It has felt like a very long summer away from club football but with two weeks until the Premier League’s return, we take a look at Five Reasons to be Cheerful as Villa gear up for the final two games of pre-season.
Aston Villa in the USA
I couldn’t tell you the precise details of Villa’s final position or the exact structure of the Premier League’s USA tour, as my hope is that Villa are moving on from celebrating preseason silverware (*cough* Peace Cup *cough*). As far as friendly games go, the three matches against Newcastle United, Fulham, and Brentford provided stern tests for the squad as well as good entertainment for fans. Eight goals in three matches with two goals for new boy Moussa Diaby will hopefully have convinced some neutrals in America to join the Pride and assist Chris Heck with growing Villa’s influence abroad.
The usual pre-season clichés apply, of course, so while the results may not matter, the performances certainly do. Last summer we saw some good results under Steven Gerrard, but the performances weren’t too convincing. This year, while Villa may have conceded six avoidable goals, there is clear evidence of how well Emery is coaching his players. Jaden Philogene was among the youngsters given an opportunity to impress and he has certainly given the manager food for thought with his positive displays.
All three matches provided a clear insight into the flexibility of the squad and that of Emery’s strategy. Villa switched systems, all the while showing off the ever-improving ability to keep possession and play out of tight spaces. The creativity continued in the final third, giving fans a sneak peek at the attacking flair they can expect to see next season. The interplay between Kamara, Luiz, Tielemans, Diaby, Watkins, Coutinho, Buendia, and eventually, a returning Ramsey will make for good viewing.
Moving On Up
Since the last Five Reasons, Villa have completed the signings of Pau Torres and Moussa Diaby. Two players that were hunted by Europe’s elite within the past twelve months have found their way to Villa Park to join Unai Emery’s renaissance. We don’t know what level of influence Monchi played in either of the signings, if any, but clearly the combination of Villa’s talented squad, Emery’s gravitational pull and NSWE’s unwavering support is starting to make waves globally.
The signing of Coutinho and the presence of Premier League legend Steven Gerrard began the process of acquiring players that traditionally wouldn’t have crossed over to a mid-table Premier League side. The signings of Lucas Digne, Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos continued improving the profile of the club and this summer has seen the arrival of three players with excellent pedigree. The additions of Youri Tielemans, Torres and Diaby have only made Villa’s allure to top players all the more compelling.
Off the field, the additions of Chris Heck and Monchi, along with some new scouts and various promotions have resulted in Villa having as many presidents as Mount Rushmore. However, the club chooses to name the roles is irrelevant, but what counts is that Villa have had a big summer in re-organising the structure around Unai Emery. There is certainly a feeling that Villa are putting their eggs in one basket, but of all the managers Villa have suffered over the past decade this is certainly the man to wholeheartedly get behind.
With Juventus’ eviction from the conference league, it is safe to say that the favourites to win Europe’s third competition are now gone. With cup-specialist Emery at the wheel and a strong squad behind him, Villa will now enter the tournament as one of the big favourites. Competition will be fierce, however, with Osasuna, Eintracht Frankfurt, and Lille also fancying their chances of silverware. Basel are another side that has made waves in the Champions League in recent years but after a shock home defeat to Kazakh giants Tobol, they too could be about to face an early exit from the competition.
Whether or not this new competition is something to get excited about can be debated, as sides like Tottenham, Juventus and Chelsea are certainly grateful not to be in it. But for a team that has won no silverware since 1996 and is building momentum again, it is an exciting prospect to enter a competition as one of the favourites and without the prospect of facing any sides owned by oil states for a change.
Over the years, we’ve all come across those players that are absolutely guaranteed to score against Villa. In the 1990s, for example, Robbie Fowler barely had to break a sweat to be guraranteed a goal against a half decent Villa side. One thing I have noticed this summer is that a few of the players that tend to turn up against Villa have either left the country or are being linked with a move. Wilfred Zaha’s maniacal misdemeanour came to the fore in recent games as he complained about every decision. But whinging aside, he still usually managed to score a goal against Villa. Patrick Bamford and Iheanacho are two others that can go months without scoring only to turn up against Villa like vengeful footballing camels. Both were relegated and as of yet haven’t been snapped up by a Premier League side.
Most teams can argue that Harry Kane does well against them but nonetheless if his move to Bayern materialises, I’ll be glad to see the back of him, at least until Villa’s Champions League final against Bayern in 2025. Ilkay Gundogan is another, who has moved abroad and seemed to have a knack of scoring past the Villa. Rùben Neves has joined the mercenary league and thankfully won’t be putting 10/10 performances against Wolves’ Midlands rivals next season.
Finally, two players that are rumoured to be on the way out are Philip Billing and Daniel Podence. The latter seems to score and cause problems against Villa while be relatively inconsistent for the remainder of a season, while Billing is a player that has highlighted Villa’s lack of muscle for years now. All in all, Villa can be happy to see the back of some of these cursed players and hopefully the remainder will be off too before the window shuts.
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As Villa crawled their way over Tottenham’s corpse into 7th place last season, it became clear in the final games that the squad had become threadbare with a couple of injuries. Three quality acquisitions and a few players returning to fitness have left Villa looking far healthier for the upcoming season. All three signings are worthy of a starting role and will add genuine competition to training and subsequently raising standards.
Mings and Konsa, as well as Kamara and Luiz, were two pairs that were guaranteed a starting role last season as replacement options were limited or simply not as effective. Adding Torres and Tielemans to the mix gives the manager flexibility and creates an atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’, whereby players will live and die by their performances. A player like Leon Bailey that has potential and has had positive glimpses in big games will now have to sink or swim with the arrival of Diaby, who has, so far, netted two goals in one start and one cameo appearance.
Some fans have been worried about the increased competition dislodging their favourite players in last season’s squad, but if Villa are to progress such sentimentality needs to be parked elsewhere. Results and progress are all that Emery will be judged on and a winning manager will need to be ruthless when selecting his side to ensure the best and most in-form players are selected.
Finally, the recent friendlies have highlighted how much stronger the Villa bench will be next season and that’s with Alex Moreno and Jacob Ramsey still missing from the squad.