Dean Smith’s Aston Villa side is taking shape in the Premier League and every member of his squad will play their part.
As Premier League chiefs continue to mull over the five substitutions rule during the busiest period in the football calendar, Smith has been forced to rotate his squad following early-season injuries and suspensions.
Despite not making any alterations to what has been a steady back five – including goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez – in the opening months of the Premier League campaign, Villa hasn’t necessarily experienced a decline in performance levels.
Before Matty Cash’s one-game suspension and Ezri Konsa’s absence through illness, Smith had picked an identical back four, plus Martínez 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 key 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.
A 1-0 win over Wolves continued a fine run of away results which includes wins over Fulham, Leicester and Arsenal, and now even a 0-3 win over another West Midlands rival, West Bromwich Albion.
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.
Smith’s side are forming partnerships in every department across the pitch even if enforced alterations threatened to tarnish a fine start to the Premier League campaign.
Ross Barkley’s hamstring injury had initially disrupted an encouraging flow as Villa fans dared to believe that this season could reach unexpected heights. Barkley’s muscular injury ruled him out for up to a month of action and Villa had encountered some mixed form thereon.
Smith was tasked in finding a solution to Villa’s attacking deficiencies as Barkley limped away from a disappointing afternoon against Brighton, but a mixture of familiar and new faces have stepped up to the plate in his absence.
A goalless draw to Burnley, sandwiched in between double derby day delight over Villa’s Midlands rivals is a frustrating blot on an impressive December month, but not without encouragement from the returning Anwar El Ghazi and inspired performance of Traoré.
Jack Grealish resumed his talismanic role from a central position, occupying a free role in between the lines against Sean Dyche’s men, before taking centre stage once more as Sam Allardyce’s Baggies found out at The Hawthorns.
Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traoré taking their chance
As Grealish strung together eight key chances in the win at West Brom, El Ghazi and Traoré also played their part in chance creation and indeed goals.
Villa made a bright start at The Hawthorns as Traoré saw enough of the ball to make a telling influence inside the first five minutes. Standing the ball up towards the oncoming El Ghazi at Sam Johnstone’s far post, both Villa’s wingers combined to open the night’s scoring.
Their contributions wouldn’t end there, though. Sealing the points with ten minutes left to play, Traoré was the coolest, and indeed the coolest man on the pitch to simply sweep the ball past Johnstone as Villa took the game out of West Brom’s reach, all before El Ghazi demonstrated his penalty expertise in a successive away victory.
In less pressured circumstances than his spot-kick at Molineux, the former Ajax wide-man converted with similar aplomb to add a third goal for a Villa side aided by confidence and ultimately quality on the flanks.
Trezeguet had seemingly made the wide right position his own by offering a balance, opposing Grealish’s guile and elegance from the left side, but following a hamstring problem, the Egyptian was forced to give up his extended run in Smith’s side.
“When Trezeguet got injured, people sniff opportunity,” Smith said.
“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 was tough leaving Elmohamady and Nakamba out due to their performances against Burnley, but it was a quick turnaround to two days between the games and I thought it was right to bring in fresh legs.
“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.”
Dean Smith keen to build a team full of familiar faces
Traore scored on his debut in the Carabao Cup at Bristol City in September after joining from Lyon for £17 million but had struggled for form and fitness before his first start for Villa in the Premier League against Wolves.
“When I came, I wasn’t fit enough. I worked hard with the staff to get my fitness back and then, unfortunately, I got injured in my first start,” he told Villa TV.
“I had to work hard to get back into the team, and now I’m trying hard to do my best and make an impact on the team.
“I’m getting there. I’m getting fitter and fitter with each game.
“I came here to give what I can bring to the team, to grow up as a player and to learn. To get assists and score goals is part of my job here.
“It was the perfect night for the team. I’m happy to score my first goal for Aston Villa in the Premier League, but the most important thing was the three points.”
Before Traoré joined Villa in the summer, he’d previously played alongside John Terry at Chelsea, Marvelous Nakamba at Dutch side Vitesse and Anwar El Ghazi at Ajax.
“I’m very happy to join Aston Villa,” he told VillaTV in his first interview.
Traore added: “I played with JT at Chelsea, I spoke to him. I spoke to the manager, spoke with the Sporting Director as well and some players I used to play with – Nakamba and El Ghazi.
“With Nakamba, I talked to him about the club a little bit – many things made me take the decision to come here.”
Traoré’s pedigree in the game is clear to see, with experience playing at the top level in the Netherlands, England and France, as well as having experience at Champions League level.
Villa 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.”
Competition for places will count in Villa’s favour over a busy festive and new years schedule, but what’s more comforting for Villa’s boss is that his work on the training ground is paying off despite being disrupted by injuries and pesky suspensions.