Substance over style at Villa Park

Dave Woodhall on a packed Villa Park, a last-minute winner and heroes old and new.

There’s an old saying that you should never change a winning side. Steve Bruce might come from the more traditional end of the managerial spectrum, but this was one idea he clearly had no intention of following in the wake of Villa’s Monday night win at Hull.

The manager made half a dozen changes for the game against Wigan, giving a couple of new signings their debuts and Andre Green a long-overdue start. With the ground virtually sold out (or the bits that were on sale, anyway) and the rain keeping off, all was set fair for a swashbuckingly fluent start to the Villa Park season.

And the early signs were good, as new arrival John McGinn making an immediate impression with a set-piece ball that had James Chester timing his run perfectly.

Unfortunately, the subsequent signs weren’t so good. it was obvious that while some of the intentions in Bruce’s selection were fine, the positions they were playing in were anything but. Axel Tuanzebe should be in the centre of defence rather than at right back. Ahmed Elmohanady is best suited as a right-back not a wide midfielder.

And Mile Jedinak, much as his effort can’t be faulted and his aerial ability can be a useful asset, is a calamity as a central defender. Goalkeepers invariably get the blame for soft goals conceded, but Jedinak’s back pass to the other debutant, Orjan Nyland, was the catalyst for a ropey period that left Villa 2-1 down with 35 minutes to go.

Eight minutes later another McGinn delivery, this time from a corner, saw a couple of Wigan defenders provide Villa with the sort of equaliser we tend to give away more often than we score and there was plenty of time for a winner, although it could have come at either end.

Them two minutes into stoppage time Wigan get a corner. I doubt there was a single Villa supporter, player or manager in the ground who wouldn’t have wished for the final whistle to blow before the kick was taken but it was cleared, Villa went forward for one final attack and this time it was Conor Hourihane, on for barely five minutes, laying on the inch-perfect ball for Birkir Bjarnason’s far-post, dying seconds tap-in.

Villa just about deserved the win, although I’ve never seen us get one that we didn’t deserve. McGinn’s displays captured the headlines and deservedly so. He ran, passed, tackled and was always looking for space on and off the ball. It won’t be long before Premier League clubs begin to wondering how they missed him. And as any student of history knows, Villa Park is never the same without a few Scottish accents around the place.

Then there were the best words of the afternoon: “Number ten…JACK…GREALISH!!!”

Down the years there’s been a few moments when you know the corner’s finally been turned and it won’t be long before Villa Are Back. Older heads than mine will recall the League Cup semi-final win over Manchester United in 1970, while for my generation it was the appointment of Sir Graham. Jack staying at Villa this season could prove to be equally important. Our owners have said we aren’t selling our prime asset, the player himself is happy to stay. It speaks volumes about the mew-found optimism surging through Villa Park, about the unity at the club and it probably sold a few tickets after Thursday as well.

A two-match winning start for the first time this century says more about Villa’s long-term inconsistencies than it does about the quality of this side. There are still some shortcomings that need to be addressed while the transfer window is still half-open. Alan Hutton can’t be expected to play a full season at left-back and a central defender is a matter of priority. Just as important is a goalscorer; Jonathan Kodjia missed at least one gilt-edged chance yesterday and it’s looking ever-more doubtful that he’ll ever recover the form of two years ago.

But those worries can wait for another day. For the moment the league table looks good and there’s a new ground to visit on Tuesday when we travel to Yeovil in the League Cup. A straightforward win there, a routine home win after that and then there’ll be the chance when round three comes along to be pitched against one of those Champions League giants. Spurs, anyone?