Aston Villa (0) vs Burnley (0) – Villa Let Another Win Slip Away

When Villa captain, Jack Grealish, lay prone on the ground in the 90th minute after his last desperate effort to break a scoreless tie had sailed just over, the look of utter frustration echoed throughout Villa fandom. The faithful could not believe that his shot from 15 yards had cleared the crossbar with only goalie Nick Pope to beat. This was a similar range from which he had scored the all-important goal against West Ham last summer, the goal that kept his team in the Premier League. This should have been an encore.

In retrospect, it gets a little easier to make sense of the home team taking 27 shots, seven on target, and all failing to cross the line. So, let us start with the visitors and see what they brought to the table. Out of eleven prior Premier games this season, Burnley had already posted two 0-0 draws and one 1-1 draw. After two early season 1-0 losses, they most recently had reversed their fortunes, flipping those scores, and winning both games 1-0. Those seven games had netted them nine points from only three (yes, 3) goals! It’s the equivalent of old tales of frugal secretaries saving a fortune.

Burnley is soccer’s equivalent. The club has to do it this way. Burnley must have the least-funded team in the Premier League. With a ground capacity of 21,994, half the size of Villa’s and out of sight of Old Trafford at 74,879, they are number 20 out of 20 in resources, with none of the big team sponsorships. They hang on with grit over flash.

Manager, Sean Dyche, is the miracle-worker assembling the most competent players at a reasonable price and organizing them to thwart their more talent-rich opponents. They so frustrated Arsenal at the Emirates in their previous game that Granit Xhaka put a chokehold on a Burnley player and got sent off and, Arsenal captain, Pierre-Emerick. Aubameyang, scored the only goal into his own net. That’s frustration.

Dyche’s teams are as prepared as any team can be and they play disciplined sensible soccer, staying behind the ball when they do not have possession, and not over-committing bodies on their counterattacks. Dyche has an excellent finisher in Chris Wood, a New Zealander, who can be unstoppable in the air.

As important, they always seem to find excellent, yet underrated, goalkeepers. They picked up Nick Pope from Charlton Athletic in 2016 for a modest fee and recouped that with a tidy profit when they let Tom Heaton go to Aston Villa in 2019. Since then, Pope has become Jordan Pickford’s backup for England and has started four games for his country and not yielded a single goal. In twelve games this season for Burnley, he has conceded 18 goals but twelve of those came in three games against top-tier sides when his team was overrun. Meanwhile, Burnley has only six goals to show for their twelve games.

The Villans had another reason to take this game very seriously. After winning their first two game at home this season, Villa lost the next three home games in a row, against Leeds, Southampton, and Brighton. Four of their six wins have been at away stadiums. No opposition looks easy when you are on a three home-game losing streak with yet another empty stadium.

Add to that, necessitated changes had left the squad shy of some outstanding players (Ross Barkley, Matty Cash, Douglas Luiz, Ezri Konsa, and Wesley Moraes). Ahmed Elmohamady, Kortney Hause, Anwar El Ghazi, and Bertrand Traoré all started with very little recent Premier League play between them.

Still, you would not have noticed any unease emanating from the hosts at the kick-off. In fact, the Villans showed their appetite from the get-go, pushing the play forward, pressing wherever they could, moving the ball quickly up the field and side-to-side. They were rewarded with a couple of corners right away, effectively zipped in, or taken short, by El Ghazi and Traoré. One partial clearance saw the ball bounce in front of the latter, a Burkinabé international, who came remarkably close to hitting the target with a volley off the outside of his left foot, almost catching the top corner in the 6th minute and displaying a clue to why he was picked up during the break for $20 million from Olympique Lyon.

Smith had chosen to move Grealish into the quarterback position between the two wingers and ahead of Nakamba and McGinn. With El Ghazi occupying Grealish’s favored spot on the left wing, the Dutchman knew he had to shine to fill his captain’s performance but was emboldened by his game-winning penalty just days prior at Wolves. He was evidently trying to add to that tally, giving Lowton fits running at him, cutting in and not hesitating to take shots that came close or were blocked.

