Aston Villa (1) vs Brighton Hove Albion (2) – What Were They Thinking?

Villa fans were feeling very confident at the prospect of a Brighton visit on Saturday morning that could let them stick their noses in front of the pack in the Premier League, if only for a couple of hours. By kick-off at Villa Park, Chelsea had edged Newcastle 2-0, meaning the Villans needed a three-goal difference which, combined with a game advantage, would have them top and waiting to see how Spurs, Leicester, and Liverpool fared. Riding also on some heady individual performances (by Grealish and McGinn) for their countries during the international break, the optimism was tinged with concern that this suddenly successful Villa team might take a struggling Brighton team too much for granted.

Ever leery of being disappointed, the Villa faithful would have been hoping that the squad kept in mind that their five victories out of seven games had seen them scoring the first goal and those two losses were in large part to them giving up the first goal.

Another factor also worth remembering was that those two losses were at Villa Park and the first goals that they had given up were eminently preventable. Certainly, their defensive performance against Arsenal at the Emirates was exemplary, and that continued for the full ninety minutes.

Naturally, it is easy to blame the unfortunate injury to Ross Barkley in the very first minutes of this game for upsetting their rhythm and for spurning gilt-edged chances. Still, quality teams are supposed to deal with all kinds of adversity.

BHA, meanwhile, had enhanced their squad with a pedigree striker in Danny Welbeck. In this, his second appearance for the Seagulls, it never occurred to the Villa defense that he might poop on their parade! Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to the freekick that injured Villa’s Chelsea loanee. The infraction occurred in the first sixty seconds of the game, about the same time that, in the Arsenal game, Grealish was setting up John McGinn to momentarily open the scoring. This time Grealish had out-fought the impressive Tariq Lamptey for possession necessitating the wing-back taking Jack’s legs from under him before the England star could do more damage. The muscular and intense Barkley took the kick and, not for the first time, failed to clear the first defender but, much more worrisomely, wince and drop to the ground in evident discomfort.

During the medical attention on the field, Villa Manager Dean Smith had time to consider his options for what was evidently going to require a substitution. Given that the game effectively had not started, he had another opportunity to let the team’s most recent signing, Bertrand Traoré, demonstrate that his bag of tricks was worth the millions they paid.

By the eight-minute mark the Burkinabé international had already shown a valuable skill, and that was placing very accurate freekicks that, thanks to remarkable topspin, would drop into that danger area right in front of the six-yard box – the bane of all goalies and back line defenders. His first contribution of this sort managed to evade Ezri Konsa and Ollie Watkins plus three or more of their markers as if the ball was possessed. It did make it as far as Trezeguet wide on the right and Trez lashed it back at the net only for Webster to charge it down.

This spoiler behavior to their hosts continued a couple of minutes later when the visitor’s Adam Lallana contrived to thwart Villa’s excellent interplay between Trezeguet and Cash who skipped by Dunk and, after carrying to the goal-line, pulled the ball back for Traoré who, still a little off the Premier League pace, found a sliding Lallana block the pass before it arrived.

Shortly after, a most bizarre ad hoc meeting occurred twenty yards inside Brighton’s half near the left touchline. A clearance from the Brighton defense came to Brighton’s Maupay who attracted the close attention of three Villans: Mings, Konsa and Luiz. It is likely that the reason they decided to meet, and right there, will undoubtedly be discussed with the coaching staff.

What that meant was that the safe was open and the Seagulls had the key. A lay-off by Maupay back to Lallana and a quick pass beyond the assemblage to an alert, and already running, Danny Welbeck was perfectly placed. The ex-England and Man U star kept his cool and raced towards an advancing Emi Martinez with a posse of Mings, Konsa, and Cash unable to gain on the still speedy striker. It was with great aplomb that Welbeck waited for the goalie to stoop down before scooping the ball over his right shoulder and into the empty net. Shot number one for the away team and Villa were down at home again, Aston Villa 0, Brighton 1.

The Villans wisely made little of the reality of this major blow, not wishing to give their rivals any more reason to feel confident. Instead, they maintained their pressure suggesting that they were the better team who would soon right the ship and the score line, comforted by the clock showing the better part of eighty minutes to go. Then, of all people, John McGinn, played a ball a touch too casually out to the wing in his own half only for Lamptey to anticipate and intercept, and race with the ball into the penalty area. Martinez and the remaining defense prepared for the shot but then the unselfish wing-back pulled the ball across the area to an open Welbeck. Welbeck seemed surprised and his first touch was loose and he let the ball travel a yard, close enough to the goalie to dive on. Gracias amigo! McGinn could breathe a sigh of relief.

The home team hopped back onto the front foot and should have tied the game. It all came about thanks to a simple play and the speed and skill of Ollie Watkins. From deep in his own half, Targett stroked the ball down the line to the speedy striker positioned just inside the Brighton half. The situation was not dangerous until Lewis Dunk decided to apply his greater strength and size to stop matters right there, only he forgot to tell Ollie.

