The Blues are the only team who have yet to concede in the Premier League this term, and a win at Villa Park would see them go top of the table, if only momentarily.
Villa, managed by boyhood fan Dean Smith since October, went from mid-table in the Championship to play-off winners last season, but have lost their opening two top-flight games, to Tottenham Hotspur and AFC Bournemouth.
RBM: Firstly, has Villa’s slow start to the new season taken you by surprise?
Phil: No. It is a new league with a slew of players (new and old) under a manager that have never experienced it. When Dean Smith took over from Steve Bruce last year in the Championship, he got off to a rocky start as he got settled in. I see this start in the same vein - but this time adjusting to the new league as well as a new squad.
Plus, when you break down the two losses, there are positives. Opening away at Spurs at their new stadium was always going to be a massive undertaking. Villa took the lead and successfully held on for 70 minutes until Christian Eriksen entered the pitch.
Bournemouth was two dumb mistakes in the opening ten minutes which they converted. In the Championship, Villa may get away with one or both, but not in the Premier League.
RBM: Do you think the sheer number of new signings have been to the team’s detriment in the opening games?
Phil: Not really. Look at the lineup - seven players from the team that won promotion started against Spurs - Neil Taylor, Tyrone Mings, Ahmed Elmohamady, Conor Hourihane, Jack Grealish, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi. Six of those played against Bournemouth. Smith has seen fit to start with continuity from last year and slowly bring in the new players.
The promotion players are being given the change to keeper their spots while being challenged by the new boys.
RBM: Given the amount of money spent by Villa this summer, though, should they be looking for a bit more than merely to stay up this season?
Phil: Very much so. And I think that is why so many Villa supporters liked the transfers. This summer wasn’t about bringing in older Premier League experienced players to survive - it was about building a squad that, in the long run, should be able to compete in the league.
That does not mean anyone thought or thinks this team will waltz to safety. Survival is going to be difficult. Villa have new owners with cash to spend and are out from underneath the Financial Fair Play regulations that impacted the moves in the Championship. This summer was about a rebuild of the squad looking to the future and it was a massive undertaking.
RBM: Do you think it’s too easy to say Villa could ‘do a Fulham’ and be relegated after spending so much money, or is there some weight to that argument?
Phil: The talking point is lazy. Fulham spent huge - mostly close to the deadline and on players that didn’t seem to fit any type of system. Villa spent huge - mostly early in window to rework a squad that would not have been able to field a starting lineup coming into the summer because of releasing about a dozen first team players out of contract.
For example - the squad had one centre-back in James Chester. That was it. Dean Smith and co. made Mings’ & Kortney Hause’s loans permanent and bring in two others. Now Villa actually have a defence! It was the same story up front and on the wings.
Villa were going to have ten or more transfers even if the team stayed in the Championship. The moves had nothing to do with Fulham, but were instead the necessity of building a team.
RBM: Dean Smith is a lifelong Villa fan and did superbly to lead them to promotion last season. How much faith do you have in him going forward, even with no previous Premier League managerial experience?
Phil: Dean Smith is the story we all want to be while playing Football Manager. But in FM = much like in life - things can go wrong quickly. I trust Dean Smith. He has a plan. It has been a long time since I’ve seen Aston Villa with a plan that the board, coaching staff, and supporters are all on board with.
I don’t expect him to be under pressure this year no matter the results. So I have faith, in the full understanding of the challenge.
Smith is going to struggle at times - much like the team will. I said before the season that Villa will probably lose four/five in a row at one point - and go six/seven matches unbeaten. I really did not want to be on the way to being correct about the losses quite so soon. The manager and the players will take some lumps and hopefully learn valuable lessons.
RBM: Midfielder Jack Grealish has now lost his last 20 Premier League games; albeit 18 of them in 2015-16, when Villa finished bottom with 17 points. Is this a flawed statistic, or could you argue Villa are better without him on the pitch?
Phil: Flawed/dumb stat. There is no world where Villa are better without Grealish on the pitch. The stat spans back to when Jack was a teenager and includes sub appearances for the final minutes of games. It is a meaningless stat individually.
It does point to just how bad Villa as a whole were when they went down. One needs to only look at the table to see that - three wins and 17 points (and Villa won the opening match of the season!). Add in four managers, counting caretakers, and one of them was Tim Sherwood. But I’m not going back down that rabbit hole.
It is a lazy stat and in the rubbish, right next to the years-old stories about teenage Jack getting drunk on vacation. Shocker.
Jack is the 24-year-old captain of Villa and will be the first name on the team sheet as long as he remains healthy.
RBM: How do you expect Villa to set up on Friday?
Phil: 4-3-3. One holding midfielder, the other two will have the freedom to run forward. I’m thinking it will be same lineup as against Bournemouth: Heaton; Elmohamady, Mings, Engels, Taylor; Luiz, McGinn, Grealish; El Ghazi, Trezeguet, Wesley.
The only change that may happen is Matthew Targett in for Neil Taylor. If Taylor does play I think that will be his first time playing against Seamus Coleman since Taylor broke his league in international play. Taylor took that injury pretty hard and his form dropped because of it - and that in no way compares to having a broken leg. It Would be interesting to see if the two meet before the match.
Villa will dribble through the middle or pass it out wide to the wingers to let them go. The midfield will happily take shots from distance and have the skill to hit the target. Trezeguet and Elmo on the right are international teammates for Egypt and have a good understanding. Trezeguet will cut in while Elmo will be ready to cross in from deep. Taylor won’t offer much going forward on the left so it will be left to El Ghazi to make it happen. If he struggles early, Villa’s attack will become uneven/predictable.
Wesley up front can hold the ball up and pass well. We’ve yet to see him look comfortable in the PL since coming over from Belgium.
Defensively, Mings and Björn Engels look like a good partnership and both are very good in the air. Engels a little slower, but Mings will cover for him when needed.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Phil: The power of Villa is in the midfield - so I’ll say Grealish and McGinn.
Jack will run the show and drive Everton supporters nuts. He will get fouled and go down at least five times (which is an excellent Villa drinking game), look to dribble from deep, and create the bulk of Villa’s chances.
McGinn is a cannonball Scottish midfielder that neutral (and some opposing) supporters will come to enjoy watching and respect. He never stops running in his unique style (you’ll see what I mean on Friday) and uses his body to shield the ball from much bigger players in a way I’ve never seen.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Friday’s game?
Phil: 2-0 Win. I’ve predicted a loss (correct but wrong score) and a draw (wrong). So I’m going to try predicting a win and see how that goes. Wesley gets his first goal up front for Villa and McGinn adds another.
The prediction is purely a hope pick, though, because Everton are really good. But I’ve got to do my part to change how things are going.
Our thanks to Phil for his time.