Slowly, Burnley clawed their way into the game with Brady showing his skill and experience. Feeding Brownhill, who appeared on the right, the immediate cross found Wood in a seam between Hause and Elmohamady. The striker had enough hangtime to power his header towards Martinez’s top right corner. The Argentinian keeper was catlike as he reached the ball and clawed it away, an effort that had looked like a certain goal. This was Burnley’s first attempt on goal at 21 minutes and it was a very good one.

Barely minutes after that scare, the ball headed back to El Ghazi, from Grealish naturally, and this time the winger whipped over a nasty center that carried through to Traoré open on the right of the box. He brought the ball under control with room to shoot, only to set-up for his left-foot and allow Taylor to slide over and stifle the shot.

The Villans came even closer when El Ghazi powered outside of Lowton and pulled the ball back just before it crossed the goal line. Elmohamady, reading the situation perfectly, was positioned at the edge of the area when the ball bounced in front of him. His right-footed volley was partially blocked by Brownhill’s lowered head, but only to Watkins who redirected with his thigh to get the ball back on track and towards the corner of the net. The young striker was in a pre-celebration pose when he saw that Lowton had seen the danger and posted himself on the line. The former Villan did not have to move, just head it away. 30 minutes gone and it seemed that the first goal must come momentarily.

That the next bona fide opportunity came from a direct free kick seemed fitting. In fact, back-to-back free kicks. First, Nakamba was too fast and elusive for Brady in competing for a loose ball in the middle of the field and when the Irish international extended himself a little rashly, he got all ankle and no ball. Brady was genuinely apologetic but still received a yellow card, Burnley’s only one as it turned out. Grealish waited a few yards away for a short kick, just in Burnley’s half and, upon receiving it, put his head down and took off at increasing speed. He soon gathered a small crowd, more a mob, as he approached the penalty area. Mee who was out of position and not fancying a one-on-one with arguably the country’s best dribbler, executed a cynical trip to stop Grealish in his tracks. Grealish, did not react to the trip, but he did demand a yellow card. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so obvious in his remonstration, referee Pawson might have given it. Instead, the ref focused on preparing for the freekick.

El Ghazi was breathing heavily and almost licking his lips. Twenty-five yards out and slightly to the left of the goal, it was a perfect placement for a right-footer to create enough whip to bring the ball down after clearing the wall. As the shot left El Ghazi’s foot, it initially appeared too hard and too straight to bother the tall and athletic Pope. Past the wall, it did its business, dropping and moving left. Pope had to leap high and wide to his right and just managed to get a couple of fingers to the ball as it was sneaking under the bar. It was enough to divert the shot off the top of the bar, and over, for a corner. A brilliant save, but so routine that his teammates skipped the recognition. Either that or they knew that Grealish loves quick freekicks, especially corners, to catch opponents unprepared.

With plenty of possession and good chances, the only Villan not appearing to be enjoying the party was striker Ollie Watkins. There was good reason. The Burnley backline was playing so deep that Watkins had absolutely no room to operate in. When the ball suddenly arrived at his feet with halftime approaching, he appeared shocked and badly scuffed the shot that rolled to the goalie.

All those missed opportunities should have been forgotten with a goal of remarkable simplicity. Traoré took yet another Villa corner (one of ten) that came from sharp interplay on the right between Elmohamady and Traoré forcing McNeil to concede. The corner was of the highest quality, a left-footed inswinger with vicious whip that saw three players (two of them Villans) competing for a flick-on that Hause barely had to move to at the back post. The center-back’s header was past Pope in a flash only to canon back off the left hand upright. The ricochet pinged off Lowton for another corner with Hause looking stunned.

