Aston Villa’s midfield dynamic is as much intriguing as it is puzzling that 12 months ago Villa were counting down the days until John McGinn’s return, to now, with Dean Smith’s side boasting one of the more competitive midfield departments outside the Premier League’s top-six.
Douglas Luiz, in his own right, was a top-six midfielder when Pep Guardiola moved heaven and earth to land a promising Brazilian from the school of Vasco da Gama. Though, with little luck in finalising his Visa, Guardiola reluctantly let go of his South American maestro on the cheap.
Having spent two seasons at the Etihad Stadium once he moved to Manchester in 2017, Luiz didn’t make a single appearance for City. Both campaigns would see him being loaned out to Girona because of issues with a work permit but now he has finally got his chance in the Premier League and he is taking it.
His buy-back clause, if truth be told, wasn’t of worry for some Villa fans at first, who were underwhelmed by the Brazilians first showings in a claret and blue shirt – perhaps a little perspective was required.
Luiz should have been excused for a couple of rusty displays that came after netting Villa’s first home goal back in the Premier League with some aplomb. Shaping his body perfectly to impart the optimum degree of whip to crash the ball off the crossbar and past Aaron Ramsdale – the bar was still shaking as the Holte End erupted, witnessing Villa’s first goal back in the big time for three years, against Bournemouth.
A cracker against Norwich to add a fifth to proceedings on Norfolk wasn’t bad either, and clearing a goal-bound effort off the line in the crucial reverse fixture on Boxing Day demonstrated Luiz’s versatility. Though, in the midst of Villa’s worst run of the season before lockdown hit, Luiz failed to show what he’s all about.
Born with the football between his feet, Luiz grew up on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro not far from carnivalesque amphitheatres, with noise and colour all in rhythm to the playfulness and creativity of the Nova Holanda favela.
Space is sacred within the tight confines between shanty buildings and so, every spare yard is dedicated to soccer back in Luiz’s proud home. Each mini-pitch comes with a disturbing view of the Maracanã stadium, which evokes a broken connection between the state and its inhabitants.
Enemy fractions are just blocks away, but the heart of Nova Holanda pounds as Rio’s northern sprawl realises a lifeblood stronger than any other on the globe. Pitter-patter, bare-feet clap the gravel and smack the ball to the ovation of onlookers delighted to watch friends move freely on a pitch so unique to these parts.
After playing with friends on the tarmac, to facing Premier League opposition within five years, Luiz was and still is eligible to play in Villa’s Under-23’s when after joining Villa in 2019. After coming into his own during Project Restart, Luiz became the second-youngest Aston Villa player during the Premier League era to make 42 appearances in all domestic competitions in a single season.
He’d shortly form an indispensable partnership with John McGinn as Villa scrambled for top-flight survival, but following the Scot’s almost-season ending blow in December, Nakamba and Luiz were forced to form a make-shift midfield trio with either one of Danny Drinkwater or Conor Hourihane.
Nakamba and Luiz, both without a jot of Premier League experience before joining the club in the summer transfer window of 2019, we’re almost set up to fail as Smith and Co were tasked in replacing 13 players who had departed the club following promotion back to the Premier League through the play-offs.
Not only were Villa handed a shorter period to prepare for their first top-flight season in three years – compared to fellow newly-promoted teams, Norwich City and Sheffield United – the club had to work within financial restraints, given the necessity to recruit across a multitude of positions.
Nassef Sawiris and Wed Edens might have flexed their serious financial muscle, but with Smith unable to even name a starting line-up before the new season began, an average of £11 million per player was issued to build a squad in desperate need of added quality. Tyrone Mings’ return to the club following his successful loan and club-record signing, Wesley were the two most expensive signings.
What a difference a season makes for Doug and Marv
Whilst Douglas Luiz’s rise to supremacy amongst Villa’s ranks is now well documented, midfield partner, Marvelous Nakamba typifies the mentality and never-say-die attitude required to convince Aston Villa that they can count on their forgotten man to shine once more.
