As the cliché goes, old habits die hard. Even in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Championship, Aston Villa fell victim to yet another defensive mistake.
Like the build up to any opening game, there was a mixture of anticipation, nerves and excitement in the air. With 4,500 of our fans travelling up to Sheffield, they were in full voice with a renewed sense of hope. Keen to forget the recent past and enjoy an away game, armed with new chants about chairman Tony Xia; there was certainly an attitude of things can only get better shared by supporters who travelled in style to the game (see below video).
Villa’s first game in the second tier since 1988 ended in defeat as Fernando Forestieri struck late to ensure Sheffield Wednesday left with all three points. Far from a nightmare result for Villa, yet tinged in disappointment, there were plenty of positives to take from the game.
Still, my wait goes on to write about a win. I wonder what that will feel like.
Starting XI Verdict:
For Villa’s first game in the Championship, Di Matteo set his team up in a 4-4-2 formation. New boy Ross McCormack went straight into the squad, making his debut alongside Rudy Gestede in attack. With 21 goals last season, he’s promised Villa goals. However, if your eyes were to have wandered to the midfield behind the Scotsman pre-match, you may have been feeling a sliver of pessimism.
The midfield four, consisting of Jordan Ayew, Ashley Westwood, Gary Gardner and Leandro Bacuna, left a lot to be desired. New signing Aaron Tshibola was left on the bench, leaving our midfield looking seemingly weak and lacking any ounce of creativity.
How Ashley ‘I can only pass backwards and sideways’ Westwood continues to make the first team, I’ll never know. Highlighting Villa’s need for an experienced, midfield anchor, there is still a lot to be done between now and the end of the transfer window, if Aston Villa are to compete in the middle of the park.
In addition to our rather limp midfield, there may have also been a pang of disappointment when the Villa faithful set eyes on the left-back position. Aly Cissokho kept his place in the starting 11 despite his mistake in the preseason game against Middlesbrough. Of course, you’d hope that he is only keeping Amavi’s place warm whilst he regains full fitness following a long injury lay off, but it begs the question: where is Joe Bennett? The 26-year-old full-back, who spent last season out on loan at Hillsborough, was a notable absentee from the squad present in Sheffield. After impressing in the early preseason games this summer, both the player and fans might be sharing a feeling of frustration that Cissokho once more regained his place.
Di Matteo’s Game Management:
After failing to control the tempo in the first half, Di Matteo would have been relieved to have gone into half time with the score line 0-0.
As the teams emerged for the second half, many may have been disheartened that the Italian stuck with the same starting 11. However, it did appear that the new manager had made slight tweaks to the formation. Although it remained 4-4-2, it seemed as if McCormack, who had been playing in a slightly deeper role off Gestede, had joined him on the shoulders of Wednesday’s defenders.
Villa did grow in stature during the second half, with a flurry of half chances that followed. Rudy Gestede went close with a less than convincing header, whilst Westwood did crave himself out two long-range chances as confidence began to seep through.
Di Matteo did decide to freshen up the squad, with Gardner making way for Tshibola and Grealish replacing McCormack, who left the field clutching his hamstring. Unfortunately neither change paid off, but it was pleasing to see a manager who wasn’t afraid to switch it up.
Steve Martin, a familiar face for Aston Villa after taking charge of the final preseason friendly against Middlesbrough, was busy throughout. In an understandably nervy game, the tackles flew in, meaning the referee was on hand to brandish a number of yellow cards.
Arguably, a red card could have been shown to Sheffield Wednesday’s Sam Hutchinson. After already receiving a yellow card earlier in the match, the defender went over to deal with a surging run down the right produced by Alan Hutton. Using what can only be described as brute force, Hutchinson took out Hutton cleanly, worthy of a yellow card that would have seen the Owls player dismissed.
In another talking point of the game, Villa could have and probably should have been awarded a penalty. During the second half, as Villa heaped on the pressure with a flurry of corners, Nathan Baker joined the attack only to be pulled down by his shirt by the man of the moment, Sam Hutchinson. If it wasn’t spotted by Martin, it sure as hell should have been picked up by the linesman on the far side. Had Villa been awarded a penalty, the claret and blues could have been 1-0 up and leaving with all three points.
Passion, pride and commitment personified. Tommy Elphick once again showed just why he has been named Aston Villa’s captain. After leading Bournemouth to promotion twice as their skipper, he’ll be aiming to replicate the feat with Villa, as he looks to guide us back to the Premier League.
In what I would argue was one of the best debuts of a Villa player in recent years, his performance was only tainted by his less than powerful header straight into the path of Wednesday striker Forestieri; who gobbled up the chance. Elphick, who had marshalled the back four imperiously up to the 85th minute lost his bearings, as a miscued kick from fellow debutant Pierluigi Gollini, fell into his path before blindly trying to head away.
Barring this, the newly appointed skipper produced a solid display in the heart of the Villa defence. Commanding his back line, shouting orders and leading my example, it’s hard to not love Tommy Elphick based on first impressions alone. If a player can give 100% with a blood stained bandage strapped around his head, I don’t know what could possibly persuade you that we have a proper centre-back in our ranks.
This guy has passion coursing through his veins.
Sheffield Wednesday’s MOTM:
Sheffield Wednesday played as a team, rather than a squad of individuals, with all of their players producing decent performances. No one particularly stood out, but Fernando Forestieri was on hand to score the winning goal, gaining the accolade of opposition man of the match.
The dainty forward stormed onto the loose ball, that had fallen so invitingly into his path, before calmly burying the ball into the back of the net sending the Wednesday fans into joyous celebrations.
Follow Molly on Twitter at @m0llyfaith
And make sure you follow MOMS on Twitter too – @oldmansaid