Spotlight: Case For The Defence, Middling Midfield & Lone Striker

Ollie Watkins England San Marino

As the latest international break draws to a close, what’s in store for Villa’s players when they return to B6 for the remainder of the season?

Villa Underground contributor Sam Mitchell looks across Villa’s defence, midfield and attacking options ahead of the end of season run-in.

After the drab performance at Newcastle the week before, we found ourselves playing on our favoured Sunday evening slot against a Tottenham side who were licking their wounds.

Comfortable wins over WBA, Arsenal, Leicester and of course the 7-2 victory over Liverpool had come previously on these Sunday night affairs and another big game was on the horizon, to keep our ever fading hopes of Europa League qualification alive.

The general consensus amongst Villa fans, as far as that I could see, was split down the middle. Half of the fan base were excited at the possibility of seeing us play in European competition once again, with the other half seemingly quite content with a mid-table finish and anything extra would be a bonus.


Defensively, Aston Villa’s performances this season have been European quality. Emi Martinez has
[in my view] been the best goalkeeper in the league this season. The Argentine oozes quality and confidence and the defence seems to have a lot more faith in who is behind them this term.

The fact that each one of our back 4 have been touted (Konsa), or picked to play, for England says it all. The improvement Matt Targett has made this season is incredible. Matt was getting stick last season, and rightly
so, due to his apparent apprehension when playing against quick, tricky wingers. If he didn’t go down injured he seemed to struggle to keep opponents at bay.

This season he has developed a crunching tackle, his positioning is great and Targett also now appears to be able to stop those problematic wingers in their tracks.

Further, and although there is rarely anybody on the end of them, Targett’s delivery has also been decent, it’s no coincidence this has earned his name being mentioned in the same sentence as Luke Shaw, Ben
Chilwell, Bukayo Saka and the like.

Arguably such players have a better all-round game than Targett, but in this settled defence and
with nurturing under Smith, who knows in the future?

The same applies for Matty Cash, who has waltzed into this team from The Championship and settled immediately into our back four.

A string of strong, energetic performances has got Southgate talking about him in a position which, 6 months ago, was an automatic pick in favour of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The growing centre back partnership and performances of Mings and Konsa has also been fantastic to watch. The 14 clean sheets already achieved during this campaign says all it needs for our rearguard displays this season.

The work the coaching team have put in is clear to see and arguably Smith & Co don’t get enough credit for this improvement.

Mings getting the call up for England demonstrated that Villa are back in the big time. The noise Tyrone makes when on the pitch cannot be underestimated, constantly calling the line, managing the shape and voicing instructions to players in front of him. Mings is captain material and I think it relieves pressure on the
those around him to concentrate on their game, knowing he is ever present demanding focus.

Ezri Konsa, quite frankly, has been one of the best Centre-Back’s in the division. The former Brentford defenders game is calm, understated and classy. Whilst Konsa isn’t as dominating a presence as Mings, you rarely hear him shouting at the back or panicking on the ball. But then, he doesn’t need to. With Mings bellowing
instructions and imposing his figure next to him, Konsa really is maturing into a Rolls Royce of a defender.

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I see a lot of stick aimed at Tyrone for spraying long balls up the field or playing himself into trouble and I think this is unwarranted. Perhaps Mings has been instructed to do this, and if the players who he is playing these long balls to are not Anwar El Ghazi, Trezeguet or an isolated Ollie Watkins, maybe 30-40 percent of those “wayward passes” turn into very good balls.

Konsa though, has developed into an international standard defender, and it’s only a matter of time before he is recognised as one. The ‘party trick’ of cooly emerging with the ball after a quick 90 degree turn in his own box really is fantastic to see, and he has shown this off a few
times in our most recent games.

The 23-year-old is supremely cool under pressure, very rarely dribbled past, and wins most aerial battles. Konsa is also a threat going forward and if he improved on that area of his game he really could go on to be one of the
greats in the Premier League. It’s no surprise that Konsa has suitor’s [Spurs for one] who are keeping a very close eye on him. It was therefore welcome news when he recently signed an improved deal to keep him at Villa Park until 2026.


The midfield is one that has gained a lot of conversation from fans
since the return from our “Covid break” mainly regarding what our best
actually midfield is?

The three at the start of the season of Luiz, McGinn and Barkley
was working really well, but it seems with Ross’s complete drop of form,
we’re lacking somebody to link the play from midfield to attack.

As much as Ramsay could be a big player for us in the future, I think we need to come
to terms that if [like the players are saying] we want to be pushing for
European places, he is not ready to do that for us yet.

A great learning experience being around the first team this season will do
Ramsay the world of good, but I do think a Championship loan spell would aid his development.

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New signing Morgan Sanson, much like Luiz, we may need to look forward to what the former Marseille playmaker can do after a full pre-season.

Speaking of Luiz, I think this mid-season dip in form (I do think he could be a very
an important player for us moving forward) might just put Pep off of trying to
get him back to Manchester.

22.5m for Luiz seemed like a perfect buyback for Man City pre-Christmas, and I really would hate for them to take the Brazilian back only to see him rock up at an Everton or West Ham for a reduced fee in a
years time having barely played. It seems he’s enjoying life in Birmingham and once that dreaded deadline
passes we can hopefully sign the 22 year old up long term.

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Which finally leads us to our attacking department. No matter how great
Ollie Watkins’ work rate is, and his constant will to improve, it is simply not
feasible to rely on a solitary striker to play every minute of every game in a season.

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With his recent England call up, and subsequent goal on his debut, I’m sure
Ollie will fly through the rest of the season hoping to “book his seat on the
plane” for the Euro squad.

Watkins is crucial to the way Smith wants Villa to play football and his constant pressing worked very well at the start of the campaign. At that point we had Jack and Ross flying also, an unpopular opinion [of
mine] is that Watkins does miss big chances. Admittedly some of these were chances created by himself, but I do feel like on occasions Ollie managed all the hard work, before missing the opportunity with a lot of these going
unnoticed as they were games in which Villa won.

Finished big chances is an area I’m sure he will improve upon but it’s glaring that Villa need another option from the bench. I’m more than confident Wesley, once fit, can provide this.

Unfortunately neither Wesley nor Watkins will be able to finish these chances if our wide men are not creating them. Anwar El Ghazi and Trezeguet realistically aren’t fit for purpose for where Aston Villa want to go, they are simply not good enough. They are both great characters and the work rate, especially that of
Trezeguet, cannot be faulted, but if we are to keep hold on to our best players and push higher up the league, new additions will be required

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Villa might look to develop unknown talent but will likely look to acquire players with attributes like Emi Buendia, Wilfried Zaha or Allan St Maximin who would really give us some quality in the wide areas.

Next season is going to be exciting! The owners show no signs of slowing their ambitions, and 2-3 quality transfers could turn us from a plucky mid-table club to one that teams really start to take seriously.

Villa could realistically have a team consisting of 4-5 England internationals one of the best goalkeepers in
the league, along with a promising Under-23 squad who, after a few loan spells, will be looking to stake first-team claims.

In terms of this season, let’s hope it doesn’t fizzle out to a 12th placed finish and that we can give it a real go for
these big fixtures coming up. It’s unlikely, but two wins over Everton and an avenged result against Spurs actually puts us right in the mix again.

Realistically we are aiming for a top 10 finish, a few young faces making their Premier League debuts and a final push from players to get into their respective squads for the Euros.

Let’s hope the boys can get some momentum going and keep spirits high for any return of fans. The reunion at Villa Park is going to be something special. UTV