Aston Villa (0) vs Leeds (3) – Balloon Burst

Just as soon as everyone took note of the surprise team of the Premier League with some, even, comparing them to the Leicester team who became Premier League champions in 2016, Aston Villa fans must have experienced an uneasy feeling in the pits of their stomachs. Hubris does not sit well on Brummie shoulders, nor on their representatives on the field. True to form, high-flying Villa was, for the first time this season, slow out of the gate. The comfortable confines of Villa Park, without the roar of the home crowd still barred due to the pandemic, did not help.

Of course, it could have been that this Marcelo Bielsa-managed visiting Leeds team is faster and fitter than any other team around. Whatever the reason, Leeds were, from the kickoff, shaping up to be quite a handful, even without their England international, Kalvin Phillips.

That they were dangerous, as well as bothersome, was confirmed after just three minutes. Harrison did well to shield the ball from Matty Cash, the Villa fullback, while the Leeds fullback took off up the wing. A clever pass around the outside saw Alioski running onto the ball in open space. Meanwhile, Leeds striker Bamford was racing down the middle of the field with Mings and Konsa stretched trying to keep up. A perfect curling left foot cross just ahead of the group invited a diving header and, naturally, only Bamford went for it. It flashed just left of the near post and the Villa breathed a sigh of relief. A fine play and a great way to announce yourself.

Both teams were pressing intensely, and tension remained high with play swinging back and forth without a break. The first significant breather came when Grealish carried the ball inside to escape the pressure on his wing. When Struijk attempted to cut him off, Grealish accelerated and the Leeds midfielder felt compelled to bring Villa’s greatest threat down in his tracks. The award of a yellow card, with nine minutes gone, was a welcome break for many of the Villans on the field.

They were soon off to the races again and, at 11 minutes, Leeds mounted another attack down the left with Alioski again being the place setter, this time for Rodrigo only six yards from goal. The shot was immediate, powerful and on the money. If not for Konsa’s perfect positioning, the ball would have been in the back of the net. Instead it careened out for a corner. The clearance of the corner came straight to Alioski who tested Martinez with a volley, but right at him.

At 16 minutes, Villa’s striker Watkins finally got into the action by dispossessing a Leeds defender playing out from the back. True to Leeds’s philosophy, Watkins was immediately surrounded by a pack in black (Leeds away color) before he could get anywhere near shooting range. Still, the youngster showed admirable poise, holding the ball for Barkley to make himself available, then laying it off. While the shot was hit with plenty of power, the Chelsea loanee should have had time to better place it than right at Illan Meslier in goal.

When Struijk was again caught lacking for pace and again got called (this time no yellow), his manager had seen enough. He soon sent on Shackleton to replace him. Any hope that the replacement would assist the Villa was soon dispelled by the energy and confidence shown by this young substitute.

Watkins was instrumental in creating an even better opportunity around the 26-minute mark. With Leeds captain, Luke Ayling, trying to shake off his challenge, the youngster nimbly picked his pocket and carried the ball into the right side of the penalty area. As soon as Trezeguet made himself available, Watkins zipped the ball to him. Trezeguet’s miscued shot fortuitously ended up heading towards Jack Grealish. It took only a second for the Villa captain to gather and turn to shoot, but enough time for Meslier to scurry along his line. That was, in fact, even better for Grealish as he had the vacated right side of the goal to shoot at. Grealish’s celebration was curtailed as the well-directed shot was cleared by Ayling as he scurried back into the action. It called for a VAR check that showed the ball three-quarters of the way over the line. Close, but no cigar!

The game continued at a frenetic pace, with fast breaks by both teams and no lulls. One Villa attack led to a deflected clearance that became anybody’s ball as it bounced just inside the Leeds half. It was Shackleton who was first to get a head on it and he directed it to Rodrigo. The recent acquisition from Valencia for $30 million plus looked up to see Harrison racing at top speed down the left wing and rifled the pass for him to run onto.

Cash had the angle to cut-off the winger before he could get close enough for a shot but could do nothing about a perfect curved pass beyond him. It was also just beyond Konsa, who was playing catch-up, but perfect for Bamford who was right behind him. Given the pace and Mings closing in, Bamford attempted a one-touch shot with his right foot. It flew just inches outside the left post with Martinez still rooted to the line. Perhaps he knew the shot was going wide. If so, he was alone in that thought.

It was a wake-up call for the Villa with the halftime break beckoning and it appeared to be an opportune time to regroup. Undoubtedly to the surprise of Villa fans, when the game restarted it was Leeds, again, dominating possession and creating chances.

It is at moments like this that Grealish seems to sparkle. With 54 minutes gone, he gained possession just outside his own penalty area and was immediately confronted by a couple of opponents. Head down, he zigged and zagged and, next thing, he was leading them on a trip down memory lane at speed. As he reached the Leeds penalty box, the maestro considered his options which were not encouraging. His foes now reinforced, and the goalie, were all set for his right foot to be pulled back and for them to make sure that they were not penetrated.

What they were not prepared for was for Grealish to feint to shoot and to continue to carry the ball all the way across the face of the goal and around the outside. Now, only the goalie stood in the way of a brilliant goal, a sharp strike along the ground that would have bulged the left-hand corner of the net. Not this day. Meslier is a very talented 6’ 6”, twenty-year-old, France Under-20 cap who started his professional career with five shut-outs for Lorient. He used that large body to good effect, spreadeagling his right leg and blocking the shot, out for a corner on the right.

