It seems Dean Smith was right to call for calm and a sense of perspective. “What are we coming to if we’re judging players after two games?” asked the Aston Villa manager on the eve of this game in response to questions about the performances of Wesley, the club-record signing, in his first two matches. Little more than 24 hours later Wesley registered his first goal in English football and Aston Villa’s season was up and running courtesy of a precious victory over a disappointing Everton side.
Villa, after suffering back-to-back defeats, will welcome the sight of three points on the board following a gutsy and spirited display. It was their first Premier League win since beating Norwich in February 2016, ending a miserable run of 15 top-flight fixtures without victory, and was greeted with huge cheers at the final whistle.
Everton were poor and if ever a moment summed up their performance it was the sight of Theo Walcott, a late substitute, profligately stabbing a gilt-edged chance over the bar from no more than eight yards out. Moise Kean, who had set up that opportunity, beat the ground in frustration and Villa knew this was going to be their night when Anwar El Ghazi added a second in injury-time.
From the outset, it had felt like one of those balmy summer evenings when everything was there for Villa to feed off the energy of their supporters and seize the initiative. The atmosphere inside this fabulous old stadium crackled as soon as the game got underway, yet for the opening 20 minutes, Villa struggled to put a few passes together, never mind threaten the Everton goal. Then, after a moment of quick-thinking from Jack Grealish, came a bolt from the blue that saw Villa take the lead.
Brought down by André Gomes just inside his own half, Grealish leapt to his feet to take the free-kick before the Everton players had got back in position, with his short but incisive pass releasing Frederic Guilbert, who was making his Villa debut at right-back. Everton, who had previously looked in total control, were suddenly wide open. Guilbert shifted the ball on to Jota and the Spaniard, after drifting in from the right, expertly slid an intelligent pass into the path of Wesley’s diagonal run. Up until that stage Wesley had struggled to make much impression on the game, with the ball bouncing off him on a couple of occasions.
When it mattered, though, the striker was composed and clinical as he steered a low right-footed shot across Jordan Pickford and into the far corner. The Brazilian was off the mark, Villa Park erupted and confidence surged through Smith’s team.
Two minutes later the same two players combined as an Everton defence that had come into this fixture on the back of nine clean sheets in 10 matches was caught square. Although Wesley, driving through the middle, held off Yerry Mina’s initial challenge and managed to get his shot away, the Everton central defender recovered and blocked with a desperate lunge.
Marco Silva had every right to feel frustrated. His side should have made more of some promising passages of play before Wesley’s goal – Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman both got forward to good effect on the flanks – and there was no getting away from the fact that Everton totally switched off in the build-up to that Villa breakthrough.
The sight of Dominic Calvert-Lewin squandering a decent opportunity to equalise in the 32nd minute will have done nothing to help Silva’s mood. Morgan Schneiderlin, who returned from suspension at the expense of Jean-Philippe Gbamin, floated a pass to Coleman in space on the Everton right and close to the byline. The Irishman’s first-time cross picked out Calvert-Lewin, who was about 12 yards out and fairly central, but the striker’s shot lacked conviction and Bjorn Engels, one of seven summer signings in the Villa starting XI, was perfectly-positioned to block.
With Everton losing their way towards the end of the first half and struggling to create anything of note during the first 15 minutes after the restart, it was no surprise that Silva made a double change around the hour mark.
Alex Iwobi and Moise Kean – their big summer signings – replaced Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard. Villa remained full of industry, in particular, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn, but the momentum of the game shifted a little as Everton, now set up in what was more like a 4-4-2 formation, with Kean up alongside Calvert-Lewin, started to dominate possession again.
Yet it was not until the 83rd minute, when Iwobi thrashed a low left-footed shot against the upright, that Everton seriously threatened to equalise. El Ghazi then tested Pickford from distance before Walcott, with so much time and space, fired over.