The 2021/22 campaign started on a sour note for Villa with a lethargic loss against newly promoted Watford. The Hornets stung Smith and his team’s hopes of a winning start with a high-tempo, counter-attacking performance.
This is how we lined up…
Emi Buendia, Danny Ings and returning Ashley Young made their debuts in front of a strong away support on the return of full-capacity crowds to English stadiums. With Watkins missing with a bruised knee and new boy Bailey warming the bench, it was evident that the fielded XI was perhaps not the ideal one going into the rest of the season.
Watford debutant Dennis opened the scoring after just ten minutes, with Villa struggling to contain the intensity of the opposition’s attack. Targett was particularly suffering from the blistering pace of Sarr up the right side, and the early goal was a fair reflection of the balance of the game. Despite dominating possession for large spells, Villa failed to utilise the ball to good effect and were often quickly intercepted or sloppy in passing.
Munoz’s side maintained the promotion bounce throughout the first half, with Villa’s full-backs failing to absorb pressure without support and the midfield opened wide for the counter. Minutes before the half-time whistle, a wicked deflection off new captain Tyrone Mings led a Sarr strike into the corner of the net. This doubled lead put a real dampener on opening weekend for the travelling fans and those at home, but the interval gave opportunity for a drastic turn around.
A personnel swap at the break was a sign of the manager’s disappointment with the performance in the first 45. Targett was removed after a pretty dreadful time, with the more experienced Young slotting in at left-back, Jacob Ramsey joining the midfield and Buendia going out wide. With half-time substitutions and formation changes a rarity at Villa, it was clear that the first-half collapse was evident to everyone on the sidelines.
Ramsey added a bit more to the midfield with progressive passing, control of the ball and an overall balance to the side, but there was still no cutting edge to the attack. Buendia had little to no impact on the game, even in a wider position, and Ings barely had a sniff of the ball. Bailey was introduced on the 60th minute and he appeared to be a bright spark, somewhat sticking out amongst the poor performances across the park. His debut was a forced one as desperation kicked in to try and switch the run of play, yet Watford still struck again soon after with fellow new boy Hernández Suárez netting the third.
At 3-0, the game was finished. There were few signs of a drastic comeback, but a random strike from McGinn on the 70th minute at least gave the away fans something to briefly celebrate. The opening-day specialist quickly grabbed the ball and screamed encouragement to his teammates, though all still seemed lost. The final substitution of Traoré for a tired Buendia followed shortly after. Bertrand was lively, linking up with Bailey.
In the dying moments of the game, Traoré won a blatant penalty from the clumsy outstretched leg of Masina. Ings converted from the spot, but it was too late for an equaliser despite Villa eventually looking fired up and determined for a result.
A patchy pre-season, a squad of new additions and departed mainstays, and a fresh opposition created a nightmare cocktail for Villa and Dean Smith on the opening weekend. There are many lessons to be learnt, and there is certainly frustration over points already dropped against sides we are expected to beat. The real test will be how they bounce back from this, learn and improve in the coming weeks, where fixtures will once again present good opportunities to put points on the board.
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