It was on a trip back to England earlier this month when all the memories started flooding back for Anwar El Ghazi.
His new club, PSV Eindhoven, were taking on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium and in the city that holds a special place in the Dutch winger’s heart.
Across London at Wembley, El Ghazi scored the first goal in Aston Villa’s 2-1 win over Derby County in the 2019 play-off final. A year later at West Ham United’s London Stadium, he was on the pitch as Villa survived on the final day of the season.
“I really loved England,” he says. “I made some great friends and when I went back… when I was on English soil again in the Europa League, it was like I was back home.
“I miss it a lot and yes, I miss Villa, but I’m glad to be here (at PSV) now.”
Since moving back to the Netherlands, El Ghazi has been in and out of Ruud van Nistelrooy’s starting line-up for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
First, though, he’s keen to explain to The Athletic what went wrong last year when he was cast aside by former Villa manager Steven Gerrard before enduring a tough loan spell at Everton.
There are two sides to the attacker who burst onto the scene at Ajax in 2014, scored in the Champions League against Barcelona at Camp Nou, then moved to Lille where he played under Marcelo Bielsa and Christophe Galtier.
On the pitch, he’s determined, focused and sometimes fiery, yet off it, he needs affection, reassurance and belief from those he’s working under.
There’s no doubting El Ghazi’s quality. Jack Grealish once described him as the best finisher at Villa and his record of four goals in the last five games for PSV shows that another hot streak is developing.
After making only four appearances for Villa under Gerrard and two appearances at Everton (all six as a substitute), this revival back in his homeland is much needed as a degree of frustration around last season still exists.
“I’m always the guy who looks at myself first, so when things go wrong I’m not blaming anyone ever,” he says. “But last season, I should have had more chances.”
It’s a year ago this week (November 5) that he last started a Premier League game, away at Southampton in Dean Smith’s final match in charge.
El Ghazi then came off the bench as a substitute in Gerrard’s first two games to make important contributions to match-winning goals.
“Against Brighton, I made a good run for Ollie Watkins and he scored, then in the next game at Crystal Palace, I assisted John McGinn, so I thought I could do it and get my opportunities but after that game, it felt like it was over.”
By “could do it” El Ghazi means playing in Gerrard’s system, which favoured two No 10s rather than wingers who retained their width.
Recalling the chain of events that sent his 2021-22 season into shutdown, he says: “In the first training session under Gerrard, he was trying to explain with his assistant manager on the pitch how he likes to play. A lot of thoughts were already in my head. I knew I had to get ready to not be wanted.
“I was trying to adapt to the way that he plays, and of course I can do it, but naturally, I am a winger. I like to stay wide, put crosses in, get into one-v-one situations and then maybe come inside. But he wanted you to start inside. It was different. That’s what I struggled with and I think Bertrand Traore and Trezeguet (other wingers Villa moved on) did, too.”
El Ghazi knew his days were limited when Carney Chukwuemeka, the youngster whom Villa sold to Chelsea for £20million ($23m), was introduced ahead of him for a run of games around the Christmas period. The arrival of Gerrard’s former Liverpool team-mate Philippe Coutinho only cemented the need to move on.
“I had a good conversation with Rafa Benitez at Everton,” El Ghazi says.
“He was playing with wingers. He said to me that he didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing at Villa and that he would love to have me with him. He told me there was competition but that I would get a chance. He said he knew I could score goals.
“I was really excited and wanted to show myself that I could do it there because Everton is a big and great club, but three days after I signed, it was unlucky because Benitez was sacked.
“Frank Lampard came and I tried to work hard and keep going and show the manager what I could do, but the system, and in his pecking order… I didn’t get a chance.”
El Ghazi was unavailable for the first two Everton games as one was against his parent club, Villa, and the other was in the FA Cup and he was cup-tied. He believes that knocked him back.
He didn’t start a game at Goodison Park as Lampard moved relegation-threatened Everton into survival mode, set up with a back five and favoured other attacking options.
“I never had a proper opportunity at Everton and I’m not going to lie, it was a really tough period for me. Really tough,” he says, opening up on that experience for the first time.