The slim, almost fey-looking, youngster is surprisingly strong and well-balanced. Holding his ground while protecting the ball, the Brighton captain and center-back was the one left stumbling and the fleet of foot Ollie was heading down the field towards the Brighton goal. Jack Grealish showed interest and joined him and, crossing paths made himself available on Watkins’ left. A give and go with Grealish had the ball at Ollie’s feet on the edge of the six-yard box and only the goalie to beat.

The only problem was that the ball was under his feet and not in front of them. Poor Dunk had managed to get himself back into the thick of things and tried to help by pushing the ball away from Watkins, only it was out of the frying pan and into the fire, as he gifted an open goal to Trezeguet who struck the ball only for Adam Webster to throw himself in the way to block. The ball came back to Trezeguet who now had more time, and more of an empty net a couple of yards away, except the Egyptian’s heart was now pumping at some insane rate and he lashed the bouncing ball high and wide. Traoré, meanwhile, was waiting patiently for the tap-in. Truth be told, Trezeguet looked very upset with himself.

A quarter into the game and great chances continued at each end of the field. First Traoré, who seemed to be getting into the game more, worked his way across the penalty area to find the right position to unleash a shot to the near post with his favored left-foot. I can imagine that shots, such as this one, have been lucrative to this well-traveled player, but Matt Ryan is too good a goalie to get beaten cheaply and he flung himself across his line to push it around the post.

Before one could catch a breath, a crisp pass along the grass to Welbeck was exquisitely glanced with a deft turn of his right foot to bisect the Konsa and Mings duo. Maupay was already by Konsa before the normally steady defender could respond and it was one and one with Martinez. The Frenchman is a reliable goal-scorer and dispatched a low shot that, against most goalies, would have sufficed. Martinez proved his worth and kept Villa in the game.

It was Villa’s turn and pressure yielded a powerful shot that caromed at the edge of the Brighton penalty area. Hustling Trezeguet got to the ball first and chested it down facing away from the goal but was evidently still hyped up by his near miss earlier. He swiveled on the ball and blazed it over the bar.

Much more controlled was Grealish who carried the ball in from the left to the edge of the penalty area and, with less time to set, attempted to repeat his feat of last season in beating Man U’s de Gea from the same range. This attempt had less whip and that made it possible for Ryan to leap high and wide and palm it away for a corner.

It was back to Brighton and, again, great play from the Villa goalie. A pass into the left lane for Maupay who was being shepherded by Mings took an awkward bounce over Maupay’s foot and went through the center-back’s legs. Maupay, a pesky player reminiscent of Jamie Vardy, was around Mings in a flash. Fortunately, for a man of his size, Emi is both quick and imposing and the ball was promptly dispatched up field.

Brighton were soon back, making sure that the Villa pressure was balanced by their own counterpunches. A long cross from one wing back to another, shades of Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson, was arced by Solly March to an open Tariq Lamptey on the far edge of the Villa penalty area. A quick decisive and accurate pass to Adam Lallana had the Liverpool pickup perfectly placed, with an excellent goal-scoring opportunity, but he muffed his lines and missed the left post by yards.

These close calls were the perfect prelude to what should have been a Villa tying goal. All the key Villa players were there. It came about because of an over-zealous Brighton tackle in a favored freekick location, halfway into the opposition’s area and towards the touchline, in this case, the right touchline. It would have been Barkley’s if he’d been on the field, but Grealish is just as good at putting enough zip on the ball and placement beyond the defensive line but not too close to let the goalie snatch it. What it wasn’t was high enough for Mings to attack with his head. For someone of his height (6’ 5”), Tyrone displays remarkable agility. He reached the ball with the inside of his left foot at somewhere like four feet off the ground. The ball went mostly vertical though generally in the direction of the goal.

Ryan scampered to his left attempting to assess where the spinning ball was going to come down. Preparing to bounce off the post, it arrived at the same time as he did, the goalie was able to raise his left foot to punt it off the line. Watkins was caught ball watching, no doubt in hindsight wishing he had put his noggin in the way before the goalie’s foot came up. Alternatively, he may have had a flashback to the collision between Virgil Van Dyck and Jordan Pickford that left Van Dyck out for the season. Suffice to say, another missed opportunity.

Barely two minutes later, another huge miss. This time it was a more classic play, but again came from a Grealish pass. Receiving a feed from Douglas Luiz, the Villa captain split the Brighton defense and laid a perfect pass to Ollie Watkins for a tap-in as he had a step on his marker, Ben Webster. What he didn’t allow for was the industry and speed of Webster to slide around him and deflect the ball just wide of the post. The Villa striker pulled his shirt over his head as if embarrassed at being pick-pocketed.

