“I’m looking for the players to stand up and be counted.”
Aston Villa’s players showed Dean Smith some new year resolution at Burnley, perhaps with the rollocking they received at Watford on Saturday still ringing in their ears. The Villa boss admitted that for the first time in his Villa reign he felt the need to tear into his troops at Vicarage Road but their performance at Turf Moor will offer Smith, the Villa hierarchy and the supporters some much-needed reassurance following a wretched end to 2019.
The performance in the defeat to their 10-man relegation rivals on Saturday was the type that sees managers sacked and Smith was under enough pressure following a run which reached five defeats in six games before the visit to Lancashire. But the noises from Villa Park suggested the club retained faith in the manager, which he and his players justified with a huge win over a flailing Burnley.
Smith certainly played his part. The manager changed half of his side with Tyrone Mings the headline inclusion alongside Neil Taylor, Frederic Guilbert, Marvelois Nakamba and Trezeguet. The selection indicated a change of formation and indeed Villa’s defence took on a three-man shape while Jack Grealish was freed up to get closer to Wesley.
Lord knows the Villa striker needed the support. After a promising start to his Premier League career, Wesley has gone more than two months without a goal, a run of 12 barren matches which suggested to Smith that another attacking recruit may be required this month.
A dominant first-half performance will have done more for his confidence than any other player. Wesley strayed a millimetre offside which led to the chalking off of one Villa opener in the 12th minute but the £22million forward atoned wonderfully a quarter of an hour later by linking up with Grealish around the box before lashing in a volley which caught Nick Pope flatfooted in the home goal.
Villa’s second goal too belied a lack of confidence in the way it was created. The recalled Trezeguet started a move which included Wesley, Douglas Luiz and Nakamba before the ball was shifted to Grealish on the left of the box. For once, Burnley’s defence got their blocking angles all wrong, this time presenting Grealish with a shooting lane direct to the top corner, which was ruthlessly exploited by the man of the match.
Jack Grealish that is brilliant! 🚀
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 1, 2020
Grealish schemed in the first half and drove Villa forward in the second, when Burnley, prompted by a double half-time change from Sean Dyche, offered the hint of a fight. This was a win in two parts: the first full of drive and creativity; the second required the Villans to show their mettle.
Despite plenty more Burnley huff and puff, Mings, Ezri Konsa and Kortney Hause kept the hosts at arm’s length. Mings was at his eye-catching best while Villa also rode their luck when Jay Rodriguez and Chris Wood woefully wasted clear opportunities. But these were breaks the visitors earned and grafted so hard not to waste.
Despite moving out of the relegation zone with a second away win of the season and Villa’s first league triumph at Turf Moor for the first time since 1936, it was not all good news for Smith. Knee injuries for both Wesley and Tom Heaton looked serious enough to perhaps force Villa to rethink their January shopping list. Smith, also missing John McGinn, was already short of depth at each end of the pitch and with 11 days until their next Premier League assignment – a trip to the champions – the Villa boss may have to act with rather more haste than he perhaps anticipated.
That responsibility falls too on Suso, but the Villa sporting director did not appear overly concerned about the work ahead when he came down to the touchline at full-time to congratulate Smith on a job very well done. Another defeat would have made it seven in eight but instead Smith can reflect on two wins in three and the kind of improvement some of their relegation rivals have sought by changing their manager. There appears little danger of that at Villa Park all the while Smith’s influence is so clearly evident.