Aston Villa had won just three of their previous 40 Premier League games on the road before starting the 2020-21 campaign with three successive wins away from Villa Park.
A fifth win out of the six trips Dean Smith’s side have made this season came at the Hawthorns on Sunday – the very ground Villa sealed a Championship play-off final place for a successive season in 2019.
While the pressures of that evening pale into insignificance to that of a chilly winters night in West Bromwich this time around, Smith’s side were eyeing a top-flight, top half finish before Christmas in what has been a dramatic two-year turnaround for Villa.
It’s been a frenetic opening to the 2020-2021 Premier League campaign for Villa, with records broken left, right and centre – there’s little left for Smith to surprise not only Villa fans, but suddenly the eyes of a nation captivated by 7-2 wins, 0-3 pastings over the Arsenal, and an away record envied by most.
Before the November international this season, only Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain had averaged more goals per game than Villa in Europe’s top five leagues.
As Villa’s form picked up to stave off a swift return to the Championship last season, away form the last term was rather unsustainable to be thinking about a league finish higher than 17th place. Having failed to win in the 15 away trips that followed a 5-1 win at Carrow Road, Villa relied on home form to carry themselves over the dotted line come July.
Two wins in 19 away games were immediately bettered this season after just 41 days, as Villa won their first three on the road in the Premier League, against Fulham, Leicester City and Arsenal. In fact, Villa were the only side left in Europe’s top five leagues to have kept three clean sheets in as many away games.
After putting three past former keeper Sam Johnstone, Villa also managed to keep a seventh clean sheet of the season after the 12 opening league games. In fact, Villa have conceded the fewest goals amongst other teams in Europe’s top five leagues.
Smith’s side are making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual defensive displays and some developing partnerships between new signings.
Forming partnerships: Aston Villa reaping the rewards of quality additions
Before Matty Cash’s one-game suspension and Ezri Konsa’s absence through illness, Smith had picked an identical back four, plus outstanding goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez for ten straight games before Burnley travelled to Villa Park in the final home Premier League game before Christmas.
Villa’s 27 efforts at goal might be a league-high for shots in a single game this Premier League season, but despite a couple of alterations, Villa’s defensive solidity remained. In fact, the introduction of Jacob Ramsey for Villa’s trip to Molineux further proves how Villa can rotate without being at the detriment of results or performances.
At The Hawthorns, Bertrand Traoré started with Cash returning to his familiar right-back birth – a partnership that had started to flourish at Wolves, all before Villa enacted a second derby day victory with the same right-sided partnership catching the eye again.
Against West Brom, Cash won four duels and combined with Traoré effectively as Villa firmly took control of proceedings following Jake Livermore’s dismissal ten minutes before half time.
Traoré himself created Villa’s first with a well-measured cross towards Anwar El Ghazi at the far post, all before making sure of the points on the 84th minute by literally sweeping the ball past a helpless Johnstone.
It was the sort of performance Villa fans were hoping to see from the winger who had made the switch from last season’s Champions League semi-finalists Olympique Lyonnais, in a deal worth up to £17 million.
Traoré put pen to paper on a deal to join Villa with a point to prove in the Premier League following his unsuccessful attempt to establish himself at Chelsea, following his time with their academy.
Manager Smith said after signing Traoré: “We’re delighted that Bertrand has chosen to come to Villa. He’s a player with immense talent who will really enhance our attacking options.”
Traoré was understood to have been keen to link up with former teammate John Terry from his time with Chelsea as a teenager.
Traoré added in his first interview with VillaTV: “I spoke to the Manager, spoke with the Sporting Director as well and some players I used to play with – Nakamba and El Ghazi.
“I spoke to Nakamba, I talked to him a little bit about the club. I played with JT at Chelsea, I spoke to him. I’m very happy to join Aston Villa, many things made me take the decision to come here.”
After a couple of loan moves away from Stamford Bridge, the Burkina Faso international made his first permanent switch from West London to Bruno Génésio’s Lyon in 2017.
Playing a crucial role in Lyon’s success over the two seasons following his arrival on the Rhône, it was no coincidence that Traoré’s performances contributed to successive Champions League qualifications in Ligue 1.
The winger contributed to 41 goals in 91 appearances in all competitions over the 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns, including 29 goals coming in off the right flank. Last season, however, his performances met a sharp decline following Rudi Garciá’s tactical alterations as Lyon boss.
