The opening day of any season is perennially littered with wild overreactions and sweeping, often scathing statements.
Aston Villa’s defeat away to Watford last weekend was no different, although it was their manager who echoed the same disgust, with only a hint more restraint, as the raging radio-phone-ins.
With steam practically pouring from his ears, Smith declared his side were ‘miles off where we should be as a team’ after losing 3-2 away to Watford last weekend.
Yet, unlike those innumerable breathless callers, Smith’s words were delivered straight to a squad which put many of their manager’s warnings into immediate practice, as they bounced back with an improved, if imperfect, 2-0 victory over Newcastle on Saturday.
“I just felt we lacked intensity; on the ball, off the ball,” Smith explained following the Watford loss. “We didn’t look to hurt them. It was almost like we were playing a friendly game again and we all know that Premier League games aren’t friendlies.”
The contrast between the work rate of Villa’s front line in the first two games of the campaign was stark. The allure of £30m summer signing Emi Buendia did not solely stem from his creativity on the ball, but his work rate off it. No player in the Championship recorded more possession-adjusted pressures than the nippy Argentine (via StatsBomb).
This industry was painfully lacking against Watford but, alongside the contributions of fellow forwards Anwar El Ghazi and Danny Ings, Buendia’s improvements were noted by his manager. “It was much better to last week where we lacked intensity,” Smith cautiously told the Birmingham Mail.
“Fans were never going to allow us to lack intensity today and it’s nice to get a win in front of our fans.”
Ings’ stunning scissor kick to open the scoring naturally defined his home debut display, but the newly-acquired 29-year-old hared around the top of the pitch as much as his teammates in a ‘scrappy’ performance.
After three years under the stewardship of Ralph Hasenhuttl at a hard-pressing Southampton, Ings is no stranger to closing down his centre-back. Even though Ollie Watkins – the Premier League‘s most prolific presser in the attacking third last season (per StatsBomb) – was still missed, Ings has enjoyed an impressive individual start to life in the east Midlands.
While the finish was as pure as any there will be this season, Ings’ opener emerged from a play many purists would sniff at. Just like the first ever Premier League goal, Villa broke the deadlock from a long-throw.
When coupled with El Ghazi’s converted penalty for their second – which was won following a dead ball situation – the influence of Villa’s new set-piece specialist, Austin MacPhee, is doubly emphasised.
In a campaign where goals may be more scarce following the departure of a notable forward, and as his replacements gel, free goals from set pieces will surely prove to be hugely important.
However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses at a sodden Villa Park. When asked what disappointed him most following the conclusion of the Watford defeat, Smith simply snapped: “First half.” Until Ings’ moment of magic, Villa’s Birmingham-born coach could very much have called upon the same concise response.
Before the early contender for goal of the season, a full-blooded first half had been drowning in errors from both sides. Within the opening five minutes, Tyrone Mings misjudged a duel up against Callum Wilson – just as goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez would later do – which set the Newcastle number nine through on goal. However, while VAR spared Martinez’s blushes in the second half, it was Wilson’s wayward effort which preserved Villa’s clean sheet early on.
As Smith rightly summarised, it was strictly an ‘OK’ performance from Villa against Newcastle. With a cluster of new arrivals needing time to mesh while others return in dribs and drabs, the opening weeks of the campaign should be approached with healthy caution.
Although, if the squad can continue to heed their manager’s warnings as rapidly throughout the season, Smith may not return to the same dark mood that hung over him early on.