“But I have a good wife. My religion keeps me strong and my family back home helped. I could switch off when I came home. I kept working hard for myself and tried to regain my focus but it was difficult.”
El Ghazi became a father this summer. He describes his son as the “best thing”.
The birth coincided with his return back to Villa during pre-season. It was decided that rather than going to Australia for the summer trip, he could stay at Bodymoor Heath to train with the under-21s and wait for his wife to deliver their first child.
The situation, after missing so much football the previous season, “wasn’t ideal”. He missed pre-season games and the training wasn’t as sharp or competitive. Without any assurances from Gerrard, and with just one year remaining on his contract, he was open to a move away.
“I had a really good conversation with the PSV director of football Marcel Brands and the manager (Ruud van Nistelrooy) and I felt loved again,” he says.
“It was really important for me and I made a decision on the back of how much the club really wanted me. On the other side, I didn’t want to leave. I really wanted to stick with Villa.
“But I had one year left only, a manager who really didn’t want me there and had I stayed there… (he pauses)… well, it was just so difficult.”
It’s only when speaking to El Ghazi that it becomes clear just how much he appreciated playing in claret and blue.
Footballers come and go, and at Villa, supporters have seen their fair share of players over recent years. The turnover is high and only Tyrone Mings, John McGinn and Jed Steer remain from the promotion-winning side three years ago.
El Ghazi knows he had his ups and downs. “I didn’t always play well but I always scored goals,” he said of his 26 strikes in 119 games in all competitions.
His goal in the Championship play-off final was perhaps the most important of the lot and regardless of how the last season ended, he left a lasting legacy at Villa and contributed towards the transformation of the club during a difficult time.
At PSV, he’s working closely with Van Nistelrooy, the former Manchester United striker, to sharpen up his game and show those back in England what they are missing.
“We had a great conversation when I joined and he said I really want to work with you because you’re a great player,” El Ghazi says. “He’s told me that together, we are going to make me more consistent and that he’s looking forward to this particular challenge.”
It’s not a straightforward transition though.
Different players deal with a lack of game time in varying ways. Some are able to switch on and off easier than others.
“Not me,” El Ghazi says. “Unfortunately, I’m paying the price of not playing for a year. We have so many games. and I need to manage my minutes. I’m not ready to play a full 90 minutes until January. It’s just about training up and surviving until the World Cup break because I missed a lot of pre-season as well. It’s hard to get the confidence back and play like I used to. I have little pains in my groin and hamstring, which I never used to have. Fortunately, they are going away and I’m getting more minutes, but it’s going to take time. I’ve had a really unlucky year.”
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) October 24, 2022
That El Ghazi is still contributing with goals from wide positions despite not playing a full 90 minutes over his 10 appearances is a good sign.
His biggest quality is that he’s always a goal threat and PSV are finding that out as part of a talented front line that includes Cody Gakpo and Luuk de Jong.
This weekend they take on Ajax in a top-of-the-table clash. Beating Arsenal last week also means they stand a chance of progressing to the knockout stages of the Europa League. El Ghazi says the opportunity to win trophies is exciting.
Before the interview ends, the 27-year-old wants to switch the focus back to Villa.
“If Villa fans are reading this then I would like to tell them to keep getting behind the team. When Villa Park is really behind the players, we really felt like they are the 12th man on the pitch.
“People don’t understand, they always think that you should run harder or do everything better, but also, if Villa Park is behind you, the noise really helps. It’s the little things like when you win a corner or a throw-in and the energy builds. That makes a difference for us as players.
“Even in hard times, like before the 4-0 win over Brentford, the supporters need to keep cheering the players on. I know that for Villa, football is their religion, so I get that when it goes backwards they are frustrated. It’s also our job as players to help make them feel better, but their support makes a huge difference and the chance of winning is much higher.”
He misses Villa, clearly, even if it’s refreshing to have old friends and family around him again in the Netherlands.
Returning to play in England is still a future ambition, though.
“I’d love to. I would definitely do it. That’s no secret.”
(Top photo: Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)
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