Wherever Steven Gerrard was on Sunday at 2.15pm, he would have been forgiven for cussing. If the former Aston Villa manager was somehow masochistically watching this game, he might just have been wondering where all the verve and anticipation – never mind the goals – had come from as Villa ripped Brentford apart with all the vim of a team exhilarated to be playing under an inspirational new manager.
The fact that Aaron Danks, his erstwhile assistant and now the caretaker manager, did not even merit a namecheck on the teamsheet, let alone in a matchday programme devoid of a manager’s column, only served to highlight the chasm in status between the former England captain relieved of his duties after the 3-0 defeat at Fulham on Thursday night and the temporary incumbent.
Ollie Watkins capped a superb performance with a brilliant team goal in the second half, after Leon Bailey had started a rout embellished by two goals from Danny Ings.
“Aaron, Aaron, give us a wave,” came the cry from the Holte End as the game petered out peacefully, Brentford’s insipid showing reflected in Bryan Mbeumo slotting wide of an open goal from six yards after Emiliano Martínez saved Mathias Jensen’s shot. He was immediately substituted as Brentford’s reliance on Ivan Toney, the scorer of their past six goals, helped extend their search for a first away win of the season.
Yet Villa’s opening 15-minute blitz was both a credit to their players and an indictment on them. Sure, Brentford started as if they had spent all their gas in holding Chelsea to a goalless draw on Wednesday, but Villa were so good as they zipped about creating chances at will that their fans are entitled to ask how they could have been so bad under Gerrard. Surely he cannot be such a bad egg that they had stopped trying for him?
Villa gained some return for the £100m they got for Jack Grealish 14 months ago as two of the players bought by Gerrard’s predecessor, Dean Smith, got the show on the road with the three first-half goals.
Douglas Luiz, reprieved from suspension after his red card at Craven Cottage on Thursday was rescinded, played a short-corner exchange with Emiliano Buendia and pulled the ball back for Bailey to shoot home, left-footed, from just inside the area after 64 seconds.
That lit the claret-and-blue touch paper. Bailey sprinted through the inside-left channel on to Ashley Young’s astute through ball and crossed for Ings, playing as the central striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, to convert clinically from close range. Both these goals survived VAR checks; Gerrard might have been asking if he could have had enjoyed such good fortune.
To be fair, Villa were rampant. Watkins, on the verge of equalling his longest goal drought in the Premier League, blasted a superb effort that David Raya tipped over. And when Kristoffer Ajer pulled Tyrone Mings’s shirt as they tussled before the corner, VAR again went in Villa’s favour. Young spent the VAR delay bouncing the ball up and down on the penalty spot before Ings dispatched his fourth goal of the season down the middle of the goal.
When not mocking their own manager, the Villa fans’ songbook at Craven Cottage had included calls for Buendia and his selection here was fully justified as he helped to run the game from the No 10 spot. The Argentinian, also acquired in that post-Grealish splurge, shot just wide after Ings’s delightful backheel and was also tenacious off the ball as Villa harried and hustled as if their jobs depended on it.
When Brentford did finally find a way out of their own half, Toney’s splendid short diagonal pass invited Mbeumo a run on goal but Martínez, captain in the absence of the demoted John McGinn, saved well at the striker’s feet.
Villa’s dominance was summed up in one 40th-minute attack when three times they almost scored: Douglas Luiz’s corner rebounded off the inside of the far post; Watkins helped on Leander Dendoncker’s shot but Raya saved; then Matty Cash’s low shot was turned aside for a corner.
That was Villa’s 15th shot of a first half they dominated almost as much as they did when Gerrard’s team faced Tottenham here in April but lost 4-0. Brentford are not chasing a Champions League spot but Villa were brilliant back on that day six months ago without gaining anything for it.
Villa reached the 4-0 margin just before the hour mark with a breathtaking goal from Watkins. Bailey showed control to match his electrifying pace to keep the ball in on the left touchline and then hurtle on to Ings’ return pass before crossing with impeccable swerve for the former Brentford striker.
Watkins’ first shot was saved; his second hit the post; and when the rebound bounced up off his own head he cracked in his first goal in nine league games. There was no refraining from celebrating a goal against an old club. Watkins milked the moment as Villa Park flowed over with sheer joy. Penny for your thoughts, Stevie G.