After an eventful international break, Villa were finally back in action on Saturday. Dean Smith’s men travelled to West London to take on European Champions Chelsea in their fourth match of the new season. With Villa missing their two fugitive Emiliano’s and Chelsea missing key midfield general N’Golo Kanté and the suspended Reece James, both teams were forced into a series of changes.
Here’s how the two sides lined up:
As many predicted, including UTV Podcast’s own Ryan Mckeown, Dean Smith opted for three central defenders, with Cash and Targett in wing-back roles.
The game also marked the full return of Ollie Watkins, his first start of the season after he was injured in pre-season against Serie A new boys Salernitana. The former Brentford forward lined up alongside Danny Ings for the first time in a competitive fixture.
Whilst the change in shape, it had been hoped, would bring greater stability to the Villa backline, Villa faced an early scare as Ezri Konsa found himself scrambling the ball away from underneath his own crossbar after Jed Steer misjudged a whipped corner.
Villa reacted well to the early scare and started to force the Blues back with intelligent pressing and trap-setting. Whilst new signing Saúl Ñíguez struggled with McGinn and Ramsey’s high intensity, it was his midfield partner Mateo Kovačić who crafted the opener.
The Croatian international elegantly broke the lines to set up Romelu Lukaku, and the Belgian, as he so often has done against Villa, made no mistake inside the penalty area.
In recent years, an early goal away against a side with title aspirations would have been a death wish, but the boys in claret and blue reacted with determination and began to gain a foothold in the game.
Jacob Ramsey was particularly impressive, with intelligent third man runs, one of which created space for Watkins in the box, and his rasping low effort was tipped away by the formidable Édouard Mendy.
Mendy was proving difficult to beat, and even when England international Watkins did beat him, after receiving the ball from John McGinn after he had caused panic amongst Chelsea’s midfield, Thiago Silva was there to spare his goalkeeper’s blushes.
Set pieces too, proved to be a source of joy for the Villans, and Mendy was once more called into action to deny first Mings, and then Konsa, in a frantic penalty box melee.
As half-time arrived, Aston Villa had proved to be more than a match for Chelsea, with the difference being the clinical nature of the big-money signing Lukaku’s finishing, and the speedy reflexes of Senegalese international Mendy.
Less than five minutes into the second period, however, all of Villa’s hard work was undone with a calamitous misjudgement from Mings. The centre back, who had recently racked up his 12th clean sheet in 14 matches for the national team, failed to put the adequate weight on a pass back to the deputising goalkeeper Jed Steer, and Chelsea’s bright spark from the first half Kovačić finished with aplomb.
Whilst Dean Smith has assembled a side of great quality and flexibility, Villa need to learn to cut out sloppy errors, and must aim to become the side that capitalises on the chances presented, much like Chelsea did in this instance, in order to step up to the next level.
Villa continued to create opportunities, although the substitution of Euro 2020 champion Jorginho ensured that these chances marginally lost the regularity of the blistering first 45. The assured Italian midfielder began to wrestle back the initiative for Chelsea, as the game began to plateau as a contest.
Chelsea added a third late on and it was that man again Romelu Lukaku who swept home with only his second shot of the match, to cap a result which most would admit was extremely harsh on Villa.
Villa, after all, had more shots, shots on target, corners, far higher average player positioning on the pitch as they forced Chelsea back, and edged the XG but found Mendy and his band of defenders unbreakable.
But that is why Chelsea are European champions and serious title contenders. For substantial portions of the match, they looked passive, yet came alive at crucial times and fulfilled the age-old adage that the best teams win matches whilst being far from their best.
For Villa, bustling midfielder John McGinn looks back to his best following a bout of Covid-19, whilst local boy Jacob Ramsey looks more mature and confident with every game. Bailey showed glimpses of the sheer genius and explosiveness that set the Bundesliga alight, and Ollie Watkins, the star of pre-season, looks ready to build on his impressive debut campaign in the top division last term.
There is also a greater sense of tactical flexibility about this squad, with players who can slot into different formational set-ups depending on the opposition.
Whilst the Villans fell to a 3-0 defeat in the capital, there were far more positives to take back to B6 than negatives, and with our two important Argentinians back during the week, and several key figures finding their feet after injury and illness, it is not long until it all clicks for Dean Smith’s claret and blue charges.
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