Aston Villa is one of the true surprise packages of the 2020/21 Premier League campaign.
After surviving the last day of last season, the Villans have ensured they will not be in any relegation battles this time around, scoring 25 points in 13 matches and sitting in sixth place at the end of Boxing Day.
Dean Smith’s side have the second-best defensive record in England’s top flight, conceding 13 goals in as many games – only improved by surprisingly miserly Manchester City, who dispatched one less.
Villa really solidified their place in the Premier League’s first half in December, collecting 10 out of 12 possible points and keeping four successive clean sheets in the process.
And this strong return to form coincided with the surprise return of center-back Kortney Hause to the starting lineup.
The defender made his first appearance of the season as Villa battled to a 0-0 draw against an intimidating Burnley side. He then played the full 180 minutes in the next two clashes, where Villa earned a pair of 3-0 wins over West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace.
But their latest achievement at home at Palace was the squad pick for defender and collective.
Leading 1-0 at halftime, the game threatened to turn its head when the usually reliable Tyrone Mings wrapped up a few shoddy seconds of play by shooting Wilfried Zaha and getting his marching orders for a second yellow card .
Smith now faced the daunting prospect of sending his players to defend their lives against players like Zaha, Eberechi Eze and Christian Benteke, without their supposed leader in the heart of the backline.
Luckily for Villa’s coach, a defender stepped in and took responsibility – as he has done all month.
Hause had quietly been going about his business against Burnley and West Brom, with Villa being much stronger in both matches. But the center-back had to face the music on Saturday, left to keep his keeper without the influential Mings.
The biggest compliment we could give the defender was that Mings’ absence was not even noticed from a distance for the next 45 minutes. Hause easily filled his teammate’s shoes, leading his end line with authority and comfortably negating the threat from Zaha and Eze.
His clever reading of the game and imposing physical presence stopped the Eagles in their tracks, and he complemented center-back partner Ezri Konsa superbly, as the pair offered the perfect balance of pace, strength and tactical awareness.
Hause erased every dangerous ball that came his way – making 11 clearances over the course of the 90 minutes, while winning nine aerial duels against Palace’s frustrated attack. Defensively, he was imperious.
And he even added goals to his game, at first glance. Hause scored the game’s crucial second goal, reacting the fastest to a drop ball in the six-yard penalty area to nod just over the line. It was the perfect reward for a man who had to wait patiently to prove his worth to the team.
Three games later, and he’s now unstoppable.
There is no escape – Villa are a better team with Hause in the starting lineup. Smith has been hesitant to test that theory this season, and it’s easy to see why. Last year’s miraculous escape only began after the new hero was pulled out of the side, as the Villans responded to three straight losses with a four-game unbeaten streak in his absence, sacking finally Bournemouth.
But that squad has grown since last year’s scattergun transfer window. The summer 2019 flops are starting to go well and the presence of a reliable and consistent goalkeeper in Emiliano Martinez has strengthened the endless back line.
There has been collective growth throughout the team, as well as individual improvements at all levels. And no one embodies the recovery of fortunes and capacities at Villa Park more than Hause.
It might sound a bit premature, but if the center-back continues this rich vein of form in a thriving side at the top of the Premier League, it could be his name among the England Euro 2020 squad, not Mings’.