Aston Villa have picked up three points from their first game of the new Premier League season, with an opening day win against Sheffield United.
Words: Alan Wilson | @Villalan54
A lot of Aston Villa fans will this morning be scratching their heads trying to remember the last time they saw their team win on the opening day of the season?
The answer is, a 3-1 win at Hull City with goals from Tommy Elphick, Mohamed Elmohamady and of all people, the “legendary” Alan Hutton for the opening game of the 2018/19 season. But to be fair to those who couldn’t remember, it does seem like a lot longer than two years ago. An awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that balmy August afternoon win at the KC Stadium. But before anybody gets too carried away, after all whatever anybody says, it’s just three points isn’t it? Purely an early win in what without doubt, will prove to be another immensely difficult season for the club in the months ahead, right?.
Well actually no, with all that said, there are a lot of reasons why this win is a not just early win and three points for the club. There are numerous other points to observe, as to why this particular win is so important for Aston Villa Football Club.
The clubs wealthy owners – Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have for the second season running backed Dean Smith with cold hard cash in the transfer market. It’s well documented that following (mainly) the advice of Jesus Garcia Pitarch, the club’s now departed Sporting Directo), the owners spent a whopping £140m on new acquisitions for the clubs return to the Premier league before the start of what turned out to be a stomach churning season of injuries, some unbelievable VAR decisions and quite frankly some dreadful results. Add to this the Global Pandemic delaying the season for 3 months, before the players finally rescued themselves with a last gasp, final day point against fellow strugglers West Ham at the London Stadium. No Villa fan anywhere in the world ever wants to sit through the stress of a season like that one again!
Despite many predicting that Dean Smith would pay the price for a disappointing run of form last season, the Owners and Chief Executive Christian Purslow in a rare show of faith and belief in the fickle world of football, kept their word and stood by their manager and his coaching staff. Pitarch was the casualty and was replaced by Johan Lange just a few short weeks ago. With further financial backing, Dean Smith with the shrewd help of Johan Lange has been able to welcome four excellent new signings to the club so far. Cash, Watkins, Martinez and Traore to date, will all strengthen the team for the battles ahead. So what else is particularly important about this opening night victory against a stubborn Sheffield United team?
Firstly, it is fair to say that Chris Wilder will surely have steeled his blades and engendered somewhat of a siege mentality into his players to go out at Villa Park last night and redress the balance for the ‘goal that never was’, when on their previous visit to B6 last season, Villa keeper Orjan Nyland stepped back over the line and into the side of the net with the ball, in an incident that after analysis from every angle known to man was proved almost conclusively to be a ‘goal’, but crucially was not registered by the previously ever reliable ‘Hawk-Eye’ goal-line sensor. The Gods were smiling on Aston Villa that night for sure. To overcome what must have been a grim determination by the Blades to see justice done, was a feat in itself tonight, for a well organised Villa team.
Next, the early sending off of United’s John Egan for pulling, pushing and holding back Ollie Watkins when he looked certain to run through for his first league goal in a Villa shirt, could have caused that age old story of 10 men fighting like lions to get a result. For like many before them that have lost a man early in a game they simply ‘parked the bus’ in a determined effort to get a point, or even on one of their rare forays forward a valuable winning goal. This new look Villa team were having none of it. They passed the ball all night with an assured confidence and gradually picked away for openings in the Blades defensive battalion.
Then when Chris Basham managed to get an extremely rare run into the penalty area and was tripped by Matt Targett, the Villa fans were left holding their breath as John Lundstram’s subsequent penalty was brilliantly saved by debutant keeper Emiliano Martinez, making him an instant Villa hero. A huge change in fortune for a Villa side who fell to countless sucker punches last season. As the second half started we saw a Villa team gradually wearing down the Blades defence with probings from both wings, Grealish tormenting his opponents exchanging one-twos with McGinn and Watkins, Douglas Luiz playing like a true general in the middle of the park, suddenly Villa looked a much better proposition tactically than they ever did last season.
Then perhaps the biggest plus and difference came with the winning goal that Villa deservedly scored in the 63rd minute. There has been much criticism and rightly so from supporters who have been exasperated by the fact that despite having a full complement of tall defenders in Mings, Konsa, Hause and Engels they hardly ever pose a threat from attacking set pieces and even more rarely ever score with headers from corners or free-kicks. To the delight and astonishment of the fans, this sad statistic which was even highlighted as a serious issue by one of our own writers very recently, all of this changed when Villa gained another corner (from their total of 10 corners in the game). Targett aimed what was clearly a well rehearsed corner kick to Mings at the near post who back headed the ball over United’s defence to the far post, Ezri Konsa rose to score with a header that looped over the keeper into the far corner. Yes it’s true, a Villa centre-back scored with a header from a corner!
Finally, there are two other notable ‘firsts’ that should be considered here.
The introduction of Keinan Davis for Conor Hourihane just two minutes before Konsa’s goal signalled a clear intention by Dean Smith to put further pressure on Sheffield United’s beleaguered defence with the introduction of a second striker. It was a welcome diversion from last season’s lack of desire to ever try out two front-men together.
Finally but perhaps most importantly, most Villa fans had be-moaned our ‘ill fortune’ at getting our scheduled opening match away to Manchester City postponed, to give Guardiola’s squad extra time to recover from a long season. It was a strong topic of conversation amongst the Villa faithful that if we were to lose our ‘revised’ opening game to Sheffield United last night, that we could be nine points behind a number of teams by the time we travel to Fulham next Monday night. Some fans were even saying (somewhat ridiculously), that if we followed that with defeat at Fulham we would be all but relegated in the first month of the season! You can sympathise with the irony of these negative concerns. However, rather than allowing this to become mental ‘baggage’ that could have easily dented the confidence of the team, the players went out there and beat a stubborn opponent to gain three points from the ‘get go’.
In doing so, a message has gone out to all of the other teams in the Premier League. Don’t expect Aston Villa to be a pushover this season and Villa Park will not be a place you can easily take points from.