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McGinn: I'm in the best form of my career

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Speaking to Aston Villa fans, the adoration for John McGinn is clear. "He's one of my favourite-ever players," says one. "I love him", another proclaims. Ask fans of Scotland, Hibernian and St Mirren and they would likely tell you a similar story.

Since his arrival in the Midlands in August 2018, the 27-year-old has ignited the Aston Villa midfield - something that will not have surprised Scottish Premiership fans. He helped secure promotion to the Premier League in his first season south of the border, with Villa going on to cement their place back in England's top flight.

It hasn't all been plain sailing, though. His return from an ankle fracture in December 2019 was elongated by the Coivd-19 pandemic, with a recent spell of self-isolation earlier this season also punctuating McGinn's impressive start to the 2021/22 season.

Among the Aston Villa squad, he ranks second for goals scored, shots and tackles. He tops the table for final-third passes attempted and completed, as well as crosses completed, and it's these attacking stats that McGinn is focusing on improving.

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"I try to improve all aspects of my game," he exclusively told Sky Sports ahead of the trip to Arsenal, live on Friday Night Football.

"I feel as if I can do the defensive side of the game, but also like I'm getting better at contributing higher up the park. In Scotland, I'm sort of known for being a grafter, a box-to-box midfielder, but I've been evolving as much as possible while keeping my unique style which is trying to do a bit of everything.

"I may not do it perfectly all the time, I might make mistakes, but I'm just trying to reduce those mistakes as much as possible. I'm trying to strike a balance of staying hungry and being energetic as well.

"I'm probably in the best form of my career to date. There's still a lot of things I can learn from and improve from, but I'm in a good place.

"Covid was probably the strangest one because I was feeling in such a good place physically, and mentally it was an interruption that could quite easily have hampered my form and my season, but thankfully the club were amazing with me.

"They got me some fitness equipment for the house and I could do as much as possible. We're very fortunate here to have a lot of staff that can look after us and help us get better and that was another obstacle that could quite easily have got in the way.

"But I've got a training regime in place and I'm not superstitious, but I stick to my routine and try and keep it as simple as possible in what can be a frantic and mental week.

"I had a good pre-season, which is important after a serious injury, it's always interrupted. But this season, I've managed to have a good pre-season and it's certainly stood me in good stead for the season so far. So I'm feeling good physically and I need to keep it up and keep trying to help the team."

Another contributing factor to McGinn's current form is a formation tweak from Villa manager Dean Smith. He has set up with a back five this season, offering more protection in defense as midfielders like McGinn look to push forward.

Douglas Luiz has also seen a marked improvement in his Aston Villa performances - again aided by the extra man at the back - and McGinn was keen to point out how his midfield partner has helped him this season.

He said: "It's certainly a different way of getting used to [the new formation], but in midfield, it doesn't really change too much for us. It does give you a bit more licence to go forward now there's more defenders on the park, but a big part in us having freedom to play is how well Douglas is playing at the moment.

"You can speak about how I'm playing at the minute, but Douglas has found another level himself. If we can keep playing the way we are and get other boys fit and firing, we can certainly get more positive results this season.

"But Douglas has been brilliant to play alongside and when you have someone like him behind you, you can attack knowing he's going to be there to cover for you. Whether that's a back four or a back three, I'm sure having Douglas beside me certainly helps."

The pair also enjoyed their own international successes during the summer. McGinn was part of Scotland's Euro 2020 squad, appearing at their first major tournament in 23 years. Luiz, meanwhile, won a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with Brazil.

"We didn't really get much of a break, but having those experiences, you're learning all the time," McGinn reflected.

"When you're hungry and eager to get better, which myself and Douglas are, you pick up things you were doing wrong, you pick up things other players you're playing against and alongside and you try and use it to the best of your ability.

"The both of us - Douglas is quite young but I'm getting on a bit now - are experienced and going away with internationals in big tournaments helps you develop as a player."

'Playing with Paul the best moment of my career'

The Scotland national team has also become a McGinn family affair. The midfielder - who has earned 40 caps for his country - was recently joined by brother Paul on the pitch when the Hibernian right-back made his debut in Scotland's crucial 1-0 win against Austria in September.

"I've been lucky enough to have some special nights and moments in my career, but that was certainly number one," McGinn reflected.

"Paul had a very tough road to get going in football, he was part-time until he was 23 and he certainly was learning the hard way.

"So for him to make his Scotland debut in what was such a huge win for us was such a proud night for both of us and the family. Hopefully, it's not his last but if it is, it's certainly a night the both of us will never forget."

Scotland are continuing their recent success too. Denmark have already qualified from Group F, with Steve Clarke's side sitting second with two games to play. It could be another rollercoaster play-off to reach the World Cup, but with their recent experience of doing so to qualify for the Euros, McGinn is confident it can only help Scotland again.

He said: "It's amazing. I've been involved for a long time and I've experienced a lot of highs and a lot of lows. We've had a little taste of a major tournament and we're very close now to securing a play-off place to get to Qatar, which is something Scotland haven't achieved since 1998, going to a World Cup.

"It would be game-changing for the country as a whole. It's not going to be easy, it's a very difficult route to try and get there, but we've got a lot of players playing at a high level and we've got a lot of strength and depth at the moment. It's a great place to be and I'm really proud that we've given Scotland something to be proud of.

"We've got some regrets, both personally and as a team, about how the Euros ended for us, but we certainly learned from it. It was an amazing experience to be involved in, but we're very keen to make it a regular occurrence. We want to get to a major final every two years, whether that's the World Cup or the Euros.

"Those experiences make us learn, make us better and we're won't have an easy run to the World Cup, but we're confident that we've got enough in there to get us there and hopefully we can do it."

'We can avenge Wolves result against Arsenal'

While Scotland may be on a four-game winning run, Aston Villa have made an indifferent start to the season. There have been big wins against Manchester United and Everton, but a last-minute defeat to local rivals Wolves on Saturday would have been a particularly tough result to take.

"We've had some good results, but also some disappointing ones, like the weekend," McGinn said. "It's about getting the consistency with a lot of young players in the team.

"We're going to have ups and downs and it's going to take its time to gel, but I feel like we're showing we're capable of getting big results and when we have defeats like the weekend, the games don't get easier. We've got a tough game on Friday where we can go and try to avenge what was a poor 10 minutes."

This weekend, Aston Villa travel to Arsenal live on Sky Sports and face a side who have finally hit their stride. They produced their own late comeback against Crystal Palace on Monday Night Football, with McGinn aware that the chances will come against the Gunners.

"We're expecting a tough game. I know it was a disappointing result for Arsenal on Monday, but they've been on a good run of form. They've got the majority of their players fit and firing, which we haven't had at the moment," he added.

"It's always a tough game to go to the Emirates, they play fast, free-flowing football, but you know you will get chances and it's up to you to try and take them. We'll be working hard on how we can get chances on Friday and it's about being clinical when we get them."

McGinn will be hoping to take his own chances once again as he targets more goal contributions this season, both for Aston Villa and Scotland, with a potential World Cup play-off on the horizon.

John McGinn continues to impress in Aston Villa's midfield © PA John McGinn continues to impress in Aston Villa's midfield
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