Barkley quickly took the spot kick and sent over an excellent cross that Konsa beat his marker to, hooking the ball goal-bound on the volley. It was heading just under the bar when Meslier proved himself as athletic as he is flexible, tipping it over. Two great chances and two great saves. Still, Villa sensed that Leeds were bending and pushed harder, with Mings joining in to add his influence on the left.

When Mings was unable to regain possession for his team and a Leeds player sprayed a pass across the field to Alioski, the big center-back was, in effect, holding a highline with Konsa and Cash, and exposed. It turned out to be catastrophic. Alioski fed Harrison on the left wing and it became a four on three with Villa scrambling to adjust. Rodrigo, Shackleton and Bamford were the other Leeds players who had broken quicker than their Villa counterparts, Luiz, Trezeguet and Barkley, who were racing to join the fray.

That couple of yards advantage allowed Harrison to feed Rodrigo at the edge of the box and for the Brazilian to get in a good shot at the far corner of the net, just ahead of Konsa’s block. Martinez made a decent save but could not gather the ball in and Mings, though right there, was still heading back towards his goal and could not set himself to clear. Bamford, for his part, was perfectly poised to sweep the ball into the open corner of the net. 56 minutes gone, Villa 0, Leeds 1!

Undoubtedly, this will be a subject of review, analysis, and a teachable moment by Villa’s wise men. It is a truism that immediately after a goal, or a near miss, teams are most vulnerable. Players tend to focus on what just happened and not on what might happen if you let your guard down. Grealish and Konsa were both robbed of goals by superb saves, back-to-back, with nothing to show for it. That probably contributed to Mings pushing forward, but he should not have left himself exposed on the left wing at the halfway line. The extra distance that he had to cover to get back to help his goalie left him winded and unset. His tardiness, in turn, constrained Konsa from moving faster to block Rodrigo’s shot. Credit, of course, must also go to the Leeds players for excellent execution.

The goal energized the away team and deflated the Villa. Fatigue and frustration set in. When Barkley saw his sloppy pass intercepted by Mateusz Klich, he raced forward to tackle the Polish international only to have him slip the challenge, carry the ball forward, draw out Luiz and pass it through his legs to Bamford on the edge of the area. Konsa came out to shield his goal but Bamford had enough time to eye Martinez’s top left corner and rifle the ball, kissing the crossbar on its way into the net. The goalie did not move. A brilliant strike.

It was hard to blame the goalie or his backline, or even Luiz. However, the two errors by Barkley, together, were an intemperate mistake and Leeds punished them. 66 minutes gone, Villa 0, Leeds 2!

Just when Villa fans thought it could not get worse, Villa were reminded that more than one defender per forward can cause a moment of indecision. In the 73rd minute Leeds worked the ball to Bamford deep in the penalty area while surrounded by Konsa, Mings, and Luiz. That split-second was enough for Bamford to chip the ball through a gap and into Martinez’s other top corner. This time the goalie dove valiantly but to no avail. Villa 0, Leeds 3! Villa were heading for their first defeat in quite a while.

In the 89th minute, what could have been at least a psychological boost for Villa and their fans just added to their sour feelings. An excellent move was started by John McGinn powering past a defender who was pulling him back. With the ref playing the advantage, McGinn fed Barkley who laid a perfect pass to Watkins on the outside to confidently guide the ball into in the far corner of the net only for it to go, infuriatingly, inches wide. Watkins looked stunned and disheartened, and Villa were left with their first loss of the season.

The bright spot of the weekend for Villa came from other game results. Everton, a point above them, also lost, while Man U and Chelsea canceled each other out, and Leicester showed that a trip to Arsenal is not something to be intimidated by. That the Villa are in third spot, still only one point off the lead, holding a superior goal differential and a game in hand, is more than the team, or its fans, could have dreamed of.

With a visit from Southampton next on their schedule, the Villa could be alarmed by the Saint’s shutout of Everton. This should, instead, be treated as cautionary rather than daunting. After losing their first two games, the Saints have won three and overcame two Chelsea leads to gain an injury time tie at Stamford Bridge. Still, the Everton side they confronted was depleted, Chelsea had Kepa in goal, and the other wins were against West Brom and Burnley.

As long as they can contain Danny Ings, one of the Premier League’s most dangerous strikers, the Villans can get back to winning ways. There is no reason for the Villa to be as surprised by Ings as they were by Bamford. They also need to be sharper defensively than they were against Leeds and they surely will be.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Ross Barkley, Trezeguet, Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish (captain).

SUBS: Jed Steer, Conor Hourihane, Bertrand Traoré, Bjorn Engels, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba, Keinan Davis

LEEDS UNITED (4-4-1-1): Illan Meslier; Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling (captain), Robin Koch, Ezghan Alioski; Pascal Struijk; Helder Costa, Mateusz Klich, Rodrigo Moreno, Jack Harrison; Patrick Bamford

SUBS: Ian Poveda, Tyler Roberts, Kiko Casilla, Raphinha, Pablo Hernandez, Leif Davis, Jamie Shackleton.

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