The second half started like the first, with the Villa doing almost all the pressing. After 52 minutes, Watkins finally received a pass he could deal with. It was a curved right foot inswinger that the striker had to lean back to get to, but he still succeeded in directing a header to Pope’s left corner. The keeper did a fine job of anticipating and he was fully stretched to smother the ball as it bounced just in front of the line.

A minute later Grealish drew three defenders to him and slid a perfect pass to Traoré only for it to be on his weaker right foot. Coming in from the right, Pope covered the tough angle and, with Watkins open, he chose to be selfless. By the time the pass arrived a defender slid across and blocked it.

Within minutes El Ghazi found himself with three gilt-edged chances, all courtesy of Grealish’s passes or, merely, his threatening presence. One shot was hit with authority around Mee with the intent that it would curve inside Pope’s left upright. It didn’t curve enough and went just wide. The next saw him with an open look before Lowton’s heel clipped the shot and lifted it over the bar. The third, he totally scuffed.

By this time, it was apparent, that Burnley’s counterattack threat had been left in the dressing room. Maybe they were exhausted having had two days less rest from their weekend game (and it was the same squad). In fact, they did win a corner, but it was a case of energetic hustling by Burnley’s front men rather than a real threat. Still, Villa were reminded how dangerous set pieces can be when an attempted clearance bounced close enough for Ben Mee, up for the corner, to swing a long leg and hook the ball goal-wards.

Fortunately, it was right at Martinez and he snatched the ball as if irritated and sent it on its way to Grealish. That was, at 72 minutes, effectively the end of Burnley’s attempts to score and the beginning of Grealish deciding that, if a goal was to be scored, he would have to do it himself. First, he drove Mee back into penalty area and then hit a hard shot towards Pope’s right corner with his sight blocked. Great idea except, six inches wide of the mark.

Then McGinn won a corner on the right and quickly fed Traoré, open in the center of the penalty area, only for a loose first touch to allow Tarkowski to slide and block the shot. Then Watkins, found space on the right and did an impression of his captain, running and juggling through challenges. Mee’s response was to attempt to kick the ball out of the air, only to bloody the young striker’s nose instead.

Even more painful for the fans, was watching Mings’ header from a quick free kick by Grealish and a cross by Elmohamady drift wide of the left upright when it should have been buried in the back of the net. Burnley’s defense, tiring, was totally unprepared.

That set-up Grealish for his 90th minute brilliant run that left defenders floundering, before cutting into the penalty area and unleashing that final wicked shot that just cleared the bar and left him, and Villa fans, devastated.

Fortunately for Villa fans, Dean Smith is a remarkably sanguine and level-headed manager. As early as the postgame interview he had regained his composure. Who wouldn’t rue 27 shots with nothing to show for it? Still, he was able see the many positives. His four changes had not compromised the great defensive record (this was their seventh shut-out in eleven games) and, importantly, it had broken a three-game losing streak at home. That many of the chances fell to two players with limited first team appearances (El Ghazi and Traoré) was another mitigating factor, that Smith chose to see in a positive light, noting that “You have to be there to get the chances.”

With the following game only four days away at West Bromwich Albion, their West Midlands’ rival, with only one win all season, a very porous defense, and a new manager, this appeared like a good opportunity to expunge any negative thoughts.

Game on, Villa.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Ahmed Elmohamady, Kortney Hause, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Marvelous Nakamba, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Jed Steer, Conor Hourihane, Jacob Ramsey, Frederic Guilbert, Keinan Davis (75 mins., for Traoré), Bjorn Engels, Frederic Guilbert

Burnley (4-4-2): Nick Pope, Matthew Lowton, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee, Charlie Taylor, Robbie Brady, Ashley Westwood, Josh Brownhill, Dwight McNeil, Chris Wood

SUBS: Ashley Barnes, (s 65′, for Rodriguez), Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Erik Pieters (s 90′, for Brady), Phil Bardsley, Matej Vydra (s 82′, for Wood), Kevin Long, Josh Benson

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