John McGinn, possibly by his own omission, has been a pale imitation of the Scotsman who motored across the Villa Park turf every other weekend, as every blade of grass churned under his razor-like soleplate, whipping up the Holte End roar on every given matchday.
That same tenacious midfielder who has played a crucial part in Aston Villa’s fortunes during a rollercoaster three years is one intent on writing more chapters in his story at the club – now it’s up to Villa to get the most out of him.
When Villa required all three points to confirm their top-six place against Blackburn Rovers in the 2018/19 Championship campaign, it was McGinn who ran the length of the Rovers half to retrieve and shield the ball high up the pitch. For every mention of THAT volley against Sheffield Wednesday or his unique ‘bum-roll’, McGinn’s game is far more complex than what might meet the eye.
Not forgetting his all-important goal at Wembley too, the decisive second goal that Villa needed to ensure promotion back to the Premier League – it was even McGinn who scored the club’s first away from home at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium on match-week one of Villa’s first top-flight campaign in three years.
Though, this season, McGinn has become a victim of a shorter pre-season break and indeed rests between games this season, with a later starting date due to coronavirus and Project Restart. While Dean Smith’s Villa began the Premier League season in fine fettle, a recent dip in form has been hard not to ignore and rightly so, questions have been asked about Villa’s strength in depth.
Following key injuries to Jack Grealish and Matty Cash in the past months, Villa only managed to beat Leeds in what was a barren eight weeks or so without their talismanic captain and while Grealish’s influence on the pitch is telling, there isn’t one Villa player who didn’t want to prove that they were so much more than a one-man team.
With several contributing factors, including that 40 point mental block, or burn-out for many of Villa’s players, McGinn himself wasn’t able to help cover the goal contributions lost in Grealish’s absence over the period of time he was nursing a reported shin injury. However, with an impressive international break under his belt with Scotland, McGinn will be keen to show why Smith can count on his midfield ace once more, and kick on this season.
Bicycle kicks, late runs into the box and bullet headers were all on show as McGinn scored three goals in two games for his country, against Austria and the Faroe Islands. Such form must be translated into a Villa shirt now, and while McGinn has been asked to play a deeper role this campaign, his form in front of goal for Scotland cannot be ignored.
With Ross Barkley desperately out of form and indeed out of favour, young Jacob Ramsey has often proved his worth in filling in for the out of sorts Barkley who seems to have put paid to his chances of earning a permanent contract at Villa Park.
With that creative midfield role now seemingly up for grabs, and Morgan Sanson too vying for a starting berth, McGinn’s name will now be thrown into the hat, following his exploits on international duty.
Douglas Luiz and McGinn had formed an indispensable partnership at the heart of Villa’s midfield earlier in the Premier League season, but even if Luiz had only started to understand McGinn’s Scottish burr during Projet Restart, football changes quickly and Smith might well be assessing the possibility of shuffling his midfield pack once more.
On many occasions, this season, Marvelous Nakamba – who was simply a backup to Luiz earlier this season – has proved that he can step up to the plate without any fuss whatsoever. In fact, he’s made a case to start ahead of the once undroppable Luiz, who has struggled himself to reach the levels we all know he can at points this term. The Zimbabwean international had impressed in starts against Southampton, Arsenal and Leeds when fresh legs have been required to manage a busy fixture schedule.
With plenty of options to pick and choose from, Smith has a headache of who to play and indeed where to play them, but while McGinn has proved that despite struggling for club form this term, his knack for goals will always be there, and for a team, so often dependant on one figure, McGinn’s influence could prove invaluable still.
John McGinn’s battle back from injury
Following a lengthy spell on the sidelines during Villa’s Premier League run-in last season, McGinn is still looking to rediscover his best form at the back-end of this campaign, having started the season with productive performances aplenty in September.
It was no surprise that Villa’s woes towards the end of the last campaign coincided with the loss of star man McGinn. The absence of his tenacity, energy and most importantly, box-to-box running was a big miss – irreplaceable in the January transfer market and certainly amongst the current playing squad.
