Dean Smith paid tribute to debutants Emi Martinez, Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash as Aston Villa began the new Premier League season with a hard-fought 1-0 win against Sheffield United, according to the Birmingham Mail.
Villa certainly made hard work of their opening game.
If Smith had hoped an early red card for Blades defender John Egan would open the floodgates at Villa Park, you can understand his frustration as the Midland giants took 51 laborious minutes to open the scoring thanks to an Ezri Konsa header.
But while the Aston Villa boss might have been concerned about a lack of invention in the final third, with his side struggling to turn possession into chances, there were still plenty of positives to take away from a victory that owed more to spirit than quality.
The perpetual motion of new £28 million record signing Ollie Watkins resulted in Egan’s 12th-minute dismissal, while Matty Cash already looks a more cultured alternative to Frederic Guilbert on the right side.
And a special mention to Martinez – who capped his debut with a crucial penalty save to stop John Lundstram giving ten-man Blades the lead late in the first half.
“(Martinez’s) distribution is really good. He’s calm, assured. He’s got a really good personality,” a relieved Smith said. “To keep a clean sheet and save a penalty in your first game. He’s had to go and make a good save – and he’s done that.
Smith also praised his outfield debutants.
“(Watkins and Cash) both did ok for their Premier League debuts. Ollie’s made a great run to get the other side of John Egan, which resulted in the red card. I think they can both be fairly pleased with their debuts.
“There’s certainly more to come. It’s their first look at Premier League football and I believe they’ll get better and better. We look like we’ve got better quality and we look a fitter team at the moment.”
Smith has a point.
While the sample size is small, Aston Villa appear to have upgraded in three crucial positions, with Watkins, Cash and Martinez looking far superior to the likes of Wesley, Mbwana Samatta, Guilbert and Orjan Nyland.