Aston Villa (3) vs Crystal Palace (0) – Plane Sailing for Villa’s 10-men

With Aston Villa still looking for their third home win in this, their seventh home game, nothing was taken for granted. Since bringing down Liverpool (7-2) in early October, they had lost the three consecutive home fixtures and then tied Burnley (0-0). That record caused the fans’ early swagger to wobble. Nor did the fraught memories of last season’s trip to Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park help. As reported at the time:

Jack Grealish made a solo run after which he was fouled just before the penalty area. He still managed to get the ball to a teammate, who then scored a goal.

It should be a goal for Villa, but the referee made one of the strangest decisions ever.

He booked Grealish for diving and disallowed Villa’s goal. A shocking decision that didn’t make sense.

That was the Villans fourth game of the season that turned a 10-men come from behind moral-victory into a demoralizing loss and mini-tailspin (over a month without a win). Still, it says a lot about the way manager Dean Smith was able to deal with adversity such as that, and turn the ship around by the end of the season.

Even more impressive is how he has melded this young team (the youngest on average in the Premier League) such that they are taking games to their opponents with self-belief. It was obvious from the kick-off on Saturday that last season’s memories were way in the past. They were also benefiting from being able to field an identical squad to their Albion game with recent inclusions (Hause, El Ghazi, and Traoré) retaining their positions after making the most of their opportunities to shine. In fact, these benchwarmers from the early-season went on to become the game’s goal-scorers.

Palace, meanwhile, were coming of a drubbing at the hands of Liverpool who very efficiently converted nine shots into seven goals. To lose 7-0, at home, is embarrassing to say the least. A less experienced manager might have been tempted to make changes starting with the goalie. Roy Hodgson knows he has one of the best keepers in the Premier League in Vicente Guaita, who earned his spurs in Spain’s La Liga, and he left him, and the rest of the squad, mostly unchanged to face Villa. A game in Birmingham, in fact, may have appeared to be a good opportunity to right the ship.

The opening minute made that appear prescient, with Villa being gracious hosts. Sloppy play just inside their own half let ex-Villan, Benteke, poke a loose ball forward for Zaha and Mings to tussle over with the Ivory Coast international coming out on top. Fortunately for the Villa, Emi Martinez had sniffed out the danger and was off his line to block the shot with his chest so a desperate Mings could clear the ball away.

That seemed to settle the Villans down and they soon found a rhythm in their new formation (4-2-3-1). Luiz and McGinn are at the fulcrum making sure that no intrusion pierced the backline without first having to deal with them. Always close at hand to them was Jack Grealish, the captain and the engine.

Almost impossible to tackle, he holds the ball as long as it takes another Villan to get open to receive. That will often be one of the two wide forwards, Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traoré, natural wingers with great speed and control. Alternatively, he will find Ollie Watkins, the striker, racing into open areas on each flank.

This formation has a number of benefits. It reduces the need for the fullbacks to turn into wingbacks and compromise their defensive responsibilities. That has translated to the league-leading large number of shutouts. At the other end, Watkins’ running exhausts the bigger and slower defenders leading to lots of late game heroics.

In the 5th minute, the system proved itself. Luiz pinched in and diverted a Palace pass to McGinn who already knew that Traoré had lots of space on the right. In receiving the ball just inside Palace’s half of the field. the off-season pickup from Lyon ran directly towards the goal while Watkins immediately cut across to Traoré’s vacated right wing. As soon as the striker reached the right-hand corner of the penalty area, the pass from the Burkinabé international was there on a platter.

Scott Dann came part way out to challenge while Watkins ran at him and executed a step-over that left Dann in his tracks. With a yard to work with the youngster set himself and hit a powerful drive aimed at the far corner. Guaita did well to reach the shot with one hand as he dove to his right but could only parry it to, of all people, Traoré, who had taken up his teammate’s striker position. Not that other options were any better for the keeper as Grealish and El Ghazi had him surrounded. Traoré stepped forward and slammed the ball into the middle of the goal with his unfavored right foot. Aston Villa 1, Crystal Palace 0.

As the Birmingham boys celebrated, at some level they must have remembered that they had won every previous game (all seven) in which they scored first. Certainly, the manager must have enjoyed the goal’s simplicity and directness. They had cut their opponent’s defense to pieces in a few seconds with three passes and two shots.

Another incisive move followed, this time by El Ghazi, who cut inside Ward, then out to deliver an excellent cross beyond the heavily marked Watkins to an open Traoré. At the last second, van Aanholt saw the danger, jumped in, and headed the ball well over his own goal.