Lyon reverted to a wing-back system that, while producing a Champions League semi-final appearance last season, saw Lyon finish 7th in Ligue 1 – that to the detriment of Traoré’s performances.
In the 2018-19 season, Traoré was the highest in Ligue 1 for ‘goal-creating actions’ (a pass, dribble or drawing fouls) with 0.64 per game. Last season for the French side, he touched the ball 816 times, with 401 being inside the attacking third.
After his first months plying his trade at Villa Park, it’s obvious that Villa’s new man enjoys time on the ball to utilise his requisite skill set to hurt opposing defences in their defensive third. This is testament to his team-mate and right-sided partner, Cash, who’s energy and willingness to support attackers creates space for Traoré’s quality to shine.
This was particularly instanced when the former Ajax winger stepped inside the pitch after Cash’s overlap occupied Grady Diangana to make enough space before curling an inch-perfect cross towards El Ghazi at the far post – handing Villa an early lead.
Traoré’s first Premier League goal for Villa also came about with time and space available once more to make use of his quality and technique – this time making sure of the points by doubling Villa’s lead in the 80th minute.
His developing partnership with Cash proved fruitful at The Hawthorns, but for Villa’s newly established right-back, partnerships on the pitch are nothing new.
Matty Cash provides the perfect foil for Traoré’s attacking qualities
In his first four games to the new campaign that saw Villa pick up 12 points from 12, three clean sheets and a 7-2 win over Liverpool, Cash didn’t only become a mainstay in Smith’s side, but also a stand out from his seemingly reserved full-back role.
Having faced the daunting task of keeping current Premier League golden boot winner, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at bay at the Emirates a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in his career, Aubameyang played 90 minutes in a Premier League home game without attempting a shot against Villa – indeed, Aubameyang was one of only three outfield players who didn’t record an attempt for Arsenal in the game, testament to Cash and Villa’s organised display.
Having lined up with Trezeguet for the start of the league campaign, a head injury to the Egyptian winger ruled out one of Villa’s more consistent performers over the festive period. His link with Cash was beginning to form well, but Traoré’s introduction adds another attacking dimension altogether.
Cash formed an effective, even formidable link with Joe Lolley down the right flank last season in the Championship as Nottingham Forest plotted a promotion charge. The versatile defender left Nottingham Forest in the summer with all the well-wishes of a player that’s stolen the hearts of a fanbase all too familiar with some of England’s finest players down the years.
The 23-year-old who had no shortage of offers from around the Premier League will move across the Midlands to Aston Villa in a deal worth up to £16 million. Dean Smith is keen to strengthen the squad that clinched Premier League survival on the final day of last season.
Villa were determined to land the services of Cash, who has already added versatility, plenty of quality and more importantly a desire to improve and learn under Smith. His enthusiasm, determination and versatility brands him the correct profile of player to succeed in the top flight which seems even more likely given his ‘every manager’s dream’ tag.
Cash may not be a household name yet – unlike Kieran Trippier who Villa had been linked with before finally signing their man – but he fits Villa’s strategy of recruiting the players with the desired player profile which is nowadays more important than ever for Smith, who is keen to embrace a new culture at Bodymoor Heath.
Having been released by Wycombe as a youngster, Cash emerged from the FAB football academy in Bisham before signing a three-year deal at Nottingham Forest.
Cash is keen and willing to improve in order to not only play his part for Villa this season but improve them in ways not so obvious as first thought. John Terry has endeavoured to sharpen his defensive game while adapting to the pace and intensity for the Premier League will come with more game time under his belt.
An enthusiastic individual on the training pitch also, Cash could’ve kicked up a fuss when former coach, Sabri Lamouchi – new to the Championship managing game – ordered him to step into the full-back role, away from his preferred role, one he’d been developing in for numerous years. Though his response was a breath of fresh air.
Taking on the responsibility for the team, flourishing in a position where he can still break the lines, attack and defend with versatility – eye-catching performances last season weren’t few and far between, in fact, quite the opposite.
His work-rate has rarely been beaten throughout 90 minutes during his Premier League showings this term. He epitomises the ‘modern full-back’ role with an appetite to influence the game from his deeper-lying position.
Rarely will you hear a bad word said about Cash, his temperament, attitude and focus is testament to his character, and his overall game is all the better for it. His athletic efficiencies are also evidently helping out Villa this season and certainly, they’ve helped him personally adapt to the top flight.