Steve Bruce’s troops travelled south of Berlin to end their pre-season schedule in Dresden. Managed by former Borussia Dortmund assistant Uwe Neuhaus, Dynamo Dresden hosted the final test for an Aston Villa side which, so far hasn’t been decimated by the looming threat of financial fair play regulations. Since the turn of the century, our German opposition has stumbled across hard times. Boasting sixteen major German honours, Dresden has not rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bayern Munich or Schalke 04 for 23 years, even though they had spent 26 long, successful years in the highest tier of German football.
Last season – after being crowned Bundesliga 3 champions – Dresden managed to avoid a relegation play-off with Bundesliga 3 side Karlsruher SC by a point after finishing 14th in Germany’s second division. Interestingly, despite racking up the second most losses in the division, only seven points separated themselves and fifth place. Neuhaus will aim to better their performances with new signings Baris Atik from Hoffenheim and experienced Patrick Ebert, all to ensure a better goal return from the 42 they managed last campaign. In this time, Neuhaus was forced to sell star midfielder Niklas Hauptman to recently relegated Koln, who’s ultras will be remembered for their passionate antics outside the Emirates Stadium in last years Europa League campaign. However, the German side has 6ft 3 defender Marcel Franke back on their books since returning from an unsuccessful loan spell with Norwich City. Villa fans will not know him well, if at all, but he was a victim of Keinan Davis’ excellent display when he first broke onto the scene in a memorable game for the 20-year-old, as Villa dispatched Norwich 4-2 at Villa Park. Dresden played out a goalless draw against David Wagner’s Huddersfield two weeks prior to entertaining the Villa.
With manager Bruce declaring that Villa’s star players aren’t up for sale, he chose to hand Jack Grealish his fifth pre-season start, in behind Albert Adomah when we took on Dynamo Dresden in Germany.
The Ghanaian lead the line as hitman Jonathan Kodjia didn’t travel with the squad as a precaution for Villa’s championship opener at Hull, on Monday night. Bruce opted to use a familiar 4-5-1 approach for Villa’s final preparations with Glenn Whelan sitting deep behind Grealish and Birkir Bjarnason, whose career at B6 was reborn last season in a similar role he’d play in Dresden.
Alan Hutton returned to his preferred right-back role, pushing Ahmed Elmohamady into the right wing position, whilst Andre Green and Neil Taylor took their positions on the left flank. Mile Jedinak partnered club captain James Chester for the first time since a poor performance against Sheffield United last December.
It would be Green who’d steal the headlines for two goals in as many minutes. Credit to Bruce, instead of leaving the youngster isolated on the flank, he brought him inside to rotate with Adomah. To his fruition, the attributes Green holds compared to Albert certainly allowed Villa to profit as the England u20 star hit his stride on the hour mark, scoring a corker from range and netting with his head from six yards out – even if Markus Schubert made a hash of it in the Dresden goal.
Questionable goalkeeping was a theme of the afternoons friendly, as Jed Steer had a moment to forget when he allowed Moussa Kone and the hosts to take the lead before halftime before Green’s brace bailed him out.
Dynamo Dresden – comfortable enough to keep the ball – set the tempo in the early exchanges as Villa allowed them to dictate the flow of the game. With little pressure coming from the visitors it was the German hosts who wasted possession allowing Villa to come out their shell and play progressive football. Yet, with the quality and technique so many have worn a claret and blue shirt, Villa resorted to using Adomah as a target man, playing into the hands of the capable Dresden centre-halves.
Grealish, given the license to join attacks – thanks to the industrious Bjarnason beside him – couldn’t, as the ball simply would not stick up top. Likewise, in Villa’s clash with West Ham on Wednesday night, Kodjia couldn’t get bodies around him or in the final third to offload and pursue attacks, which makes you wonder if Bruce will actively look to bring in an extra body upfront before the window slams shut on Thursday 9th August (loan window closes on the 31st August). Either way, Adomah couldn’t get a kick for the first period through little fault of his own, or even Bruce to an extent, as Villa’s injury crisis in the attacking department continues. Keenan Davis, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Scott Hogan are all sidelined for the foreseeable future, with only Kodjia available for the Championship kick-off.
Whilst headaches remain for Bruce in problem positions across the field, one simple decision he must make is to drop the dream of orchestrating a promotion using a 3-5-2 formation – it will not happen. The system works very well with organisation and discipline a key theme, but the players must fit in. Square pegs in round holes come to mind when observing Villa’s past few friendlies. Thankfully, Bruce opted to use a more familiar 4-5-1, which meant Hutton could return to his right back role, where he became christened the ‘Scottish Cafu’ by many a Villa fan since his performances got better and better in a Villa shirt. Such a standard of performance was replicated in Germany. The scot, 33, made two critical interventions within the first ten minutes at the Station Dresden. A trademark block was cheered by the 400 strong Villa crowd after heading clear to avert a dangerous cross at the back post moments earlier.