Only two days before Aston Villa’s 2019/20 Premier League campaign got underway at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Douglas Luiz put pen to paper on a four-year deal at Villa Park, which seemed like an awfully long time coming.
The signing of Luiz was touted for several weeks before the new season began – a £15 million fee for the Brazilian was a snip in the £143 million outlay Villa spent on their return to the big time.
Playing with a swagger only Brazilian ballers can strut, blonde locks and dyed cornrows to boot, he looked the part as Villa counted on their new man to balance a midfield three alongside John McGinn and Jack Grealish.
Zimbabwe international, Nakamba was already in the building when Luiz arrived hours before the squad made the trip down to North London to contest Villa’s first Premier League game since losing 4-0 around the corner to the state-of-the-art Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in a 4-0 loss to Arsenal that waved goodbye to Villa’s Premier League ever-present tag.
But while wounds of previous top-flight campaigns wouldn’t immediately heal, Smith’s side, with new summer 2019 signings, Ezri Konsa, Matt Targett and Trezeguet would eventually gel in becoming what will be the best Villa side seen for over a decade when fans return to the stands of Villa Park in the coming months.
After survival was achieved against all the odds on the final day of the 2019/2020 season, Villa are now competitive across the pitch, from Douglas Luiz’s combative streak with a samba touch to the endeavour of frontman Ollie Watkins, a sprinkle of Jack Grealish magic has too proved the key ingredient on many an occasion.
But whilst Dean Smith remains the Premier League gaffer to make the fewest alterations between fixtures, Villa have in fact been the beneficiaries of a packed fixture schedule despite initial worries over a lack of squad depth at the start of the campaign.
Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traoré were forced to battle their way back Smith’s starting side as the festive fixtures loomed with Villa searching for form following loses to West Ham and Brighton before December rolled around.
El Ghazi’s penalty at the death to seal a crucial 1-0 win over Wolves at Molineux was one of the five goals he managed in as many games over December last year, having replaced the injured Trezeguet who had seemingly made the wide right position his own by offering a balance to oppose Grealish’s guile and elegance from the left side.
“When Trezeguet got injured, people sniff opportunity,” Smith said, as Trezeguet nursed a hamstring problem.
“They’ve all been training well as a group. Credit to the players who are not playing as much. Their training has been superb – and they’ve used that to go on and put in superb performances in like they have done.”
“It’s been a good test of the squad depth.”
Smith has praised his squad’s attitude in competing for places, whether it be ahead of a weekend clash against a relegation-threatened side or the reigning champions.
“We have shown progression and we need to keep developing as a team. When we are against a bottom side or competing against Liverpool or Man City, that’s what we need to do. Games in this league are tough. When you’ve got a team that is developing like we are, we look forward to them.”
While El Ghazi, Bertrand Traoré and Trezeguet all compete for one position in the starting side as the irreplaceable Grealish continues his fine start to the campaign, Last season’s £12 million signing, Nakamba had faced a similar and indeed a familiar uphill task as the new season began.
The 27-year-old midfielder had started 18 of Villa’s 29 Premier League games before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the league campaign for several months. Though, with the form displayed by Luiz alongside McGinn, Nakamba became the forgotten man as Villa went from strength to strength after drawing a line in the sand following a 4-0 loss at the King Power Stadium before football’s suspension back in March.
Competition for places and versatility key for European-chasing teams
Where European football is a realistic target for a Premier League club, they’ll have to rely on the performances of squad players who despite being on the fringes of the first eleven, have a determination and resilience to make good of their sporadic chance.
Much of the impact that the likes of Nakamba and El Ghazi have made when coming into the fold in recent weeks is down to the positive culture installed by Smith at Bodymoor Heath. It has been drilled into the squad that with hard-work and application, the door will open for opportunities.
Aston Villa’s worldwide reach might expand over five continents, from Great Barr to the great plains of Africa, but while Nakamba’s strong band of Zimbabwean brothers follow his every crunching tackle and yard covered, he’s now nailing down a genuine claim to start in a midfield department that boasts a Brazilian international and Champions League player only several months ago, in January signing Morgan Sanson.
