“Arguably, that’s the biggest doing I’ve had in the Championship” – these were the post match words of Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce after he had watched his very expensively assembled (by Championship standards anyway) team endure a painful ninety minutes at Cardiff City Stadium that left them grateful to have only been beaten 3-0.
I’m afraid my nerdish tendencies got the better of me after reading about Mr Bruce’s doings and so I looked up how his first season in management, at Sheffield United, went in 98/99 – there was a 4-0 loss and a couple of 4-1 defeats as he steered the Blades to a respectable eighth place finish back in the days when the Championship was called the First Division.
So it didn’t take me long to discover a bigger defeat for the Villa manager in this league, but I would suggest that he was making a point about the manner of the defeat against City, as opposed to the margin of it.
I’ll come on to City’s performance shortly, but, for now, I’ll just say that, of course, any euphoria has to be tempered by churning out the old standard of “it’s way too early to read much into what this means the next nine months have in store for us” – it’s a cliche, but it also happens to be true.
Any analysis of yesterday’s match also has to recognise that there may not have been a more fragile team away from home in the whole of the Football, and Premier, League than Aston Villa in the last two seasons. In 15/16, a Rudy Gestede goal gave them a win at Bournemouth in that club’s first ever Premier League match, but, after that, there were four draws and fourteen defeats as they finished at the bottom of the table, seventeen points away from last but one Norwich.
Last season, they were able to end their run of more than a year without an away win with victory at Reading in October and there were further three pointers at QPR and relegated pair, Rotherham and Wigan. However, there were also thirteen defeats and their total of just fourteen away goals was the lowest in the league.
Villa were pretty strong defensively on their travels though with no one outside the top six bettering their twenty eight goals conceded – there was the one 3-0 loss at Brentford, but, otherwise, they were beaten by one or two goal margins.
So, Villa may have got too used to losing away matches in the Championship last season, but they generally managed to stay competitive – which should be the least you might expect at this level for a club with their history, support, finances and enormous first team squad.
From what I saw of Villa away from home last season, there seemed to be a lack of belief that they could get back in the match once they went a goal down – their 1-0 defeat here back in January exemplified this failing of theirs, as, despite plenty of possession in the second half, they very rarely suggested they had a goal in them as we held on pretty comfortably to the lead gained through an early Joe Ralls goal.
Steve Bruce seemed to have taken the right sort of steps to overcome this weakness in the summer with the signings of experienced performers who had been effective in the Premier League for at least a decade (John Terry and Glenn Whelan) and someone like Ahmed Elmohamady who has a couple of Championship promotions behind him.
On paper anyway, a back four consisting of serial tournament winner Terry and internationals Alan Hutton, James Chester and Neil Taylor with eighty one times capped Republic of Ireland man Whelan patrolling in front of them presents a formidable barrier which would enable the others in the team to concentrate on coming up with those goals Villa lacked last season, but, once again, there was that very poor reaction to going a goal behind.
So, any assessment of how good City were has to carry a recognition of how poor our opponents were when you consider that, just like at the start of last season, they were tipped for a top two finish by so many pundits in the media – I’m sure that Villa fans would be feeling that the addition of old heads Terry and Whelan, which was supposed to have added the nous and resilience the team lacked in 16/17, had only made matters worse.
As mentioned earlier, for all of their frailties away from home last year, Villa weren’t in the habit of being thrashed, but that’s what happened to them yesterday. Okay, my definition of a hammering tends to be something a few goals worse than 3-0, but this takes me back to my contention about Steve Bruce and his admission that yesterday was, perhaps, the worst defeat he had suffered in the second tier as a manager – it was about the way his team were beaten, rather than how many they lost by.
Judging by the scathing nature of the comments I’ve seen on Villa messageboards about the beleaguered Bruce and his underachieving team, there is a feeling that another season of mid table mediocrity, or worse, awaits unless drastic changes are made, but what I would say to supporters of what I’d call the biggest club in the league this season is that they should hold their horses for a little while yet – you may have been second best by a long way yesterday, but how many times this season are you going to come up against opponents as aggressive, vibrant, fit and effective as Cardiff City were yesterday?
Okay, there is a degree of the sort of arrogance you may expect from a supporter who is not used to seeing his team play with the sort of total control they showed yesterday involved there, but, essentially, it is a serious question because we were very, very good.
I almost said we looked like a promotion side there, but just managed to remember that I’ve got to keep on saying that it’s just one game very early in a season in a league which must be among the most competitive in the world.
However, what I will say is that back in 15/16 we finished eighth, were involved in a battle to finish in the top six until our penultimate match and I can remember us playing very well in beating high riding Brighton 4-1, but we never came up with anything as good as we showed yesterday.
If there was one game last season which convinced me that we should stay up, it was that win over Villa and the main reason I had for thinking that was that I looked at the pace in our front three of Kenneth Zohore, Junior Hoilett and Kadeem Harris and thought you don’t get that in relegation sides – that trio were good that day, but yesterday, with the first two named present again and Nathaniel Mendez-Lange in for the injured Harris, our front three were sensational.
