Saturday night’s 2-1 win at Everton was more than just their best performance and result since losing talisman Jack Grealish to injury.
It was also their most complete display since the Covid-19 outbreak at Bodymoor Heath in January, which sucked momentum from a campaign at one stage shaping up to be very special.
Certainly, not since the first half at Burnley had Villa appeared so fluent in attack than at Goodison Park. But while at Turf Moor they were stung by a second-half comeback from the hosts, on Saturday they stayed patient in the face of an excellent performance from Toffees goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and claimed victory when Anwar El Ghazi cut in from the left wing and arched a shot into the top corner with 10 minutes remaining.
Barring a minor miracle the win probably came too late to salvage any slender hopes of Europe, though if there is one team who have proven themselves adept at timing a late season charge in recent years it is Villa.
Either way, it was a hugely satisfying night for boss Dean Smith, whose post-match comments indicated the extent to which he had been needled by suggestions his players might recently have found the comfort of mid-table a little too much to their liking. This performance, against an Everton team still very much in the running for a top-six finish, made a mockery of those rather unfair claims.
Most importantly, Villa finally seem to have hit on a way of playing without Grealish. Ironically, it has come from using the same personnel and system seen in the first of the 11 matches missed by their skipper – February’s 2-1 home defeat to Leicester – suggesting the biggest issue in his absence may have been less tactical and more mental.
While the previous weekend’s draw with Albion had seen glimmers of improvement, on Saturday there was no mistaking the increased intent from the likes of Ross Barkley, Bertrand Traore and El Ghazi, which ensured another excellent all-round display from Ollie Watkins got the support it deserved.
Barkley’s performance, comfortably his best since November’s 3-0 win at Arsenal, was particularly pleasing. So underwhelming had been his form, the on-loan Chelsea star could have no complaints about being dropped from Villa’s line-up in late February and showed little in six subsequent substitute appearances to suggest he was ready for a recall.
Yet having finally restored the 27-year-old to the starting XI against the Baggies, Smith might now be wondering whether he should have done it sooner. Operating in the space behind Watkins, Barkley’s decision-making and touch provided the glue which held Villa’s attack together, his rising confidence displayed during one first-half move when he sent a rasping low drive off the base of the post.
Even if he is able to finish the season with a flourish, the chances of Barkley returning to Villa next season remain slim and other managers, faced with the same scenario, might have been minded to sideline a man whose future almost certainly lies elsewhere.
Yet Smith has never been one to give up on a player and his perseverance often pays off. There is perhaps no better example than El Ghazi. It is only 10 months ago the Dutch winger’s miss from two yards out at the same end of Goodison Park at which he scored on Saturday threatened to cost Villa their Premier League existence. Had the club received an acceptable offer during last summer’s transfer window, he would have been allowed to move on.
But having struggled to make Villa’s squad during the early weeks of the season, El Ghazi’s latest match-winning strike means he now has eight Premier League goals to his name this term, the same number as Leicester’s James Maddison but in four fewer appearances. If the fact nearly half of his 23 outings have been as a substitute speaks to the inconsistencies which continue to cast doubt over his long-term prospects, the quality of his finish explains why Smith has continued to give him chances.
With Villa’s other wing enigma, Bertrand Traore, also on song it meant they were able to capitalise on the excellent work carried out by Watkins up front.
If there is a sense the striker may ultimately come to be on the outside looking in when Gareth Southgate comes to select his squad for Euro 2020, it is doubtful he could have done much more to make the watching England boss sit up and take note, scoring his 13th Premier League goal of the season and generally making the Everton centre-back pairing of Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate look like schoolboys.
The only complaint was his finishing. Pickford was quickly off his line to smother two one-on-one attempts but while the keeper showed excellent reflexes to deny Watkins, after the latter had met a wicked Matty Cash cross at the far post, replays confirmed he really shouldn’t have been given the chance.
Pickford also denied Traore in a first-half where Villa could have scored four or five. Instead they went in at the break level having failed to hold a lead for the fourth match running, Dominic Calvert-Lewin taking advantage of confusion in the backline to head home a corner. To put it in perspective, Villa only surrendered an advantage three times in the first 29 games of the season.
But while Calvert-Lewin’s goal means they have also now failed to keep a clean sheet in seven, overall they look a more balanced unit and it may be some of their defensive rigidity needed to be sacrificed in order to loosen the attack.
Victory saw Villa climb back into the top half of the table and should they remain there Smith can rightly look back on the season with pride. There may be regret too, should the gap to the top six remain similar to now, at the points squandered in matches both with and without Grealish over the course of the campaign.
Yet therein lies the beauty of the league system where only after 38 matches, when the whole piece can be considered, can you get a fair reflection of where a team stands.
Villa, though far from faultless, have long appeared a team on the rise. Saturday felt like the latest confident step forward.