Aston Villa have been lauded for an attacking brand of football, a watertight defence and indeed effective player recruitment – with every passing week we learn more about Dean Smith’s intriguing side.
Little more needs to be said about Villa’s miraculous turnaround, from relegation certs to European hopefuls within the space of six months speaks volumes in itself. The finer details behind the club’s revival – and there’s no shortage of them – are revealing if not enthralling.
While Smith was trusted to recruit Ollie Watkins – his tried and trusted number nine from his days at Brentford – an attaching partner, as it were, was touted to be Callum Wilson, before links to Joshua King surfaced.
Behind the scenes, Villa are quickly becoming a more forward-thinking Premier League club with a long-term, thorough blueprint in place. Whilst only time will tell if Lange can replicate his youth recruitment successes or if Mackenzie can scout the next N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez or Son Heung-min, Villa are certainly investing in the right areas, and on the right profile of players in the market.
Morgan Sanson will soon be unveiled as the latest rough diamond to come out of the French Ligue 1 and into the English top-flight, but not before Bertrand Traoré. Villa’s eccentric, maverick-like winger is some talent, a savvy alternative to recycled Premier League stars.
Having become the fastest scorer of a debut goal since Milan Baros in 15 years, Traoré’s sensational right-footed volley gave Villa fans a sign of what was to come… and since, exquisite touches to beat Kevin De Bruyne, a goal at Old Trafford and that sublime, sweeping finish at The Hawthorns have come off – he’s already had his moments.
Traoré’s recent strike to double Villa’s first-half advantage against Newcastle would have been one to behold from that of a Holte End view – if only 40,000 Villans were able to welcome their mesmerising winger in proper fashion. Crashing the ball in off the crossbar, Traoré’s right foot isn’t nearly quite as bad as what Lyon fans would lead you to believe.
Despite playing out of his skin for Burkina Faso in the frequent international breaks that disrupted the start of the Premier League season, it wasn’t until Trezeguet – who was making the right-wing spot his own – suffered a head injury, before also picking up a hamstring issue that forced him out of the Villa side before a busy festive schedule.
Villa’s 1-0 win over Wolves continued a fine run of away results at the start of the season, which included wins over Fulham, Leicester and Arsenal, and even a 0-3 win over another West Midlands rival, West Bromwich Albion. But it wasn’t until the mauling of the Baggies, on Sam Allardyce’s first game in charge, that Traoré really announced himself to the Villa faithful.
Villa’s 27 efforts at goal against Burnley remains a joint league-high for shots in a single game this Premier League season. Traoré might have squandered the best of those chances on the night, but after a succession of Premier League games under his belt, against Wolves and Sean Dyche’s side, the winger was able to get back up to speed and start impacting games for Villa.
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.
As Grealish strung together eight key chances in the win at West Brom in December, Traoré played a crucial role in chance creation and indeed, since then, he’s chipped in with his fair share of goals – his movement, combination play and strike against Newcastle will be hard to top.
Competition for places at Aston Villa breeding excellent performances
“When Trezeguet got injured, people sniff opportunity,” Smith said, after handing Traoré his first start against Wolves in December.
“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.”
Having scored on his debut in the Carabao Cup at Bristol City in September after joining from Lyon for £17 million, Traoré had struggled for form and fitness before his first start for Villa in the Premier League.
“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,” Traoré 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.
Traoré 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 the course of a season like none other, one that’s up for grabs for whoever stakes a claim to achieving their lofty ambitions.
While Villa boss, Smith has been keen to dampen this season’s expectations, with talk of finishing within the European places on the cards, in fact, Villa’s squad is well stocked with such a calibre of player.
Traoré, like the incoming Sanson, have both started recent Europa League finals. Traoré scored nine goals in 24 league outings for Ajax under manager, Peter Bosz, and was part of the team that reached the Europa League final in 2016-17, losing to Mourinho’s Manchester United at the Friends Arena in Sweden.
Traoré’s goals and performances in the Europa League were crucial to Ajax’s run in the competition. He scored four goals in the 2016/17 tournament, including two goals in the first leg of the semi-final against his future club, Lyon.
Villa’s fourth signing of the summer window even capped an impressive stint at the Amsterdam ArenA by featuring in the UEFA Europa League Squad of the Season: 2016/17. Many even suggested Traoré was Ajax’s ‘most potent threat’ in the final.
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. His final season in France, however, met a sharp decline following Rudi Garciá’s tactical alterations as Lyon boss last season.
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.
Throughout his three year stay in France, Traoré formed formidable front-three partnerships with forwards Mariano Díaz, Memphis Depay and more recently Maxwell Cornet and the exciting Rayan Cherki.
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.
Once tipped for big things by Jose Mourinho as a youth player at Chelsea, Traoré’s career up until now has had its fair share of highs and lows, but Villa’s man has found more consistency with maturity. He’ll be a player Villa fans can hope to pay the admission fee for in the not too distant future.