After about thirty five minutes play, I turned to my mate sat next to me and said that every time one of our front three got one on one with a Villa defender they had beaten them. Now, if I sit down and watch the whole of the game again on the club website (which seems quite a good idea at the moment!), I daresay I’ll come across instances where Zohore, Hoilett and Mendez-Lange did not go flying past their man every time, but as I watched the game live, the feeling that they were doing so lasted beyond the thirty five minute mark to the final whistle.
Starting with Zohore, I think when he first broke into the team both home supporters and opponents looked at him and assumed that his main threat would come in the air – after all, he is six foot three. However, yesterday turned out to be another of those matches where our “target man” striker was adequate at best in the air as he was usually beaten to the ball by one of Terry or Chester when it was played long to him from our keeper or defenders.
The thing is though that everyone knows now that this is not when you should worry about Zohore if you are a defender playing against him, it’s when he gets the chance to run at you, yet Villa, like an ever increasing number of Championship sides, discovered that it’s one thing to know where Zohore’s strengths lie and another thing entirely nullifying them.
James Chester coped well enough with Europe’s best in France last year, but, as the man unfortunate enough to be up against Zohore when he got a head of steam up most of the time, he was given a torrid, torrid afternoon of it in what I must say was the worst game I think I’ve ever seen him play. The second goal was a microcosm of what Kenneth Zohore is all about these days as he burst clear, turned Chester inside out and then remained calm enough to dink a ball over (which I think may have gone in anyway) that Hoilett nodded in from about a foot out – watching him yesterday, it’s little wonder that Iwan Roberts expressed the view that Zohore is now the best in our division in his position.
As for Hoilett, it’s impossible for me to name a City man of the match, but I’d say he had as good a claim to that prize as anyone. One of the things I like about him is that, in a team which Greg Halford said in his post Portsmouth game interview, can start matches slowly, you can usually tell within a minute or two of kick off if Hoilett is “on it” or not. Right from the start yesterday it was Hoilett who gave the first indicators that Villa’s experienced back four were going to get a chasing as he put Hutton (who was the main target of Villa messageboard abuse after Steve Bruce) to the sword – Neil Warnock called his display “vintage Hoilett” and it was a reminder of that time when he was with Blackburn when he was generally considered to be one of the best prospects in the country.
I suppose Taylor fared a little better against Mendez-Laing than Chester and Hutton did against their tormentors and, apart from the first goal, City were never really able to fully exploit the height advantage the former Rochdale man enjoyed over his marker, but there was still so much to admire about someone who, based on what we’ve seen in the past month, really should have been playing at this level for years.
Mendez-Laing also managed to make critics of his finishing (like me!) eat humble pie when he cut in from the left, faced Chester up, and placed a lovely shot into the opposite corner of the net – rather like Zohore, our opponents may know what’s coming from Mendez-Laing, but, yesterday, they were powerless to do anything about it.
City have been billed as dark horses for promotion by some for what are typical “Warnock side” reasons – we’re big, strong, direct, good at set pieces and difficult to play against. However, both in his pre and post match press conferences, our manager made a point of saying that we also have talent and I thought our front three in particular had that commodity in abundance against Villa.
However, it would be wrong to ignore the contribution of others. A mad dash from goal in all of the excitement of us having just gone 3-0 up apart, Neil Etheridge was a reassuring presence in goal with his early save from Scott Hogan proving to be a very important moment in putting us on the road to such a dominant performance.
Lee Peltier and Joe Bennett were solid at full back (as was Jazz Richards who replaced the latter around the hour mark after being unlucky to have been left out following his fine midweek display), while Sol Bamba overcame a shaky start to look his usual, imposing, self and Sean Morrison generally looked comfortable against what was a pretty shot shy Villa attack.
Although he ended up with an assist for the final goal to his name, I’d make Aron Gunnarsson probably the quietest of a midfield trio that gelled splendidly – it wasn’t that he was poor, far from it, but I felt Joe Ralls and Loic Damour were that little bit better.
Even among City fans, it seems to me that Ralls is perceived as a certain type of player, but I’d always argue that he is another example of what Neil Warnock means when he talks about unacknowledged talent – okay, it’s not Whittingham type talent, but Ralls showed on a few occasions yesterday that he’s well capable of beating opponents in confined spaces and he also hit some telling crossfield passes.
Finally, Damour was dynamic in his ability to get around the pitch and he twice came close to scoring as the overworked Sam Johnstone (picking Villa’s man of the match was so much easier than picking ours!) denied him after strikes on goal which were very impressive in their different ways.
All of which means that we top the league after two games – even if we are able to sustain a promotion challenge, I don’t see us staying there for long, so I’m just going to enjoy it while I can!
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/