A new look Aston Villa will take on Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday in what could be their trial by fire.
A new look Aston Villa take on Premier League newcomers Watford in their season opener at Vicarage Road on Saturday. Both teams have enjoyed busy summers as they look to take the next step in their development. A new season brings a fresh start, and it is time to gauge where they stand regarding the performances on the field.
Dean Smith’s side ended the 2020/21 campaign with back-to-back wins against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Despite losing Jack Grealish, the Villans should have enough in their tank to see off a spirited Watford side looking to make up for lost time in the top-flight.
The Hornets, meanwhile, have brought in eight players this summer and look ready to concentrate on staying in the Premier League. While it will take some time for the newcomers to gel into Xisco Munoz’s system, Watford’s impressive home form could make life easier for them this weekend.
In the worst of times, Vicarage Road is a difficult place to go to, let alone now that fans are being allowed back in. The Hornets are currently on a nine game-winning run at home and have scored 22 times while conceding twice. The impressive defensive showing will be tested by the new look Danny Ings-Ollie Watkins combo.
In many ways, Watford could look to Aston Villa as an example of gradually incrementing one’s quality after making it to the top-flight. Having narrowly avoided relegation in their first season back, the midland based club has pushed on and finished 11th last season. Had it not been for a poor second half to the season, they may even have qualified for Europe.
With or without Grealish, plans appear to be taking shape at Villa Park. It showed in the swiftness with which they brought in players to offset Grealish’s departure this summer. The likes of Leon Bailey, Emi Buendia, Axel Tuanzebe (On loan) and Danny Ings have all joined Smith’s side this summer, improving them all cross the field.
The match0up is an intriguing opening day tie that pins two interesting projects against each other. Villa are certainly ahead of their opponents at this moment in time. However, how they cope with losing their talismanic star and the influx of players remains to be seen.
Team News & Tactics
Xisco Munoz’s appointment midway through last season saw the Hornets adopt an attacking approach. It worked wonders for them as results picked up, and they eventually finished second.
Joao Pedro misses out thanks to a knee injury he sustained last month, while Nathaniel Chalobah is suffering from an illness. Joshua King is also ruled out of the game with a groin issue and is expected to return to action in the next few days.
English midfielder Will Hughes been relegated to the club’s Under-23 side following a contract stand-off and is unlikely to feature. Meanwhile, Adam Masina and Domingos Quina have returned to full training and could be set to play a role in the game off the bench.
Munoz could go for experience over youth in the middle of the park giving the Hornets a better chance of winning the midfield battle. The Spaniard has shown excellent tactical acumen to deploy several different setups last season. There is a big chance he will deploy a 4-3-3 that can double up as a 4-2-3-1 while defending to stifle supply to the Villa frontline.
While Ben Foster remains a capable goalkeeper with vast Premier League experience, Daniel Bachmann was Munoz’s preferred choice last season. It is difficult to imagine the Spaniard drop the shot-stopper now and he looks set to continue in goal.
It could prove to be a busy night for Tom Cleverley, Peter Etebo and Imran Louzain midfield. While Jan Kucka is another option, his lack of pace could see Emi Buendia wreak havoc alongside John McGinn. The Watford defenders will have to close ranks quickly and show off their athleticism against a hard-working Villa midfield.
Pace could be effective against the Villa backline, giving Cucho Hernandez the edge over the more industrious Troy Deeney in the attack. Alongside Ismaila Sarr and new boy Emmanuel Dennis, the trio could surprise Villa on the break with their pace and interchangeability. Munoz recently accepted that he is still unsure of what his best team is. It would be a safe bet to assume he will stick to the tried and tested formula until then.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Bachmann; Femenia, Troost-Ekong, Cathcart, Rose; Peter, Cleverley, Louza; Sarr, Cucho Hernandez, Dennis
Dean Smith will have a number of decisions to make depending on what will happen in the coming few hours leading up to the game. Thankfully for him, his defence is set.
Copa America hero, Emiliano Martinez is a shoo-in as the goalkeeper while the back four picks themselves. Axel Tuanzebe could make a pitch to be included in the coming weeks. But for now, the game against Watford has come too soon.
Morgan Sanson, Trezeguet and Keinan Davis are all unavailable, while Douglas Luiz is set to be given extra time off thanks to his exertions at the Olympics. Bertrand Traore only recently returned from a groin operation while Wesley too was missing due to other circumstances. Douglas Luiz has also been given a three-week break thanks to his exertions at the Tokyo Olympics.
Leon Bailey is still in isolation and will have to wait to make his first-team debut. Both Ollie Watkins and Emi Buendia could start, provided they prove their fitness. Their presence will give Watford much to worry about.
With several players out, Smith will have to get the best out of his side by employing a 4-4-2 system that utilizes his front two to the maximum. Therein lies Villa’s major strength and it is imperative that the midfield mustn’t get over-run by Watford. The onus will be on McGinn and Marvelous Nakamba to gain the foothold in midfield. This could help the likes of Buendia and veteran Englishman Ashley Young express themselves on the wings.
Who Dean Smith chooses to hand the armband to remains to be seen.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Martinez; Cash, Mings, Targett, Konsa; McGinn, Nakamba; Buendia, Young; Ings, Watkins
- Watford have won their opening match in just one of their previous seven Premier League seasons: 2-0 at home to Brighton in 2018/19.
- Aston Villa have won only eight of their 24 Premier League matches in 2021.
- Troy Deeney has scored in all four of his Premier League appearances against Aston Villa, totalling six goals
- Danny Ings has scored 34 Premier League goals in the past two seasons combined, a tally that only puts him behind Mohamed Salah (41), Harry Kane (41) and Jamie Vardy (38)
- Ashley Young will be facing his former side should he line up for Villa on the night. He has so far faced them six times wining five games and losing one.
Player to Watch
Senegalese winger Ismaila Sarr is the critical piece in Xisco Munoz’s attacking jigsaw, and a lot of Watford’s best plays flow through him. One of the best attackers in the Championship, he will be expected to step up to the Premier League with minimal fuss. He has prior experience of playing in the top flight and played a key role in ending Liverpool’s 44 games unbeaten run in 2019/20.
With another year’s worth of experience in English football under his belt, Sarr will have improved and could be set for his breakout season in the top flight. Long compared to Sadio Mane, he could very well follow in the Liverpool star’s footsteps.
Possessing pace, trickery and a fine shot, Sarr is able to play anywhere along the frontline. He can certainly dovetail with Dennis and Hernandez and create multiple avenues of attack that could catch Villa on the break. Dean Smith’s side could silence Watford to a large extent if they keep Sarr quiet for the night.
Whether the Villa backline are capable of doing so remains to be seen.
Watford 1-2 Aston Villa
While Aston Villa has more quality, they are unable to put out their best XI onto the field. Vicarage Road is a notoriously difficult stadium to visit and will be even more intimidating now that the fans are back in attendance.
Neither side will be keen to start with a loss, and the game could end up being a guarded affair. Man to man, Villa certainly have the quality, and their vaunted strike force could make the difference on the night.