Palace, despite their Liverpool debacle, is a resilient team and they clawed their way back into the game and looked particularly dangerous when Eze zinged the ball across the face of the goal for someone to get a foot to. Goalie Martinez was alive to the danger, springing off his line, diving and clawing the ball into his chest with Benteke looming.

In the 18th minute, Traoré almost doubled the lead. Watkins gathered the ball on the right before laying off a quick pass. Traoré slid by McArthur and conjured up a deceptively hard shot, curved with the inside of his left foot, that caromed off the bottom of Guaita’s right post with him rooted to the spot.

Just two minutes later a Palace corner almost led to a Grealish goal at the other end of the field. After a headed clearance was pinged back, Luiz cleared the ball to the feet of Traoré. From just outside his own penalty area on the left, he took off on a counterattack at speed and with captain, Grealish, running up inside him. Traoré’s pass split Palace’s scattered defenders and gave Grealish a clear run at the Palace goal from the halfway line with only Zaha anticipating and in close pursuit. Palace’s fastest player did his utmost to push the Villa captain to his left but Grealish was finally able to shake off his shadow in the area by which time the goalie had cut down the angle. Off-balance and running out of space, and options, Grealish hit the ball hard and low, hoping to squeeze it by, but the shot ricocheted off the back of the goalie’s spreadeagled right leg.

From the ensuing corner, a Palace head diverted the ball to the back post where Watkins headed down to El Ghazi’s feet in the six-yard area, but Guaita saved his shot as well.

Finally, in the 24th minute, Crystal Palace gained some possession and van Aanholt used a give and go with Benteke to get past Cash on the outside. As the ball bounced, Cash got some of the ball and some of the wing-back and the ball went behind with the Palace player remonstrating for a penalty. Referee Anthony Taylor got no definitive response from the VAR ref and checked a second time himself. concluding there was not enough evidence to overturn his original call. A big relief for the team and the faithful!

Villa threatened again, in the 29th minute, when another through ball by Grealish to Watkins was anticipated by Guaita but the ball bounced outside the area forcing the goalie to go for a header. Watkins made the better jump and reached the ball first but, lucky for Palace, there were blue and white shirts to clear their lines and prevent a tap-in.

Next, Zaha and McGinn came together at the edge of the Villa penalty area with the Villan getting the ball and the Ivorian complaining. The referee shut him up by awarding the freekick. Perhaps Milivojevic deemed the infringement too petty as his shot had none of power and direction that he his well-known for and Martinez gathered it easily.

The play continued in this untidy fashion until the 38th minute when a foul by Zaha on McGinn resulted in the Villa player going down. With Zaha protesting his innocence and suggested that McGinn was the miscreant Mings grabbed the ball off Zaha to take the free kick, further upsetting the Palace player. A case of handbags (according to the British commentator) proceeded resulting in off-setting yellow cards.

This episode did not distract the Villa striker whose dearth of goals has turned him into a voracious forager. A ball down the open right wing was all he needed to leave Dann, again, flat-footed before sending over a delicious cross from the goal line that cleared the goalie and everyone in the six-yard area and landed at El Ghazi’s feet. The Dutchman instantly brought it under control but Guaita raced out to cut the angle and the shot rebounded off his body back to Grealish at the edge of the penalty area. McCarthy blocked his path with the goal vacant and Palace eventually cleared the danger.

With all the action in front of the Palace goal, it came as a surprise when the game’s seminal moment came from Mings attempting to gather another lusty clearance. Zaha barged into Villa’s gentle-giant and managed to make him stagger. With no response from the referee the Palace player nipped the ball and Mings responded with a block. This whole thing would have been immaterial except Mings was on a yellow card. Before you could say Jack Robinson, Mings was shown another yellow and then a red card and the Villa were down to 10 men. Yikes. Now those missed opportunities to add a second goal seemed huge.

It was 40 minutes before the dust settled and Konsa was brought on for Traoré (that seemed a strange reward for scoring), but Smith needed Konsa on to replace Mings and Traoré was a logical choice.

The halftime break came without incident and gave Smith the opportunity to remind his squad that they needed to get bodies behind the ball but, also, they would be getting plenty of counterattacking opportunities and they should make the most of them. This was a predictable scenario worth repeating, as the Villa, themselves, have often found (e.g., most recently, in their season opener against Sheffield United).

True to form, the first opportunity of the second half came from an excellent cross, on a break in the 58th minute, from El Ghazi, that Watkins headed goalward only for it to hit the back of a defender falling. Crystal Palace eventually fashioned a shot that came close a couple of minutes later when Benteke flashed one just outside the post, albeit with the assistant ref ready to raise his flag anyway.

