A hungry, new-look Aston Villa emerged victorious on New Year’s Day clash at a notoriously tricky Turf Moor against Burnley, courtesy of goals from Wesley and Jack Grealish in a 1-2 win.
Villa started the match on the front foot and shocked the hosts with their slick attacking play. Grealish, who was once again instrumental for Dean Smith’s team, appeared to have given the visitors the lead in the opening minutes, however, it was controversially ruled out by VAR. Wesley was only millimetres offside, but the manner in which it was taken away was farcical. The game was delayed for several minutes, as fans and players alike were left in the lurch patiently waiting for a decision.
Instead of feeling down for themselves, the team kept at it and were duly rewarded in the 27th minute when Wesley tucked away a ball laid on a platter by Grealish. The Villa away fans who were in fine voice as always barely celebrated the goal.
Nonetheless, it was a massive confidence-booster for the Brazilian forward, who scored in the Premier League for the first time since October. Villa continued to probe for openings and Burnley were struggling. Grealish ended an enterprising move in the 41st minute with a fantastic strike into the top left corner to beat Nick Pope. Consequently, Villa took a two-goal lead into the sheds.
As expected, the second half was more of a dog-fight as Burnley grew into the game after attack-minded substitutions in the form of Jay Rodriguez and Johann Berg Gudmundsson. Villa rode their luck at times, but the defence stood tall and dealt with everything that was thrown their way until the 80th minute when Chris Wood scored off a header. Despite nine minutes of added time, the hosts never looked like scoring an equaliser.
The fight and determination displayed was a huge positive to take away from this match. Villa lacked this against Watford and with a horrendous away record, no doubt many feared the worst after Wood’s goal. However, almost every player put a shift in and was prepared to do the dirty work that was necessary to hold onto a vital three points.
Grealish chased everything, pressed with vigour and tracked back to help his teammates out in a true captain’s knock. Marvelous Nakamba was also key in the middle of the park, cutting out Burnley attacks and was tidy in possession. Douglas Luiz was even better. Many had doubts as to whether or not this duo could play together, and I have often criticised the Brazilian for being too casual on the ball and lightweight. However, he was up for the challenge yesterday against a combative side.
On the flip side, Jonathan Kodjia underwhelmed as he lacked the enthusiasm to do the basics. Prior to his injury, Wesley was having a great game, pressing and harassing the hosts, and offering a physical presence upfront. Kodjia is not known for his work rate, but for a player on the periphery, one would imagine he would have taken a rare opportunity to impress with open arms. There was a moment where he was played in by Grealish and had a moment to impress, but instead, the Ivorian forward played at a walking pace and went for a high-percentage shot which was never going to trouble Pope in the Burnley goal.
The return of Tyrone Mings was a timely one for Villa as the team instantly appeared to look more organised and resolute. He is a vocal figure, offers leadership and reads the game so well, he can organise the backline. Burnley rarely looked like getting in behind him so he was able to deal with everything comfortably and not strain his hamstring, which kept him out in recent weeks.
In conjunction with Mings returning, and the fight and determination, a major reason that led to improved performance was a change in formation. Dean Smith has been criticised for being ‘too stubborn’ and ‘lacking a Plan B’, however, the change to a 3-4-3 formation proved to be a masterstroke and deserves credit for the change.
Burnley are known for being a physical side, possessing two powerful forwards in Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood, so having an extra centre back to deal with their threat was vital. Smith alluded to the fact that the players were familiar with the formation as “a lot of them have played in it before”. Smith also stated that “an extra header of the ball in defence was needed”.
On top of this, another interesting facet of this new formation and three-man defence is the fact that it can be flexible. There were several occasions yesterday where Neil Taylor (operating as a wing-back) was higher up the pitch in a bid to offer width and numbers in attack. In this instance, Kortney Hause was able to shift wider and cover the space left by Taylor, since he is left-footed and can play as a left-back. Hause is also comfortable with the ball at his feet. This flexibility could prove vital in the following run of fixtures.
The man of the match was undoubtedly Jack Grealish. The captain led by example, notching an assist and scoring a delightful goal in the first half. His attacking qualities were there for all to see as he ‘ran the show’ for Villa. Especially in the first half, every time he had the ball at his feet in and around the penalty box, it was as if he would create an opening. The new formation also made things more unpredictable in the final third, and Grealish was a major beneficiary as he could effectively link up with Wesley and Trezeguet.
Villa need to use this performance as a springboard in a bid to move up the ladder. Hopefully, Tom Heaton and Wesley have speedy recoveries, although both injuries looked nasty.
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