Aston Villa and the definite signs of improvement

Dave Woodhall watches as Villa beat Fulham three-nil.

Last season saw Villa winning league games on every day of the week, which was apparently a record. This season we could go for another record based on kick-off times, as we added 5.45 to our collection. It is, of course, perfectly natural that kick-offs could never be altered to help supporters actually get to the match, but they can be moved at short notice to help pub owners clear out their customers hours later. Ain’t modern football great?

In normal circumstances it wouldn’t matter what time the game at Craven Cottage was played – Villa would still sell out with plenty more on top, despite a record at the ground that it would be kind to call abysmal. It’s been reckoned that the last time we won there Fulham’s celebrity supporter of the time, Henry VIII, sailed back to Hampton Court in a right temper, but that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration.

Whenever it was, Villa started this one with a team that was unchanged from the win over Sheffield United, Bertrand Traore on the bench alongside star in the making Jacob Ramsey. Then, within five minutes a glorious first-time ball from John McGinn was met by Jack Grealish to give Villa the perfect start. Ten minutes later Grealish did what he does even better, bursting into the Fulham box before laying the ball back for Conor Hourihane to make it two-nil.

Villa were totally dominant and Ollie Watkins had a couple of good chances, particuarly one header just before half-time, but it wasn’t long after the break that a Hourihane free-kick combined with the calamitous defending that used to be a Villa speciality to give Tyrone Mings the easiest of tap-ins.

Three-nil and the sort of scoreline to make the rest of the league take note was on the cards, but Villa decided to sit back from this point on. A mistake by Emiliano Martinez led to Fulham putting the ball in the net, only for the goal to be ruled out by VAR, and this warning sign was still ignored by a Villa side who failed to hold on to the ball for long enough to feel totally comfortable.

Lockdown has been good for some businesses – Amazon and online grocery shopping come to mind – and another company who could do well now the football season’s started is whoever makes that stuff your mom used to put on your nails to stop you biting them, because even at three up with twenty minutes to go against a team already doomed to relegation, there was still plenty of that going on. It’s the Villa way.

Still, Fulham ran out of ideas long before the final whistle and in the end Villa coasted to victory. Jacob Ramsey replaced Hourihane for the last fifteen, and although I’ve a lot of time for our dead-ball specialist I can see that susbtitution happening on a permanent basis before the season’s over. Traore came on in the closing stages; he didn’t have much chance to shine but still managed a few neat touches.

There were a couple of minus points – Douglas Luiz had an uncharacteristically quiet game and his late lunge might yet have repercussions while Matt Targett can veer from hazardous to perfectly acceptable over the course of the same game. But that wasn’t really much to worry about compared to the positives – McGinn back on form, Grealish looking world-class, Matty Cash answering the question of why he was signed, the continued emergence of Mings & Konsa as a quality defensive partnership. Once the forward line clicks, that sit-up-and-take-notice result can’t be far away.

Our first clean sheet in a Premier League match in over four years, the first time we’ve started with two wins in the competition for almost two decades. Things are looking up, and while at the moment the six points already obtained are still primarily insurance against relegation, just one more in the next couple of fixtures will show how big the close-season improvement has been.