Analysis: Reality bites yet optimism remains for Aston Villa after Tottenham defeat
Villa’s first match back in the big time delivered an unsurprising result, yet a performance which suggested pre-season optimism might not have been entirely misplaced.
For more than an hour Dean Smith’s team were on course for an improbable victory at Tottenham Hotspur, after John McGinn had fired them into a ninth minute lead.
Eventually – and perhaps inevitably – reality bit hard. Tanguy Ndombele broke Villa’s resistance, before Harry Kane scored twice to leave a final scoreline which was not an unfair reflection of the game.
There will almost certainly be other days like this for Villa, in a division where there is a serious gulf in quality between those at the very top and the rest.
Yet there was also, particularly in the first hour, enough to suggest there can be many good days too.
Much will depend on how quickly they learn the lessons of the final half-hour, when they conceded possession too cheaply and were eventually overpowered.
Jack Grealish, upon whose shoulders so much rests, was among the main culprits. With his team clinging on to parity, Villa’s captain waited far too long on the ball and was robbed by Erik Lamela.
His attempted shot was heading wide until it crashed into Tyrone Mings and then Bjorn Engels before falling perfectly to Harry Kane, who fired the hosts ahead with four minutes remaining.
The bounce was cruel on Villa but by then you could hardly claim Spurs hadn’t earned a bit of fortune.
It would be wrong, however, to be too critical of a visiting team in which six of the starting XI were experiencing the Premier League for the first time, in one of its toughest venues. Villa’s team included four debutants and there was enough in those performances to suggest the club’s summer recruitment, of which so much has been said, unearthed some real gems.
Engels was arguably the standout. Stationed in central defence alongside Tyrone Mings – who also picked up where he left-off last season – the Belgian was strong in the air and displayed an uncanny and encouraging knack for being in the right place at the right time. He certainly did not look out of place at this level.
Neither did Trezeguet. The Egyptian winger was Villa’s brightest attacking outlet in the first half, displaying a quick turn of pace and willingness to take on defenders.
The only thing lacking from his performance was the killer touch, for he should probably have doubled the visitors lead, first seeing an effort blocked by a diving Toby Alderweireld after being picked out by McGinn, then shooting weakly at Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris following a rapid Villa counter attack.
In goal, Tom Heaton demonstrated why he might have been the best of the club’s summer signings with eye-catching saves to deny Davinson Sanchez and then Christian Eriksen.
Most encouraging of all was the understanding the keeper already seems to have developed with his defence.
Record £22million buy Wesley fared less well, though the Brazilian striker’s performance was hardly without positives.
He played a part in McGinn’s goal with a clever run which opened up the space in the home defence for his team-mate to exploit, while his physicality gave Toby Alderweireld trouble on more than one occasion.
If there was a criticism, it was that he did not put himself about nearly enough and tended to go to ground too easily.
All of which can be excused, for now, as part of his Premier League learning curve. When you make as many signings as Villa did during the transfer window, you can't expect all of them hit the ground running. Wesley showed enough on Saturday to suggest he has the potential to be a good player at this level, albeit there are lessons he will need to learn quickly.
McGinn already looks at home and any questions over how the Scot would handle the step up, after a superb campaign in the Championship, were effectively answered the moment he paused and allowed Danny Rose to go sliding past, before firing a finish beyond Lloris. Yet he too tired as the evening wore on.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, from a Villa perspective, was the lack of impact made by their substitutes. Jota, who replaced a tiring Trezeguet on the hour mark, struggled to get into the game, Jonathan Kodjia even more so.
Tottenham, by contrast, were able to call on Eriksen to deliver decisive creativity and energy when they needed it most.
Perspective is important. The home side’s record buy Tanguy Ndombele, who levelled the scores with the help of the meerest nick off Mings’ knee, cost nearly two-and-a-half times what Villa paid for Wesley. Money, in the Premier League, usually talks.
Villa, of course, have just spent a lot of it but the sheer number of players added means their team needs time to evolve.
The good news is they will not have to face the likes of Tottenham on their own turf every week. Smith was right to describe Saturday as a “baptism of fire”.
That does not mean to say things will get a whole lot easier, even though the quality of the opposition might decrease.
Next weekend’s home opener against Bournemouth presents a different kind of challenge and pressure, not least from supporters who will arrive expecting their team to deliver a win.
In some respects, that is when the season will start for real for Villa. Evenings like Saturday are not those on which it will ultimately be judged.
What it did provide was clues as to how the next nine months might pan out. All things told, Villa aren’t looking too bad.