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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Aston Villa

The Athletic's Gregg Evans previews The Villains

1 January 2022

Aside from that five-match losing spell throughout October and November that, ultimately, cost Dean Smith his job, it seems to have been a reasonably decent season for Aston Villa so far. What have you made of the past few months?

Yes, I think it has been quite a decent season overall. If you look at the league position, they are pushing for a top half finish now, which is what the expectation and the brief was at the start of the season. It didn’t quite go to plan at the start, even though they did have a couple of decent victories, as they had a really disappointing October. The international fixtures caught up with them; they had a few South American players who didn’t come back fit and weren’t available for the following games because they had been exhausted at international level and picked up injuries. I always said that, as soon as the squad was fully fit, the manager – whoever that would be – would have a very good group of players at his disposal. That has helped Steve Gerrard since he has come in because most of the players that he needs have come back and they have started winning games from there.

Steven Gerrard came in to replace Smith four days after his departure and, at the time of speaking, has won four of his six Premier League games in charge. How has he been received by the both the Villa players and fans?

Really well. The supporters weren’t massively excited about him when he came in as I think a lot of them wanted somebody who had more experience in the Premier League. But the impact he has had has been immense and they have instantly taken to him. He says all the right things in press conferences, clearly wants to take the club forward and will not settle for just being average. The victories, obviously, help but the players really like him, too. It has been a lot more intense under him – again, there are the same sort of feelings that they won’t settle for second best or mediocrity – and that is pushing the players. It has given them that extra drive to go and win for him.

As we know, the spread of the Omicron variant is causing havoc in football at the moment, with Villa’s game against Burnley on 18 December called off late on. How much of an effect has Covid had on the squad?

Covid is causing a lot of problems. If you look back to this time last year, Villa were flying at this point in the season and a couple of Covid cases ruined all that, really. This season it is the same; they had four or five players missing for the game that was called off and they are not able to train as often as they would with a normal schedule. It is proving problematic at the moment.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Sunday afternoon?

Jacob Ramsey is doing really well. He is a bright spark coming through the midfield and has scored a few goals under Gerrard, while Ollie Watkins is doing very well and proving to be a handful for teams, as Brentford fans will know. John McGinn is in good form as well, but I don’t think there is necessarily an individual that stands out because it is just a very good, solid team at the moment, with all of the players pulling their weight.

How is Gerrard likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?

It is 4-3-3 almost, but if you go into the finer detail, it is 4-2-3-1. The full-backs push on quite high, the midfield will sit very compact and then the two behind Watkins will play quite compact as well, almost like inverted wingers. They just try to block off the middle of the park and go from there.

The two sides played out a 1-1 draw back in August, but what’s your score prediction for this one?

I’m going to go for another 1-1 draw.


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