“He’s our Michael Carrick, he’s a player in that mould”
That’s what Tim Sherwood said about Ashley Westwood this week.
At first glance you might think is an overreaction, but when you look deeper and analyse the importance of Westwood to this Villa team, you can see exactly why Sherwood has drawn such comparisons.
Westwood is arguably the key cog in this side. Yes, there are more skilful and more technically gifted players surrounding him (who we will come onto later), but without Westwood this team would not function
The former Crewe man sits in-front of Villa’s back four; protecting them and then distributing the ball to start Villa attacks.
Westwood has a passing ability similar to Carrick, he can play short passes with ease, or a cross field diagonal for wingers to chase. But what is most impressive is his subtleness and simplicity.
Very alike to Carrick three or four years before everybody began to appreciate his importance, Westwood knows his job and just gets on with it, no questions asked.
There have even been calls for Roy Hodgson to take note and select Westwood for England’s upcoming internationals, and it’s hard to argue why the midfielder shouldn’t make the cut.
Westwood’s role allows those around him to express themselves, which is exactly what Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley have done.
The pair are much more offensive than Westwood, and in recent games the midfield threesome have shown just how devastating they can be.
Cleverley has scored in each of his last three Premier League games, whilst Sherwood claimed that Delph is the “best midfielder in the country” on current form.
Former Leeds man Delph has been a star player for Villa over the past two seasons, establishing himself as an England international in the process.
We already know that Sherwood is hardly the king of understatement.
He described Christian Benteke as the “best striker in Europe” at the start of May. Whilst this might be a slightly over exaggerated claim, there’s no doubt that Sherwood’s media tactics have worked.
He is able to instil such an immense level of confidence in players that he gets them playing above and beyond their means. It becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy to some individuals; Sherwood knows Benteke isn’t the best striker in Europe, but if he is able to make Benteke believe that he is, he will become almost unplayable, which is exactly what we have seen.
Benteke couldn’t hit a barn door before Sherwood took over from Paul Lambert, but since Sherwood has come in he has looked a completely rejuvenated player.
We saw last season at Spurs what the ‘Sherwood Effect’ can do to players. Emmanuel Adebayor couldn’t even get a game prior to Sherwood’s arrival at White Hart Lane, but he made the Togo forward his main man, installed a shed load of confidence into him, and Adebayor went and hit 11 goals in 20 games.
We’re seeing similar results with Benteke now. The big Belgian has bagged 11 goals in his last 9 matches in all competitions. But it isn’t just his goal-scoring that is impressive, it’s his overall contribution to games that is having such a profound effect on Villa’s performances.
It looks like Benteke is back to the same form he showed in his debut season at Villa Park back in 2012-13 where it wasn’t just the goals that received plaudits, it was his hold up play and his ability to link others into the game that were just as impressive.
And this is where Jack Grealish has really benefitted this season.
Sherwood is very keen on blooding youth players into the first-team, as we saw with the likes of Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason and Harry Kane at Spurs last year, so it was no surprise to see Grealish be given a chance.
The 19 year-old has been highly talked of by those who follow Villa for a while now, and it’s no coincidence that Benteke’s return to form has coincided with the emergence of Grealish.
However, the youngster now finds himself in the middle of a country v country row. Grealish turned down a call up to the Republic of Ireland squad and is still eligible to represent England. Grealish’s next decision will be vital for his career, but there’s no doubt the winger could turn to his manager for some advice.
You can almost picture Grealish walking into Sherwood’s office and asking for his opinion. This is why the ‘Sherwood Effect’ works; players trust him with off-the-field issues as well.
With 38 points on the board, Villa look safe, but you can’t take anything for granted in the Premier League (I should know, I’m a Blackpool fan and we were relegated with 39!). Sherwood had his critics following his spell at Spurs, with some claiming he was a bit of a chancer and not tactically astute, but he has proven those people wrong.
The foundations have been laid for a very exciting future to be built at Aston Villa.