Returning to Smith’s matchday squad for the start of the Premier League’s Project Restart, McGinn was immediately drafted into the starting line-up as Sheffield United came to Villa Park. Though he wasn’t the John McGinn we’d come accustomed to watching at Villa Park.
The ankle fracture he picked up against Southampton in December 2019 was a major setback for what was becoming an impressive first season in the top flight for the Scot. The coronavirus suspension for the Premier League put paid to McGinn’s chances of a March comeback.
Villa head coach Smith was hoping to call McGinn back into the fold before Villa’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, but clearly, on the evidence of his rusty Project Restart form, his premature recall wouldn’t have given Villa a greater chance of beating the then Premier League champions at Wembley.
Reports even suggested McGinn had suffered another stress fracture in March which delayed his prolonged comeback even further.
His first competitive game for six months on June 17, against the Blades, was a gentle introduction back into Premier League football with a stale 0-0 at Villa Park the first offering of points for Smith’s side, so desperate to welcome back McGinn’s missed quality.
Fast forward three months and while McGinn grew into Project Restart with games coming thick and fast, his first start of the new campaign, also against Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, was an indication of how important his ten-match run during Project Restart was to his match fitness and preparation for the new campaign.
It would have been a sickener for Villa to have lost McGinn having spent the best part of seven months building him up to hit the ground running in time for the 2020-21 campaign. If It wasn’t for some final day drama at the London Stadium, with, of course, Grealish at the centre of the chaos, McGinn might’ve bowed out to Villa Park in an uncharacteristically muted fashion.
“Even the first day he came back into training he just gave everyone a lift”, Grealish said when McGinn returned to training before Project Restart.
“He’s such a popular figure in the dressing room, he always puts a smile on everyone’s face at the club. I know everyone says he runs around and has legs, but he isn’t just about that.
“He has class about him as well. He’s one of those players you don’t appreciate until you play alongside him, and he’s like that in the changing room as well.”
Finding more consistency this Premier League season
Villa knew if they can get their star midfielder back up and running to his former self, they’d have a player worthy of making a key impact to the team for the upcoming season – almost like a ‘new signing’, as it were.
In fact, Smith, with the backing of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens did strengthen with new signings, and particularly in Ross Barkley, Villa started the campaign with a midfield balance consisting of some serious quality.
McGinn and Douglas Luiz respectively were forming an encouraging partnership, and especially for Luiz, Project Restart was the stage he needed to demonstrate what he’s all about, while for McGinn, his rehabilitation seems to have all but ended thanks to his fast-tracked match fitness.
Alongside Barkley, the trio were key to Villa’s best start to a Premier League campaign ever. Solid victories against Sheffield United and Fulham set the foundations for a positive start, but with Liverpool on the horizon, the three were set to be tested in ways many fail to cope with.
7-2. It speaks for itself, with an attacking fluidity to match Europe’s very best, Luiz, Barkley and McGinn were the platform Villa needed to match the intensity of a Liverpool side lauded as the ‘rock and roll’ of football.
Followed by a dogged and disciplined display at the King Power Stadium after the season’s first international break, McGinn was once more pivotal to Villa’s success. His crucial ball-carrying ability and assist to Barkley was the match-winning move in the dying embers against a side that had the bettering of Villa on both occasions in the league last term.
Only a week before the win at Leicester had McGinn played back-to-back-to-back games for Scotland. He won the Man of the Match award for an impressive performance against the Czech Republic while wearing the national armband for the first time in his career.
Only Harry Kane had registered more assists than McGinn in the Premier League after the first month of the new season, as he assisted four goals in three games, twice against Fulham and once in games against Liverpool and then Leicester.
Adding a goal to his promising start to the new campaign against Liverpool in what was a fourth goal on the cusp of half-time for Villa, McGinn was proving that he could once again become a key part of Smith’s dynamic Villa side once again.
Villa are blessed with several match-winners, an excess of quality and indeed competition for places has only risen too since the summer arrivals of Matty Cash, Bertrand Traore and Ollie Watkins – though McGinn still has the ability to stand out game by game.
Unique by his style of play and a ‘statistical unicorn’ as termed by those with an eye for numbers, McGinn is slowly but surely getting back to the player that can still be both infectious and crucial to Aston Villa’s successes.