There was still time for Trezeguet to, yet again, blaze a shot over the bar. This chance came as a result of a blocked shot bouncing kindly for him in the penalty area. Like watching a frustrated golfer, it was no surprise that his shot was wilder and higher than the others that preceded it. Time to visit a shrink.

Whatever Dean Smith said during the halftime break, it worked immediately. The Villa’s first second-half attack was on the left and saw Grealish fouled yet again. It was in a similar spot to Traoré’s dangerous first-half effort and Jack ceded it to give the new signing another opportunity. Konsa, who had been close to the prior cross, adjusted his run, taking a position to the right of the line. From his new vantage, the ball was descending to a level that he could deal with. He, and the ball, met at the edge of the six-yard box and, leaning his body sideways, he hammered it into the ground so that it bounced over the diving Ryan. Holy Hannah! Finally, a goal. Aston Villa 1 Brighton 1. There were still 43 minutes to score a winner.

The initial pressure put on by Villa was an attempt to catch the visitors flat-footed after losing the lead. It became quickly apparent that this Graham Potter managed team has the composure to offset that problem. The game proceeded at a more measured pace than the end-to-end action of the first half with Brighton showing, if anything, more industry. A Villa corner was taken short from Grealish to Watkins who found Luiz open well outside the box. The Brazilian had options but instead chose a speculative shot from 30 yards that Ryan gathered comfortably. An opportunity wasted.

Meanwhile, the Seagull’s pressure was causing the Villa to give up possession. A sloppy back pass by Mings to his goalie went straight out for a corner, Traoré had the ball at the Brighton goal line in a good spot to cross but reversed himself (he doesn’t trust his right foot) and, soon after, he lost the ball dribbling. To add insult to injury, Lamptey carried the ball through the heart of the field before slipping a pass to Welbeck who would have been clear if not for Martinez sprinting fifteen yards off his line to gather a step before the striker.

It should not have been a surprise when Brighton manufactured an opportunity in the 55th minute as the Villa dawdled. A neat passing play around the outside of the area saw Groß in space on the right, albeit with plenty of claret and blue shirts around. What Groß noticed was Solly March making himself available in the opposite corner of the area and an open channel to pass through. The ball was crisply sent on its way, side-footed, and March was able to meet it perfectly with his own right foot arcing into the top corner of the net beyond Martinez’s desperate leap. So easy. As March jumped for joy, Douglas Luiz dropped his head onto his chest. He was standing five yards outside the area and not where he should have been, blocking that channel. Aston Villa 1 Brighton 2.

With plenty of time but no crowd to encourage them and Brighton able to focus on containment, the Villans were faced with an uphill battle and not much energy in the tank. They almost added to their woes when Grealish recklessly backheeled in his own penalty area. The effort to gain a goal kick landed at Maupay’s feet and, after his shot was blocked, Welbeck hit the ball just wide.

The addition of El Ghazi for Traoré and Hourihane for Luiz with 15 minutes left, added some spark but the eleven Seagulls behind the ball was too much to overcome.

The injury-time minutes were desperate and messy. Lamptey picked up a second yellow for bundling Grealish over and was ejected. Then Trezeguet was apparently tripped by March only for the referee, Michael Oliver, to overturn his own penalty call after reviewing the VAR! Poor Trezeguet. His collapse, and writhing, when he felt contact was far too dramatic!

Hindsight suggests one glaring problem. They sabotaged two games (this and against Southampton) by giving up sloppy first goals. They also miss Barkley playing a strong number 8, and none of their other options have Ross’s strength and passing precision. Traoré was frequently brushed-off by stronger defenders and failed to place one penetrating pass in open play. Perhaps with improved match fitness he will be able to contribute, but not at number 8.

Then there was the fatigue factor. A good number of the Villa line-up had been busy with international duty (Grealish, McGinn, Luiz, Traoré, and Martinez) and that did not help. With a nine-day break to their visit to play West Ham, that should find them better prepared. With Barkley unavailable, look for Smith to go back to Hourihane and a 4-3-3 line-up. This will also give Targett more support defensively. Perhaps they can extend their away game win-streak. We hope so!

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

SUBS: Jed Steer, Conor Hourihane (75 mins, for Luiz), Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba, Anwar El Ghazi (74 mins., for Traoré), Bertrand Traoré (5 mins., for Barkley)

BRIGHTON (3-4-1-2): Matt Ryan; Ben White, Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster, Tariq Lamptey, Yves Bissouma, Pascal Groß, Solly March, Adam Lallana, Danny Welbeck, Neil Maupay

SUBS: Aaron Connolly, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Steven Alzate, Jason Steele, Dan Burn (for Maupay), Joel Veltman (45 mins., for Lallana), Jayson Molumby (90 mins., for Groß)

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