It’s just over a year to the day since we last made the short jaunt down the motorway to Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium, and the mood between then and now could not be more stark in its difference.
This tie last year saw us on the brink of non-existence, staring down the possibility of a very bleak future, contemplating the loss of our best players, and a campaign that seemed set up for disaster.
But time is the great healer, and here we are in the present moment, in almost unbelievably different circumstances, about to welcome back Premier League football, strategically squad building under an ambitious manager, working under seemingly equally ambitious owners possessing more optimism than we’ve had for a decade.
Last season, all the talk was of who was leaving (principally Jack Grealish), what semblance of a squad we’d have remaining, and facing criticism and jokes from the footballing world about the state we found ourselves in. A year later, and that criticism and discussion is now focused on whether Villa are spending too much money and signing too many players. It’s been said many times already, but what a difference a year makes, huh?
But onto the match. For all of the differences that Villa have undergone over the previous 365 days, the actual result on the pitch over our nearest neighbours was almost identical to this time last year, albeit this season’s iteration was executed with a much greater sense of flair.
With the main pre-match interest being the first opportunity to see Björn Engels in a Villa shirt after his £9 million signing from Stade de Reims and a first pre-season start for Lovre Kalinić between the sticks.
Once the game had kicked off it was Walsall looked sprightly in the opening minutes, pressing Villa high as they looked to play out from the back at every opportunity. They did cause Villa some niggly problems before Villa got going and took control. Within 10 minutes, Villa had the lead when two of the new boys combined to finish off a lovely passing move with Jota popping up to poke home from an excellent low driven cross from Guilbert.
Two minutes later 1 became 2, as Wesley was on hand to tidily slot home after further good work and a slotted through ball from Jota. From that point on Villa looked ever more confident and in control against their League 2 opponents.
With the growing confidence, came a greater cohesion of ideas and partnerships started to form all over the pitch. In particular it was Mings and Engels’ calm, solid and imposing partnership and Jota’s constant smart link up play with Wesley which caused the most problems for Walsall. Good omens for the forthcoming campaign.
It was from the supporting threat down the right hand side – marauding right back Frédéric Guilbert – that the third goal came about. From his cross towards the increasingly hard to handle Wesley, Walsall captain James Clarke tried a little too hard to handle him, pulling him to the ground in a manner the referee deemed worthy of a penalty. Wesley was all too happy to dispatch the penalty himself with a nonchalant aplomb.
With the 3 goals under our belt we had a brief lapse. Within a minute, failing to adequately deal with a Walsall attack, allowed Stuart Sinclair to step in and dispatch a beautiful shot into the top corner.
Normal service was quickly resumed however, and before the half time whiste had blown we had a fourth and Jota his second, this one all of his own doing as he stepped past a couple of defenders with ease before powering a shot in at the near post.
In the previous two friendlies, half-time was the signal for wholesale changes to be made, but this time, Smith stuck with the starting 11. As such, the second half continued much as the first half had finished, albeit at a slightly slower pace.
Villa still carved out good opportunities and were rewarded with a fifth goal. Once again, good work from Wesley – combining strength and perseverance – as he held off his markers in the corner and cut back a low driven cross for Jack Grealish to sweep home with consummate ease.
Andre Green could have made it six as he darted between two players and crashed a shot against the crossbar before the eventual mass of substitutions arrived in the final 20 minutes. The new outfield 10 pushed for further goals, with Hogan and Hepburn-Murphy causing particular problems with the former even having a further goal ruled out for offside.
In the end, it was a fairly routine pre-season fixture. Admittedly, the opposition didn’t offer much in the way of resistance, but there was plenty to be optimistic about from a Villa perspective. The match fitness is getting closer, the partnerships are beginning to click, the tactics seem to be bedding in nicely and the unit as a whole is growing more cohesive. All in all, pre-season is progressing fairly well.
With a few new faces still yet to arrive, the need for this group to already be clicking into a solid unit is ever more important. Our foundations need to be strong, so when new arrivals come in, they can settle quickly and further stregthen the squad.
Doing all our business quickly, regardless of what outside talking heads think of the recruitment drive, is proving to be the most important thing. Despite the influx of new faces, the squad looks like it is coming together pretty nicely; having the majority of pre-season to work together has been a principle reason for that.
Whilst it’s not wise to get too carried away with some decent pre-season performances, it is nice as Villa fans, to be able to afford ourselves a chance to smile and feel optimistic about the team and our upcoming campaign.