Across the board, Villa have strong competition for places, but importantly, each individual within the squad brings a unique set of qualities and indeed attributes that can be utilised to help mitigate an opposition’s threat. For instance, Nakamba and Jacob Ramsey’s inclusion in Smith’s starting side to face Marcelo Bielsa’s all-action Leeds United paid off and some.
Between Luiz and Nakamba, they both share an abundance of qualities, but importantly and to the benefit of Smith, they offer something altogether different. Luiz is a typical, terrier-like holding midfielder with a South American bite, with a Brazilian flair exclusive to his homeland – if England is the home of soccer, Brazil is its enormous playing field, and Luiz didn’t half make use of it.
“Douglas is the real thing,” former Vasco coach Milton Mendes explained to Yahoo Sport.
“He’s one of the top defensive midfielders in Brazil, but he can play a more attacking role when the team requires. He has potential that you don’t see in many players.
“He’s a classic No.8 and I’m sure Tite (Brazil coach) is smart enough to find a spot for him in the Seleção.”
Luiz also acknowledged how his upbringing has benefited the early stages of his career.
“Obviously in that situation, there is a lot of football. It’s actually a very physical game, so you take the best from the situation.”
Luiz’s grounding in Nova Holanda prepared him for the physical challenge of the Premier League, and as a 22-year-old, he’s taken all that has come his way in his stride, after all, adapting to new challenges in a foreign country is a tough gig for anyone no matter your age or circumstance.
On the contrary, Nakamba had played in Madrid, Monaco and Dortmund only months before penning a long-term deal at Villa Park in August 2019. The Zimbabwean had followed Club Brugge teammate Wesley Moraes and former teammate Björn Engels to the Premier League that same summer.
With thousands backing him from Southern Africa, Nakamba was made to feel at home right away at Bodymoor Heath, which was something that Luiz would have to adapt to, with language lessons and understanding McGinn’s Scottish burr of importance during the Premier League’s coronavirus suspension.
During Villa’s doomed 2015/16 top-flight campaign, relegation was signed and sealed by Christmas, but with much of that relegation team thrown together by Paddy Reilly and Hendrik Almstadt, there was in fact the odd gem for Tim Sherwood to work with. Idrissa Gueye, like Luiz and Nakamba, was recruited with all the statistical and numerical references possible, from his tackles made, and successful pressures ranking amongst the Ligue 1’s best – Villa fans don’t need reminding that giving players from the continent time is key.
Jordan Veretout and Adama Traore have also made a success of things elsewhere having left Villa Park. The 2016 cases study is one of potentially, the right players at completely the wrong time. Whereas, with a positive culture installed by head coach Smith, Villa have harnessed an effective environment for players such as Nakamba and Luiz to develop and eventually become the players they promised to be.
Villa’s latest midfield signing, Sanson – who was playing in the Champions League this season – is another case in point. With Smith ideally encouraging a two-way fight for positions next season, Sanson was recruited on the cheap, but with a learning process needed for him to settle in the starting eleven and perform, the Frenchman has been made to wait for his opportunity. When he gets it, Smith will be the benefactor for allowing him that longer adjustment period to acclimatise to the English top-flight, because Villa, more than any other Premier League side have seen the deficiencies in progress that can occur when throwing players into the deep end right away.
Promising youth star, Jacob Ramsey finishes the jigsaw of a stacked midfield, as he pushes – at least for the time being – Ross Barkley into performing at a level required to retain his starting berth. Though with the loan man failing to impress following his bouts with injury in November, Villa will assess the option of making Barkley’s move permanent in the summer, or if there are other options Johan Lange will pursue.
Two players per position will make Villa the competitive, European-chasing team that Smith is aiming to become in the coming years. While Sawiris and Edens have broken the bank to secure Smith’s top targets in recent windows, Villa’s co-owners know they can trust the recruitment nous of Lange and Robert Mackenzie, while also relying on the experience of Smith in recruiting from lower leagues, having seen a great return in the investment in Watkins and Matty Cash.