Daniel Levy’s wanted man and born villain Grealish was again superb. Drawing fouls all over the park, the linchpin to Bruce’s side looked in peak condition before the all-important Championship curtain-raiser, only a week away. On the half turn, Jack wriggled away from the energetic Patrick Ebert before accelerating past Dario Dumic before unleashing a vicious strike which was goal bound before Dresden captain Marco Hartmann put his body on the line. Whilst Villa showed shades of their attacking capabilities, their naivety in the final third was also demonstrated by Egyptian international Elmohamady, as the blocked ball found its way into his path but his loose cross failed to pick out a claret and blue shirt. This certain passage of play exemplified the importance of keeping our Jack.
With very little invention and few ideas to how we should unlock a defence who shipped over fifty goals last term, we were made to pay the price after twenty-five minutes on the clock. Taylor, having kept Kone quiet for most of the half could not cope with the intelligent one-two he played with Linus Wahlqvist to set the Senegalese on his way. Albeit an over-hit pass, Steer made sure there was a talking point after a dull 45 minutes of football. The favourite for the number one shirt come the start of the season let the ball roll harmlessly into his box until realising Kone hadn’t given up on the chase so easily, nabbing the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs and tapping into an empty net to score his first in four appearances.
Reliant on Grealish for a creative spark, the youngster drove forward once more and fed in Adomah after he cleverly evaded the offside trap, but the wrongful decision of the linesman meant Adomah could not race in on goal.
With Dresden finishing the half stronger, the visitors were almost stung as Jedinak failed to clear his lines after a long ball reached target man Lucas Roser. Haris Duljevic – a menace on the left flank – connected sweetly with a half-volley, though with Steer eager to atone for his previous error he reacted quickly to palm towards safety. The former Norwich City stopper put one foot in the right direction towards the road of redemption after potentially conceding his starting place to a new goalkeeper, Andre Moreira, loaned in from Spanish heavyweights Atletico Madrid. The 6ft 4 twenty-two-year-old spent his last loan spell at Portuguese side Belenenses before being linked to moves to Benfica and Sporting Lisbon.
Despite criticism of his performance so far, Steer was a mannequin in the Villa goalmouth as the hosts should’ve doubled their advantage before the interval. As Jedinak stepped up from the defensive line, it was Duljevic’s pass which landed at the feet of Dario Dumic who then shanked wide from ten yards.
At the break in play, Green and Adomah rotated. With the youngster heading the attack, the Dresden backline became fearful of dangerous counter-attacks which threatened their slender advantage. Pulling the strings, Grealish became a target after the referee failed to keep control of the ‘friendly’. With strong and aggressive challenges came a yellow card for Grealish as he became tired of the illegal means of stopping Villa’s 10 from tormenting the German side any longer.
Bruce resisted removing the playmaker from the game, which served justice to the scoreline as Green proved on the hour mark. Cometh the hour, cometh the Green. Whelan picked up the pieces from a corner kick, all before the young winger used the momentum of the ball to curl beyond Schubert in the Dresden goal from twenty yards. A sublime effort elicits fond memories of Andre’s first goal at Villa Park back in August as Villa went on to beat Norwich 4-2.
With only time to take the kick-off, Villa and Grealish were back on the ball. Collecting and driving into space from deep inside his own half, the motor that is Hutton came rolling past Jack’s rearview mirror, before collecting and bursting past two Dresden defenders. Showing his athleticism and balance, Hutton had the composure to match as Green nodded in his second of the afternoon.
Villa, now looking sharp in the final third, looked half asleep at the other end. Taylor, sleeping at the back post almost let the hosts back into it, as his concentration allowed Patrick Moschl to control and lay back for Rico Benatelli to strike. Luckily for the Welshman, Whelan was alert to the danger and tremendously averted the goal-bound strike by sliding across Dresden’s star man.
Once more, Villa came close to surrendering a goals advantage late on as this time substitute Ritchie De Last rescued the win. As fatigue set in, space appeared down the left flank where Brian Hamalainen had enough time to compose himself and sweep across the box towards Benatelli to strike again, this time low into the corner. Denied by a key player in Villa’s pre-season, the Belgian will be firmly in Bruce’s thoughts come Monday night.