After incredibly staving off relegation in the final game of last season, very few would have guessed where Aston Villa currently find themselves.
It hasn’t been a straightforward Premier League campaign by any means, but after their opening 15 games, Dean Smith’s men are seventh and three points outside the Champions League places but, importantly, with a game in hand.
Anwar El Ghazi
- Age: 25
- Premier League stats under Dean Smith (minimum 1,000 minutes played)
- Goals + assists: 13 (second-highest at the club)
- Chances created: 1.42 per 90 minutes (fourth-highest)
- Dribbles completed: 1.59 per 90 (third-highest)
- Football Index value: £0.34 (Sell) – £0.56 (Buy)
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It would take a brave soul to ultimately predict the Villains ending a 38-year wait to play in Europe’s most-demanding club competition though, as we’ve seen, all it takes is stringing a couple of wins together and Villa have proven they can beat anyone or, at the very least, make life difficult (that humbling 0-3 loss to Leeds United aside).
Having a talismanic figure like Jack Grealish, who reaffirmed his commitment to his boyhood club last summer, goes a long way. Nevertheless, he can’t do it alone. Fortunately, those around him are stepping up, most notably Dutch winger Anwar El Ghazi, who is starting to fulfil that promise so many once placed on him, and consequently going unnoticed back home.
After graduating from Ajax’s illustrious youth set-up, whom he joined following a period at Sparta Rotterdam’s academy where compatriot Memphis Depay also learned his trade, the swashbuckling forward soon announced himself as one of Dutch football’s rising stars and to say he enjoyed a strong debut campaign is an understatement.
El Ghazi, then 20, ended the 2014/15 season with nine goals across 31 Eredivisie matches. Halfway through, manager Frank de Boer recognised his burgeoning potential. “El Ghazi is dangerous even when he is not in good form,” he opined. “He is always near goal at decisive moments; the ball often seems to fall at his feet.”
The following year, his return was even better, scoring 11 goals in fewer appearances (27), this naturally alerted the attention of Dutch national team boss Danny Blind, who subsequently handed El Ghazi two international caps in October 2015 (against Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic).
De Boer’s eventual departure for Inter Milan and Peter Bosz’s appointment ultimately saw his days in Amsterdam numbered. Strong competition for places and struggling with a new approach (two goals across 20 matches in all competitions) saw him exit months before their surprise Europa League final run. It was around this period a number of the continents super clubs were sniffing around, but learning from the past, those close to him believed it was in his best interest to make an intermediate step.
The excitement which followed him during his formative years was nonetheless justified and following a lean spell at Ligue 1 outfit Lille — six goals and four assists in 44 appearances between 2017 and 2019 — those feelings are beginning to resurface. El Ghazi fits the profile of a contemporary-cum-classical winger, his greatest strength is without a doubt carrying the ball forward, and no one in a Villa shirt does it better.
From an off-field study, El Ghazi is an individual with complete and utter confidence in himself but not at the expense of wanting to learn and bettering what he already possesses. “It’s my job as a forward to score. If I failed today, I can only blame myself,” he once said.
Modelling his playing style on Cristiano Ronaldo, who famously advised him to represent the Netherlands over Morocco, the 25-year-old is no longer a bit-part player but rather someone who can be trusted from the get-go.
We’ve seen that evolution this season; after missing Villa’s opening six league matches (being an unused substitute in three of those games), he made four subsequent appearances from the bench — most notably scoring the winner against Wolves from the spot — before finding himself as one of the first names in Smith’s starting XI. If anything, this is a prime example of going from undesirable to undeniable. Confidence breeds success and we’re seeing El Ghazi shine like never before considering this platform is the biggest he’s ever been on.
Gone are the days of the winger’s sole purpose being to hug the touchline, with those starting on the flanks needing to be versatile, often acting as inside forwards. He showed that recently against Crystal Palace, scoring a stunning goal from a swift Villa counter-attack, that was one of three open-play strikes this season (his other two were penalties). His skill and speed are the cornerstones behind his recent success, by frequently getting into one-on-one situations he’s able to forge openings, so far averaging 1.87 chances created per 90 minutes this season.
With the European Championships on the horizon, El Ghazi couldn’t have timed his resurgence any better. And given who is now coaching Oranje, you’re beginning to wonder if the stars are starting to align. As touched upon, nothing is set in stone, given the chaotic nature of professional sports we’ve often seen an event taking place few would have imagined just weeks or months previously.
De Boer isn’t exactly lacking quality wide forwards and chances are El Ghazi, whom he fielded 80 times before, will not make the final cut. However, there are friendly games before the showpiece event, and given that he’s currently turning heads and performing reasonably well in England’s top division, widely considered among the most challenging across Europe, with a much-unfancied club, it must at the very least earn him a second look. And from there, anything can happen. El Ghazi has already turned his club form around so we know he’s got what it takes if that opportunity presents itself.