Well, how nice was it to win again last time out?
Beating Norwich 5-1, away at Carrow Road, was hopefully a sign of things to come. We looked good, passing the ball around well, causing the opposition to make mistakes and being ruthless in front of goal. It also sent a message to other teams around us in the bottom half of the league table – we are coming for you!
And Brighton are one of those teams. However, they are coming to Villa Park off the back of a brilliant 3-0 victory against an under-fire Spurs side. So this one promises to be a serious battle!
Our last meeting came back in late September, in the 3rd round of the League Cup. We came out on top, beating Brighton 3-1 away. However, that isn’t necessarily a good measure of things to come, with both sides naming largely differing, second-string sides.
This fixture doesn’t tend to go very well for Brighton, as they have never beaten us at Villa Park and have only won 3 times in the history of this game, the last time coming in December 1980.
When looking at our recent history, both games in the Championship, two seasons ago, ended in a 1-1 draw, with the last league fixture coming on the last day of the season. In that game, Jack Grealish scored a late, deflected equaliser, which went right through Stockdale in the Brighton goal and gifted Newcastle the Championship title, with Brighton having to settle for second place.
To get an expert opinion on our opponents for this weekend’s game, we spoke to Scott from popular fan site We Are Brighton (@WeAreBrighton) – read their own match preview here: http://www.wearebrighton.com/matchday/opposition-view-aston-villa/
Q. How do you feel about your start to the season and where do you anticipate that you will finish?
Our points tally doesn’t really reflect our performances so far, particularly when it comes to what’s happened at the Amex. We drew 1-1 with West Ham but would have won if it wasn’t for some funny VAR decisions and Lukasz Fabianski having an unreal afternoon. We lost 2-0 to Southampton when Florin Andone committed GBH inside the opening 30 minutes to get sent off which absolutely killed us. Burnley then scored with their only shot on target in the 90th minute to escape with a 1-1 draw.
We could realistically have seven more points, especially when you throw in the Newcastle away game when we were completely dominant but couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. That would put us as a high as third in the table. Now there’s no way we’re going to be finishing in the top six, but if Graham Potter can find a way to turn these performances into points – essentially, making us as a clinical as we were when beating Spurs 3-0 in every game going forward – I don’t think we will be too worried by relegation going forward. That is a pretty big if though.
Q. To fans of other clubs’ surprise, Brighton sacked Chris Hughton after a 17th-placed finish last season. Do you still feel that it was the correct decision, given the poor run of form he had at the end of his tenure? What do you make of Graham Potter and do you think he will be successful as manager?
From the outside looking in, Hughton’s sacking must have looked harsh. He took us to the Premier League, kept us up twice and reached an FA Cup Semi Final. But if you watched Brighton week in, week out in the second half of last season then you’d see that, sadly, it was a decision that had to be made. At Christmas, we were 12 points clear of the relegation zone and could feasibly have finished in the top 10. Hughton then switched from our 4-4-1-1 formation to 4-3-3 and we won only twice from Christmas onwards, ending up relying on Crystal Palace of all teams to beat Cardiff and keep us up.
The change in formation was an absolute disaster. Everyone could see it wasn’t working from the end of January when we blew a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 at Fulham, and yet Hughton doggedly stuck with it until the end of April. In that time, we lost at the Amex to Burnley, Southampton, Cardiff and suffered our heaviest home defeat since 1973 when Bournemouth won 5-0 in Sussex.
As results deteriorated, we become more and more defensive and by the end of the season, there was no joy in watching Brighton anymore. If he’d stayed in charge, I’m convinced we’d have gone down this year. That’s why Tony Bloom took the gamble of sacking him and getting in Graham Potter. We won’t know whether it’s worked until the end of the season to see if we’re still a Premier League club, but the football has been better so far and there does seem to be a real buzz around the Albion again even if we’ve only won twice so far.
Hughton will go down as an Albion legend and it was a sad way for the best manager we’ve had in my lifetime to leave the club, but sometimes you have to make these difficult decisions. Fingers crossed it proves to be the right one.
Q. Villa were reportedly very interested in signing Neal Maupay in the summer transfer window. How important is he to Brighton’s ambitions this season and what have we, as a club, missed out on?
He’s taken a bit of time to find his feet which is hardly surprising given he arrived from Brentford having not played a match since the Bees’ opening pre-season fixture. He looks to be a good finish, a fox-in-the-box type and his work rate is also impressive. It’s early days yet and given that he’s effectively replaced Glenn Murray who had scored over a third of our Premier League goals in the past two seasons, he’ll need to chip in with a decent amount this season if we’re to survive.
Q. Are there any areas of Villa’s team that you would consider to be particularly weak and that you would like Brighton to target?
I’d just like us to beat a team which has Tom Heaton in goal! When Burnley came to the Amex last season, he gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from an opposition goalkeeper as they won 3-1. The money you paid for him in the summer was for me the best bit of business any Premier League club and given how wasteful we’ve been in front of goal so far this season, I’d say a good game from Heaton will be important to Villa’s chances.
I’d expect our back line to be able to deal with your strikers reasonably well too. Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have been one of the best partnerships outside of the top six over the past two years and yet Potter has somehow managed to make our defence even better by dropping Duffy and switching to a back three with Dunk, Dan Burn and new signing Adam Webster.
Q. What would you consider to be the biggest strengths and weaknesses in your squad and how are you likely to set up against us?
For all the praise that Potter’s positive new approach has garnered, our defence remains our strongest area. We’ve played 3-4-3 all season bar the win against Spurs when Potter switched to a 4-2-2-2 formation which completely baffled Mauricio Pochettino and his team. Whether that was a one-off because we were playing one of the big six at home I don’t know and as we’ve already learnt this early into the Potter era, trying to predict what he’ll do and who will play as something of a pointless exercise.
We’ve seen three wingers start a game in a formation which used no width. We’ve lined up with four centre backs, one of whom started on the right wing. Against Spurs, it was four central midfielders and a 19 year old who’d never started a Premier League game before leading the line. Speaking of which, it will be interesting to see how Aaron Connolly gets on. Every Brighton fan has known for some time what a special talent he can be, but those two goals against Spurs seem to have sparked what we’re calling Connollymania. That’s raised expectations a little too high for me, but hopefully he can show at Villa Park that two weeks ago wasn’t just a flash in the plan.
Q. What is your opinion on Villa and how do you expect the match to go, including a score prediction?
I think Villa will struggle this season, but unless you’re a Wolves with an outstanding squad coming up then every team who wins promotion is in that boat. The good thing about the bottom half of the Premier League is that every team is of a similar quality and that means it could be any three from about 10 who end up relegated, even more so this year with Everton floundering and, dare I say it, Manchester United.
We’ve been good on the road under Potter but have still managed only one win. I don’t see that changing at Villa Park, so I’ll go for a 1-1 draw. Hopefully, your goal wont be a 25 yarder which goes through our goalkeepers legs in the 88th minute this time!
Whilst I think this game will be really tough, with both sides fighting hard, feeling that they can both win the game, I think the home advantage will just give us the edge.
I’m predicting that it will be close but that Villa will just run out as 2-1 winners.
By Danny James
Do you agree? Let us know by replying to this post on Twitter or tweeting us on @HeartOfTheHolte or Dan himself on @danno1407