Aston Villa, a club in search of its identity after the departure of Jack Grealish, looked the part in a 3-2 season-opening defeat at Watford on Saturday afternoon.
With their talisman gone, five new faces arriving, and a host of other squad players either not fit or unavailable it was bound to be an uphill battle, especially at Vicarage Road, a ground newly-promoted Watford won at in 19 of 23 home matches last season.
But I don’t think anyone expected the poor performance Villa put forth. The first half was an absolute nightmare. Matt Targett, Tyrone Mings, and Ashley Young were no match for the pacey right winger Ismaïla Sarr, who had a hand in two of Watford’s three goals.
Danny Ings, Emi Buendia, and Anwar El Ghazi simply did not pressure the Watford backline out of possession and that set off a ripple effect from where the hosts built out of the back, overran Villa in midfield, and used gaps in between to run freely at defenders.
Despite Grealish’s departure, supporters tipped Villa for a strong start to the season.
That said, Watford’s opening two goals came off broken plays, the first of which should have been stopped by keeper Emi Martinez. The third was a world-class strike from the left wing off the foot of Cucho Hernández.
In the end, Villa was given the edge in expected goals (xG) by most if not all statistical outlets, including The xG Philosophy. Boosted by a late-match penalty, Villa’s xG was 1.04 to Watford’s 0.98.
Although xG is generally a useful stat, it fails to take into account so much that happens between the lines. Villa were anonymous in the first half, on the ball but not creating, and timid in defense, failing to pressure at key junctures.
John McGinn and Marvelous Nakamba were overrun in midfield and the Villa backline was constantly dropping off, creating huge pockets of space in between that Sarr and Co. exploited.
Nakamba was especially poor, offering nearly nothing on the ball. We’ve questioned his ability to be this squad’s first-choice defensive midfielder, and his defensive exploits can only carry him so far. Atrocious under pressure, so many of Villa’s build-ups crumbled or went sideways as a result of his inability to make a quality pass.
Young was to provide cover ahead of Targett on the left, but the two couldn’t handle Sarr, and the latter made way at halftime for Jacob Ramsey, who provided much-needed help in central midfield as Dean Smith moved from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3.
The switch freed up McGinn to play in tandem with Ramsey as eights and bridge the gap to the forward contingent. The introductions of Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore came after the Villa fell behind 3-0, but it marked the beginning of what felt like a different game.
According to @pgr_analytics on Twitter, Bailey had 14 touches and four dribbles in 30 minutes. The debutante replaced El Ghazi, who recorded 22 touches and zero dribbles in 60 minutes, and assisted on McGinn’s brilliant 70th-minute goal.
Traore did well to take on defenders and looked a threat in his 19 minutes of substitute action. He drew a penalty in extra time, which Ings converted, and had a greater effect on the right side than Buendia or El Ghazi.
Overall, the biggest takeaways from the defeat are a) Villa desperately need an improvement in central midfield, b) off-the-ball pressing needs to be much better, and c) the disjointed and abbreviated preseason greatly affected preparation.
The good news: there’s a ton of money available to spend, and with time to gel, this team will improve. There was always going to be a transition period post-Grealish. There’s too much talent in the squad for the project to fail and Smith is the right man for the job. As much as this result was disappointing, it’s going to be fine. On to the next.