villa’s defensive capability in our own half could do with improving. Conor Hourihane made a huge claim for a starting spot with his mercurial performance against Crewe, and Dean Smith may give him the nod over Douglas Luiz. Whoever anchors the midfield, we need them to up their defensive game so that Villa can finally get that defensive anchorman that can enable us to turn-over play and get on the attack more often. We are lucky that Engels and the newly selected England international Tyrone Mings have been so imperious in stopping a number of chances with their brave defending. I would like to see the fullbacks and anchoring midfielder give them more protection.
Imagine if Mings, Engels and Heaton only face a couple of the opposition’s chances per game, rather than the four or five that they’re currently being expected to deal with? If they had more protection, I think we would keep a lot of clean sheets against a lot of teams.
Going forward yields far better prospects for Villa. Grealish came on against Crewe and got an assist, which will give him a little more confidence. What’s more, this looks like a game in which Grealish might get on the ball much more than he did against Everton – I am backing captain Jack to get an assist or goal in this game.
John McGinn will also be relishing the chance to get at Palace’s midfield and backline. In their three games, Palace have only had a passing percentage of 69% – incredibly low for a Premier League team and paling in comparison to Villa’s 78%. Margins like that could prove the difference, and McGinn will no doubt cause some nervous and rushed passes by Palace. A victim of disappointment only by his own lofty standards, McGinn hasn’t scored since his opener against Spurs, and he will be looking to change this.
El Ghazi and Hourihane?
Dean Smith wanted competition in his side, and he’s got it. Hourihane’s performances have been good and his play against Crewe showed how effective he can be. I honestly don’t know who Dean Smith will give the nod, but either Luiz or Hourihane will offer plenty going forward. We’ve seen the goal threat that Luiz has from range, glimpses of his passing ability and we’ve seen him grow in stature over the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Hourihane is a seasoned professional who’s probably due a freekick goal or assist by now, and could certainly help to exploit Palace’s ineffectiveness at defending set-pieces.
Meanwhile, on the wing, it really could be any combination of Trezeguet, Jota, or El Ghazi. I think Jota is the most likely to play given his assist at Villa Park. However, Trezeguet might lose his place to El Ghazi, who came on to score against Everton and put in a good performance in the cup.
Whatever the result, I’m sure that Aston Villa will attack this game for large periods. Expect to see some action as Palace will want to play to impress the home crowd, but I do think that Villa have the confidence and form right now, as well as a stronger central defence, better striker and more industrious midfield than the Eagles. Despite their threat down the wings, I think Villa will win this one.