Villa’s fullbacks, throughout the Palace pressure, were remarkably adept at blocking crosses for throw-ins and rarely corners (in fact, game stats showed they only had four corners in the whole game, the same tally as the Villa). Other long balls into the area were easy fodder for Martinez and his muscular center backs (Hause and Konsa). Their best opportunity to score appeared to be a free kick that Cash gave up, just outside the area. Milivojevic, as team captain, got to decide who took the kick. Naturally, he chose himself, again.

He had learned that beating a goalie of Martinez’s size and ability required something special. Anticipating the defensive wall jumping to defend his free kick, he hit a “daisy-cutter” that fooled nobody. He may have been ruing that embarrassment when, a few minutes later, the Villa were awarded a free kick that Luiz chipped into the right-wing corner for El Ghazi to run onto and kill some time. van Aanholt had him covered but this was too frustrating for the Palace captain who came out of nowhere to dump El Ghazi and gift a free kick in a dangerous spot.

Hause was the big target sent in by Smith and El Ghazi took the free kick. Hause almost got his head on the ball but whiffed it and the ball whipped down and hit Watkins’ thigh and bounced. Managing to shake-off Ward, the striker headed the rebound over Guaita, but onto the crossbar and out again. Hause got a second bite of the cherry and he was the quickest and strongest heading the ball back over the line, barely. Guaita clawed it out and would likely been given the benefit of the doubt, pre-goal-line technology. The ref pointed at his watch, blew his whistle, and pointed. A 10-men Villa goal and the team was ecstatic. At the 66th minute, it’s Aston Villa 2, Crystal Palace 0.

Not surprisingly, Roy Hodgson gave Luka Milivojevic the hook, replacing him with Jairo Riedewald which turned out not to help. Meanwhile, the Villa got another fast break in the 73rd minute as McGinn held off a group of white shirts as he carried the ball out of the danger zone and found Grealish racing alone on his left. Grealish saw his man-in-motion machine ahead of him and dispatched perfect pass for Watkins to run onto. Considering the score, Grealish could have easily justified easing off the gas. Instead, he accelerated for thirty yards to pick up Watkins’ neat back-heel, went around the outside of Palace’s defense and pulled the perfect pass back for his striker to redirect into the far open corner of the net. A certain goal, until Scott Dan’s foot slid over and blocked the shot.

Not to worry, just two minutes later Hause cleared a Palace cross high and wide towards touch on the left wing. Not many would have seen that as an opportunity for another counterattack, but Grealish did. He scooted down the left wing, headed the bouncing ball before it went out and carried into the Palace half. With Watkins in the inside right position running towards the penalty area dragging Scott Dan with him, his captain hit a sumptuous pass with the outside of his right foot. He judged that Dan would have trouble stopping to intercept the pass and the center back, after initially looking interested, kept going to maintain his position with respect to Watkins. Perhaps distracted by Dan’s hesitation, the striker’s first touch was loose, and the shot opportunity appeared lost, but that did not stop Watkins making sure to get to the ball first. Dan had the angle to goal covered but El Ghazi was ten yards away and available.

Watkins teed up a perfect pass and El Ghazi moved nothing other than his right leg, first back and then through the ball, that exploded off the inside of the left post and back into the net. Where was Riedewald at this time? About ten yards from the shooter. Too little, too late. At 75 minutes, Aston Villa 3, Crystal Palace 0.

Surprisingly, the Grealish-Watkins show had one more encore. This time in the 87th minute Grealish carried the ball and all the defenders to the top of the penalty area only to cut a pass back to Watkins who had raced from right to left of the area. He took the ball with only the goalie to beat which he did with a smooth left-footer. This time the ball has the audacity to hit the inside of the far post and rebound so that when the goalie looked behind him, it arrived in his hands. Watkins dropped into a crouch, shook his head and every Villa fan joined him.

Not to worry, Watkins was widely selected as the man of the match and one-word recognition from Alan Shearer: Brilliant. Not bad, for his first year in the Premiership.

Now onto London, Stamford Bridge and Chelsea and who knows?

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

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady (s 86′), Taylor, Konsa (s 45′), Ramsey (s 90′), Davis, Hourihane, Guilbert, Nakamba

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Guaita; Ward, Kouyate, Dann, van Aanholt, Schlupp, Milivojevic, McArthur, Eze, Zaha, Benteke

SUBS: Butland, Tomkins, Ayew, Townsend (s 82′), Clyne, McCarthy, Batshuayi (s 75′), Mitchell, Riedewald (s 69′)

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