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Aston Villa 0 Watford 0 (29/07/2017) 30/07/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- At ten to two we’re waiting outside the Trinity Road Stand.  The girls are radiating Watfordness in their luminous new home shirts, our allegiances visible from a distance of a hundred metres.  We’re waiting for Andy.  Andy, Andy’s wife, Andy’s kids, Andy’s sister’s kids.

I haven’t seen Andy for eighteen years.  We were at Uni together in the early nineties, at a time when his Villa side threatened to win the League.  It was also a time when GT was England boss, and Andy and I represented the two camps staunchly, reliably behind the main man.  Many a word was exchanged in the pubs of Leeds with the less well-informed of his calibre;  it’s good to see him and seems fitting that we’re meeting up again today.  As we wait another Villa fan approaches, shakes my hand;  “Nice day for it mate.  He’s up there, smiling down on us”.  Off the pitch, at any rate, and whatever the unfortunate dilution of the tribute by virtue of the necessary shifting of the game to the West Midlands and running a second GT game next week, off the pitch this is a friendly game in every respect.

2- Pre-season friendlies, then.  An opportunity to get back into the swing, and a time to examine every aspect of the afternoon for clues, indications, suggestions of what’s to come.  Particularly this summer with the transfer market so constipated, what’s to be read into the selection?

There are plenty of names missing, for one thing.  Étienne Capoue is a significant absentee given reports of a bust up with Silva.  Also missing are Britos, Janmaat, Holebas, Behrami…  Berghuis too, least surprisingly.  And Troy, although the skipper makes a conspicuous entrance to the away “end” shortly before half-time to raucous acknowledgement and runs the gauntlet of autographs and selfies to the top of the stand.  Also – perhaps – significant is that whilst squad numbers appear to be informally enforced – Chalobah at 14, Will Hughes at 18 – Brandon Mason runs out in 6, begging a question of another absentee, Adrian Mariappa.

3- We’re absolutely bloody dreadful for at least fifteen minutes.  Villa run at us and Gabby Agbonlahor almost stops to check that he hasn’t missed a flag as he skates through unattended demanding rearguard action from Heurelho Gomes.  That’s the story of this opening period, the Hornets amble around walking into each other, the home side get plenty of the ball and Elmohamady, Green and Grealish are sending balls across the box.  We’re reliant on inviduals to dig us out, and often it’s Younès Kaboul doing the digging – visibly more comfortable in a back four than a three last year it would be no surprise to see the Frenchman a nailed down starter this time.

Meanwhile Roberto Pereyra is starting a game for the first time since before Christmas, and if there’s the occasional touch that’s just slightly heavy, the odd pass slightly overhit he’s still an absolute joy for the most part, that blend of awareness and guile and verve and belligerence that we’ve missed.  We briefly thought we’d be missing it all over again; he’s down after a heavy tackle early on and within ten minutes there’s a board up.  Colin, over my shoulder, and I exchange dark glances both having seen 37 and feared the worst… no offence to Christian Kabasele, 27, but Seb Prödl running on to form a no-messing centre-back pairing with Kaboul was something of a relief.

4- Villa have been a train wreck for about five years.  Andy is very clear on the subject.  There’s no mistaking the strategy for this season though: In have come Glenn Whelan, Ahmed Elmohamady and Chris Samba to supplement an experienced squad already boasting Alan Hutton, Neil Taylor, Gabby Agbonlahor, Mile Jedinak.

And then there’s Terry. Whilst neutral fans will be quite comfortable with not having John Terry in their side it’s not difficult to understand how Villa fans have quickly reconciled themselves to the situation. He’s a bastard, but he’s their bastard and it’s quickly evident that, albeit in this pre-season friendly, he’s bringing a leadership and an authority to the Villa backline.

Villa’s strategy is not a long-term plan, it’s kind of shit-or-bust but you do fancy that a large support desperate for their side to be anything but bloody awful will quickly mobilise behind any suggestion of a promotion push and propel it onwards. You wouldn’t bet against it.

5- Daughter one has expressed disappointment that we don’t get to see Troy against John Terry; instead, the lone striker role goes to Jerome Sinclair. He doesn’t seem obviously suited to the task but you can understand Silva’s desire to not overrun our one fit striker and to look at alternatives, albeit we assume another striker is on the shopping list.

Sinclair struggles; his pace is an asset and gets him into a couple of good positions but he spoons an effort when through on goal in the first half and looks far too tentative when half-chances present themselves. He’s much happier when second half changes see him pull out to the right flank; by then he’s had an entertaining encounter with Terry which has seen him pile into his adversary in going for a high ball just after the break. One assumes that this was in response to entreaties to “put himself about”; it’s probably a foul but Terry wins the header anyway. As both land Sinclair nervously extends a hand of apology to Terry only to notice that the defender gives not even a little bit of a damn about the challenge and is already getting on with the game.

6- The second half is much better than the first from our point of view. Indeed the first half is better than previously related as soon as we calm down a bit and start putting our foot on the ball. Doucouré and Chalobah seem nailed on for the two at the back of the midfield, assuming Silva goes with that formation. Both increase their influence as the half progresses and by the second half Chalobah is in charge, swaying into space and wrong footing the stadium more than once. Significant in the changes from half time onwards are the introductions of Hughes, Femenia and Success. Will Hughes looks great, clever and impish and composed. The full-back’s defensive qualities aren’t examined but there’s no question he’s an attacking weapon, overlapping at pace and getting good balls in from the by-line.

Success, replacing Pereyra on the left flank at the break, is more erratic once reacting angrily to a heavy challenge, sometimes making bad decisions but also responsible for our two best moves of the half. He pulls centrally to the edge of the box and holds off aggressive attention whilst retaining the awareness and composure to spot and execute a brilliant pass to the overlapping Femenia. Femenia puts the ball across and Success meets it, forcing Jed Steer into his most significant stop of the game. Later, from a similar position and again under pressure Success dinks a lovely pass through for Sinclair but just gives it slightly too much. There’s an outstanding player in there somewhere trying to break out.

7- Which isn’t to say that everything’s hunky dory. Villa have also threatened; Kaboul gives away a penalty which Gomes saves diving to his left; opinions differ on this, Dad reporting from Youtube that it’s a decent pen and a good stop, Andy sending grumbles from the Holte suggesting not quite as much credit to taker or keeper. Later, sub Jordan Amavi really ought to seal the game attacking a cross at the left hand post but bizarrely the left back opts for his right foot and slices wide. The denouement to the game sees a heavyweight confrontation between subs Samba and Okaka; Samba has the height, Okaka the girth and they end up bruised but on even par.

There’s stuff to be positive about; encouraging outings from the newbies and some verve and flow to our play once we got going. Kaboul and Prödl look sound and Gomes does great with what he has to do. There are holes too, and unanswered questions. The next few weeks could be quite revealing. Watch this space.