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As Bournemouth took to the field for their first ever match in the English Premier League…

There was a strange sense of familiarity even in the midst of a foreign environment.

Aston Villa - Tim Sherwood era promises excitement at the very leastTheir manager, Eddie Howe, was the underlying reason for this feeling, as he opted to leave out many of his high-price signings in order to stick with those who delivered last season’s Championship title. In fact, only one of the side’s summer signings, Joshua King, found his way into the opening day line-up.

In stark contrast, their opponents, Aston Villa, entered the game with a huge amount of top-level experience but little to no team harmony. Tim Sherwood selected six of his new acquisitions in the starting XI, and after a significant period of upheaval at Villa Park, one of those players, in Micah Richards, was even handed the captain’s armband. To make matters worse, Sherwood himself had never started a season in charge of a club side, meaning that the tasks of overseeing a pre-season and recruiting new players were as foreign to him as the cash-flushed surrounds of top-flight football were to their opposition.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, Sherwood’s early strategy was highly defensive. He asked his players to sit back and soak up the pressure attached to Bournemouth’s possession game, hoping that his pacey front three of Gabby Agbonlahor, Scott Sinclair and Jordan Ayew could then provide some spark in transition. And though Sinclair produced a couple of decent moments going forward, there wasn’t much else for the Villans in attack, with the emphasis very clearly elsewhere.

In some ways, this attitude was understandable. After all, this was Bournemouth’s first home match as a Premier League team, something which was sure to excite the crowd. “We were quite happy nullifying and dampening down the atmosphere in the first period,” Sherwood would say in the post-match. “But I think we got away with it because the last 10 minutes of the first half they didn’t stick to the plan.”

Sherwood’s assessment is difficult to challenge, as going into half-time his players survived a succession of opposition chances, largely due to the heroics of goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Something needed to change, and for a manager like Sherwood, who typically favours an offensive approach, the solution was to attack.

“We tweaked it a little bit and we said we were going to be more adventurous”, Sherwood said of the half-time discussion. “Braver on the ball, receiving it in dangerous areas, open up the pitch, change it from side-to-side, make Bournemouth work, make more forward runs, occupy defenders and free some people up, and that is exactly what we did.”

Again, Sherwood was spot on in his comments. Whereas Gana’s first-half failed to demonstrate that he was “as good as Jean Tigana”, as former coach Alain Giresse once said of the player, his all-action showing in the second period was a vast improvement. Gana started to play the dynamic box-to-box role with which many have become familiar, as he made four tackles and two interceptions, completed two take-ons and, in addition, very nearly opened the scoring as well.

He seemed to revel in Sherwood’s more attacking outlook, as too did fellow Ligue 1 recruit Jordan Amavi. Arguably the most exciting of Villa’s summer signings, the £10 million acquisition was forced to defend for much of the first half, with all five of his interceptions completed in the opening 45 minutes of the contest. In contrast, his performance after the interval was far more inspiring, as he started to surge forward, successfully completing three take-ons and whipping in a couple of crosses in the process.

The attacking fullback, who isn’t all that solid defensively, was now free to play in a way more suited to his skill set, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was only then that he looked most comfortable. Jordan Veretout also produced a decent shift on debut, and although the other Jordan in the side, Ayew, failed to do the same, his replacement almost immediately changed the course of the game.

Rudy Gestede, seemingly already a cult hero at Villa Park, moved to centre-forward and changed the complexion of the previously pace-centric frontline. He provided the physical presence that had been lacking up until his arrival, a genuine No. 9 who not only held up the play but also competed in an aerial sense as well. His first contribution was a purposeful through ball down the right-hand side, and from that alone, he clearly set the tone for the rest of his time at Vitality Stadium.

He soon won 6 out of 7 aerial duels and, importantly, scored the game’s only goal. It came on the back of an Ashley Westwood corner, played in the 72nd minute, from which Gestede powered his header home to secure the three points for Villa.

It was one of the more imposing actions you’re likely to see on a football pitch, and Sherwood spoke about it in such terms after the match. “He throws his whole body at it and defenders invariably want to get out of the way. He is like a moving car. You don’t mind standing in front of a parked one but you want to move out the way when it’s coming at 30mph,” he said. “He’s brave as a lion but is more than a battering ram. If they deliver crosses, like with Westwood, he will eat it up.”

It’s for these reasons that Sherwood parted with £6 million in order to secure his services from Blackburn Rovers, and it’s fair to suggest that he could go on to play a pivotal role this season. But like the rest of Villa’s summer acquisitions, he will have to undergo a significant process of bedding in if he hopes to achieve that. Indeed, with no less than nine new players in the squad, this is something Sherwood has made a top priority.

“It is going to take a lot of gelling for those players,” he said. “We are at the training ground at nine and we leave at three, but I am going to make no apologies for getting the boys in at that time because they need to be able to gel as quickly as possible.”

In that sense, there will clearly be some hard weeks ahead of them on the training track, but as far as potential goes, it seems that Villa have put a squad together that might just enable them to improve. The last few seasons have seen them fighting at the foot of the table and narrowly avoiding relegation, but with the likes of Amavi and Ayew and Gestede now in the squad, there’s plenty of talent on display.

Sherwood will have to develop that talent and harness it into a functional whole, and while there remain as many questions about his ability as there are surrounding the squad itself, Villa, at the very least, promise to be one of the more intriguing projects at Premier League level this season.

Originally published at licencetoroam.net

Post written by Will Stratmann, Twitter: @willstratmann
for Licence to Roam, Blog: licencetoroam.net, Twitter: @licencetoroam

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