Marvelous Nakamba typifies the mentality and never say die attitude required to convince Aston Villa that they can count on their forgotten men to shine once more.
Villa are two-thirds of the way through their second Premier League campaign after winning promotion back to the top flight in 2019 and Dean Smith’s side is already looking every bit an impressive outfit.
Competitive across the pitch, from Douglas Luiz’s combative streak with a samba touch to the endeavour of frontman Ollie Watkins, a sprinkle of Jack Grealish magic has too proved the key ingredient on many an occasion.
But whilst Dean Smith remains the Premier League gaffer to make the fewest alterations between fixtures, Villa have in fact been the beneficiaries of a packed fixture schedule despite initial worries over a lack of squad depth at the start of the new campaign.
Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traoré were forced to battle their way back into Smith’s starting side as the festive fixtures loomed with Villa searching for form following loses to West Ham and Brighton as December rolled around.
El Ghazi’s penalty at the death to seal a crucial 1-0 win over Wolves at Molineux was one of five goals he managed in as many games over the December month of last year, having replaced the injured Trezeguet who had seemingly made the wide right position his own by offering a balance to oppose Grealish’s guile and elegance from the left side.
“When Trezeguet got injured, people sniffed the opportunity,” Smith said.
“They’ve all been training well as a group. Credit to the players who are not playing as much. Their training has been superb – and they’ve used that to go on and put in superb performances in like they have done.”
“It’s been a good test of the squad depth.”
Smith has praised his squad’s attitude in competing for places, whether that be ahead of a weekend clash against a relegation-threatened side or the reigning champions.
“We have shown progression and we need to keep developing as a team. When we are against a bottom side or competing against Liverpool or Man City, that’s what we need to do. Games in this league are tough. When you’ve got a team that is developing like we are, we look forward to them.”
While El Ghazi, Bertrand Traoré and Trezeguet all compete for a single position in the starting side – as the irreplaceable Grealish continues his fine start to the campaign – last season’s £12 million signing, Marvelous Nakamba faced a similar and indeed a familiar uphill task as the new season began.
The 27-year-old midfielder had started 18 of Villa’s 29 Premier League games before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the league campaign for several months. Though, with the form displayed by Douglas Luiz alongside John McGinn, Nakamba became the forgotten man as Villa went from strength to strength after drawing a line in the sand following a 4-0 loss at the King Power Stadium before football’s suspension back in March.
As 2020 drew to a welcome end, Villa became the first Premier League side since the turn of the millennium to have climbed more Premier League places than any other team in a single calendar year, apart from Leicester who ascended from bottom place to second en route to their title parade in 2015.
Though, Villa did become the first team since Claudio Ranieri’s side to have started the calendar year in the relegation zone and end it in a European spot. Sitting pretty in fifth place as New Year’s came around, Villa have since retained a competitive performance consistency despite a tricky run of fixtures that even without captain Grealish for several games, failed to derail Villa’s pursuit of at least a top-half finish come May.
Nakamba demonstrates the mentality amongst Aston Villa’s ranks
Where European football is a realistic target for a Premier League club, they’ll have to rely on the performances of squad players, who despite being on the fringes of the first eleven, have the determination and resilience to make good of their sporadic chance in the starting side.
Much of the impact that the likes of Nakamba and El Ghazi have made when coming into the fold in recent weeks is down to the positive culture installed by Smith at Bodymoor Heath. It has been drilled into the squad that with hard work and application, the door will open for such opportunities.
Aston Villa’s worldwide reach might expand over five continents, from Great Barr to the great plains of Africa, but while Nakamba’s strong band of Zimbabwean brothers follow every blade of grass he covers in the Premier League, he’s now nailing down a genuine claim to start in a midfield department that boasts a Brazilian international and Champions League player only several months ago, in the form of January signing Morgan Sanson.
Across the board, Villa have strong competition for places, but importantly, each individual within the squad brings a unique set of qualities and indeed attributes that can be utilised to help mitigate an opposition’s threat. For instance, Nakamba and Jacob Ramsey’s inclusion in Smith’s starting side to face Marcelo Bielsa’s all-action Leeds United paid off with great effect.
After Villa’s 1-0 win at Elland Road, Nakamba’s impressive record of not conceding while on the pitch was extended to 370 minutes over eight appearances this Premier League season. He is robust, energetic and effective with the ball. In that same win over Leeds, Nakamba registered a 90% pass completion rate – not bad for a midfielder who was often criticised for being too sloppy in possession during his first Premier League season last year.
In a Premier League campaign blighted by COVID-19 outbreaks, fixture postponements, and even the possibility of a circuit-breaker, it’s been far from business as usual for Villa, especially if previous campaigns are anything to go by.
Even if an FA Cup tie against English champions Liverpool threatened to extend, incredibly, Villa’s longest winless run of the season in all competitions to three games, some Villa youth were thrown together at the last minute to fulfil a ‘once in a lifetime’ fixture. Who’d have thought a 17-year-old with claret and blue coursing through his veins, scoring in a 4-1 defeat would be the release many of us needed, only one week into 2021.
In a bizarre season unlike any other, Villa have found multiple ways to remain competitive and indeed win football matches, sometimes with a heavily rotated team, perhaps through a stroke of luck, often through a solid defensive display and even sometimes without the talismanic Grealish.
With squad rotation not the pressing issue once feared before the Premier League season began, Nakamba and Co will continue to push the standards of performances amongst the Villa dressing room and inspire once discarded players to follow suit.