The Villans kicked off their Championship season on Sunday afternoon with a disappointing 1-0 defeat against last season’s beaten play-off finalists Sheffield Wednesday. Whilst a point would probably have represented a fair result overall, the manner of the goal and the sucker punch with it coming so late in the game left a feeling of despondency. Despite this, there were definitely some positives to be taken from the game, along with some unanswered questions.
Here are my ten conclusions from the opening game of the season.
1 – Tommy Elphick is exactly what we have been missing
For a long time, perhaps since Olof Mellberg, we have not had such a defender. His partner on Sunday, Nathan Baker, is a blood and thunder type defender himself, but sometimes that alone isn’t enough to be a leader. Elphick displayed everything that you want in a captain. He never stopped talking, marshalling the defence superbly. What I also really liked was his passion and geeing up of the supporters. The connection with them and encouragement on several occasions to generate noise and give the players that added boost was absolutely fantastic to see. He looked quick off the mark, organised and full of commitment. A bloodied head and subsequent bandage only seemed to symbolise everything about him perfectly. He became an instant hero and will be hugely important for us this season, judging by this performance.
2 – Full backs are a problem
Aly Cissokho and Alan Hutton have come in for plenty of stick. Whilst both of them are willing to get forward, their crossing into the box once they get there is abject, which largely negates the point of them being utilised further up the pitch. It’s hard to be critical when players are clearly putting in the effort to get up and down the pitch, although the fact is that neither of them are long term solutions. Defensively, Hutton often lost track of Fernando Forestieri by tucking in too narrowly and Cissokho just never looks comfortable attempting a tackle. It’s incredible to think that Lyon once paid around £12 million for his services. With Jordan Amavi close to full fitness and with Micah Richards available as an option at right back, it surely won’t be too long before one or both of them are brought into the starting XI.
3 – Gary Gardner needs to up his game
Many supporters rave about the talent of Gardner. I am unconvinced but think that if it is going to happen for him at Villa then this is the season in which he needs to step up, with no excuses. On Sunday, he looked way off the pace, committing several sloppy fouls before eventually picking up the inevitable yellow card. I thought he was anonymous in midfield and felt Di Matteo was generous in giving him seventy minutes before bringing on Aaron Tshibola. There won’t be many more opportunities for the Villa youth graduate to go missing in games as he did at Hillsborough.
4 – Gollini was great until that clearance
The Italian stopper looked assured for eighty-five minutes of this game. I thought he commanded his area well, with good decision-making regarding when to come and claim the ball in the box and he made several smart saves. The poor clearance out was one of those things that on another day he may have gotten away with, especially as the ball took a couple of unfortunate ricochets before bouncing into Forestieri’s path. Forestieri had a decent amount of work to do before converting his chance so, although the clearance put the team in trouble, it wasn’t quite a Brad Guzan special as some have claimed.
My only concern is that in the last pre-season game against Middlesbrough Gollini could also have done better for the visitors’ first goal where he parried an initial shot straight back into the path of the oncoming Alvaro Negredo, allowing him to finish.
While it’s definitely not panic stations yet, Gollini could do with an assured ninety minutes to put himself at ease.
5 – Bacuna may yet have a part to play
Surprisingly, one of the players who worked hardest for the team looked to be the much maligned Leandro Bacuna. Let’s not forget that before last season Bacuna was looked upon as a useful member of the squad. Despite a period where he deceived everyone as a dead ball specialist due to a couple of free kicks that he scored, a hardworking Bacuna can certainly be useful due to his versatility. His delivery into the box is more promising than our current full backs’ and Rudy Gestede managed to get on the end of a couple of his balls into the box. It’s easy to forget that Bacuna is a fairly young player. His comments regarding his ambitious career path were certainly stupid; if he genuinely harbours Champions League ambitions then hopefully he realises that it won’t simply fall into his lap. I have no problem at all if he wishes to forge a move with some scintillating performances. This wasn’t one of them, although it was a vast improvement from last season’s ambling around the pitch dreaming of the Nou Camp.
6 – The Owls are tough to beat
They lost just twice at home throughout their last campaign, have retained their squad and added a couple of decent players so it was always going to be one of our toughest games of the season. A point would have been satisfying and a good result but plenty of teams will drop points at Hillsborough this season. It isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
7 – If Ayew is playing on the wing he needs to track back
First things first, I don’t think being out wide is an effective way to make use of Jordan Ayew and, as we saw on Sunday, he is at his most dangerous when cutting inside, or even operating more centrally, either up front or behind the strikers. However, if Di Matteo is planning to use him out on the left side then he will need to work on the defensive aspects of his game. As poor as Cissokho is, Ayew’s lack of tracking back left the Frenchman horribly exposed on a number of occasions.
8 – Gestede needs crosses
Pretty much all of Rudy Gestede’s goal-scoring prowess is reliant on getting balls into the box. As mentioned, we currently have Hutton and Cissokho bending them very much un-like Beckham and often hitting the first man. I would almost go as far as to say that unless Amavi at the very least comes into the side then Gestede is largely redundant in the team. The only saving grace may be that Ross McCormack does always seem to flourish playing alongside a big man and there were a couple of promising link up moments between them, most noticeably Gestede’s flick on for the Scot which saw him race through one-on-one but unable to get the shot away. This alone cannot be enough to cement Gestede’s place in the starting line-up. He can be lazy, undoubtedly, but he needs some decent service to live on.
9 – We looked fitter
Compared to last season especially, we seemed to have more energy in the second half than the hosts and were pressing the ball much higher up the pitch than we have done for several years. One or two players could perhaps do with a bit more work, such as Gardner and McCormack, who we know has barely had a pre-season at all at Fulham.
Overall, fitness coach Massimiliano Marchesi has seemingly earned his wages over the summer with a squad that was certainly lacking a physical edge.
10 – Optimism remains
Despite the defeat, there hasn’t been a complete meltdown on social media sites, which is great to see. A few doom and gloom merchants are about, of course, but the majority of supporters have remained realistic and knew it was a tough opener and that this team is a work in progress.
There were enough positives to take from the game and, whilst we didn’t look amazing, we were certainly a match for one of the best teams in the division on their own patch.
Di Matteo probably hasn’t settled on a preferred starting XI at this point and there will probably also be a few more signings before August 31st. With a couple of decent home fixtures to follow against Rotherham and Huddersfield, we should hopefully be up and running sooner rather than later.