Brighton (0) Aston Villa (0) – Villa Hang on to Gain a Point

Whereas the Villa were on the front foot from the kickoff of their game at home to Arsenal, a week later in Brighton & Hove Albion’s Falmer/Amex Stadium they were a different team.  It could hardly be a case of not taking Brighton seriously as the Seagulls had been unbeaten in their most recent five Premier League games.  Nor could it be intimidation.  In beating Liverpool and Spurs, they did so by only the slightest of margins, 1-0.  This team lacked clinical finishing. Even the home advantage that Brighton enjoyed was no advantage at all, with only one of their season’s five wins coming on home turf.  This appeared the perfect scenario for the Villans to gain revenge for the VAR-assisted home defeat to the Seagulls back in November!

Maybe that was the problem, it must have felt pre-ordained.  Suffice to say, there was no opening attacking flourish and nothing to suggest an early Villa goal.  In fact, the claret and blues were barely able to get control of the ball, let alone craft an attack.  Even the usually reliable John McGinn’s first pass of significance was a cross field variety that went straight to Alzate.  The surprised Colombian might have had a break if not for a decisive tackle by Matty Cash.

The hosts seemed more comfortable with the chilly conditions and it was Alexis Mac Allister who took their first shot, confidently lacing the ball with commitment from outside the box and winning a corner in the process.  That should have been a signal to take this 22-year-old Argentinian acquisition seriously.  Perhaps having an American girl’s given-name and a Scottish family-name was distracting but a pedigree that includes coming through the Boca Raton Juniors’ system and being selected for the national team to play alongside Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero is not to be sniffed at.

As an attacking midfielder, he found himself confronting and competing with Villans’ Douglas Luiz and Ross Barkley.  His play was at the energetic positive level that Villa manager, Dean Smith, has been looking for in recent weeks from his pair and not getting.

The Villa’s first sniff at an opportunity came when Brighton’s right wingback, Veltman, played the ball back to Ben White just outside the host’s penalty area, but a touch short, and it looked like Grealish could nip it.  Instead, White got their first and lofted it into no-man’s land over the halfway line.  Maupay came back to the ball quicker than Luiz and glanced a header down the right touchline that Mings was forced to put out for a throw-in.  Mac Alister came to receive and held off Luiz’s attentions as he carried the ball across the field to the left before laying it off to Alzate standing on the left touchline.

Alzate was forced back by Cash and had no option other than to return the ball to Mac Alister.  At this point, Barkley was standing five yards away from the Argentinian but made no attempt to contest the pass and then allowed Mac Alister to play a pass around him to Bissouma.  With plenty of time Bissouma was able to curve a searching pass to Veltman to run onto at the goal line, just outside the 6-yard box.  Targett had the angle covered ready to block a shot or a pass across the face of the goal.  Veltman chose a pull-back to Maupay who was confronted by Mings and Konsa, with Luiz nibbling at his heels from behind.  Mac Alister, at this point, was standing just inside the area, facing the center of the goal, with no claret and blue shirt within fifteen yards.

Maupay’s attempt to shoot caused him to collide with Luiz and the ball ended up coming harmlessly to Cash and the fullback hoofed it clear inelegantly.  It landed 35-yards away from the goal and might have hit Barkley if he had stood still.  The Chelsea loanee seemed distracted by Bissouma standing a yard away and lost sight of the ball until the Malian international expertly brought the ball down on his chest and turned away from Barkley, before finding Veltman open on the wing.  The wingback had plenty of time to shape a perfect cross that fooled Konsa, who went up with Maupay, only for it to sail over both of them to Mac Alister who had cruised in to nail a header well to the left of Martinez but a foot, or so, over the bar.  A golden opportunity spurned.

That turned out to be the best opportunity the Seagulls had to score because there was no way that Martinez could have saved it.  In retrospect, both Luiz and Barkley could have done more to prevent it.  When Mac Alister shook his head with frustration, those two Villans must have been very relieved. 

Over the next few minutes, the Villans exerted more pressure and looked like they might threaten only for Traore to carelessly lose possession.  The hosts took advantage, pinging the ball around with Veltman able to hold-off Luiz as he cut in from the right wing all the way to the penalty area before hitting a strong left-footed shot to the near post that Martinez did well to smother and hold onto in the 13th minute.

Less than a minute later, the Villans looked momentarily as they should.  A diagonal bullet pass from Cash to Grealish was instantly laid back to Mings for a give and go and Villa’s captain was on his way.  The pass was perfect. Grealish ran under it and pulled it over a backtracking Veltman and faced White at the edge of the box.  With Bissouma marshaling Barkley, Grealish hit a firm pass to McGinn racing to join the action.  An immediate return pass to Grealish was the Scot’s best option as he was closely marked.  Unfortunately, the pass was directed to Jack’s left foot, to allow him to cut around his markers, but Jack was on another page and the ball passed him by for a goal kick.

Finally, the Villa fashioned a half-chance in the 19th minute.  For the first time, a Grealish/Targett give and go worked and the fullback found Barkley in enough space in the penalty area to control and shoot.  That assumed, immediate control.  That didn’t happen.  With defenders now in the way, Ross passed on the chance to Luiz standing a couple of yards outside the box and centrally.  The still bobbling ball arrived and Luiz had to finish the control requirement by which time the only opening was via a whipped ball with lots of come-back.  That was negated by Trossard getting a toe on it.  Corner.

Grealish’s corner did not clear Bissouma but the Malian international failed to head clear, and the ball ended up back with Luiz in the inside-right position.  The obvious pass, back to Grealish, still on the right wing, was covered by Alzate, but the Brazilian faked that he was going in that direction only to deliciously cut it inside the Seagull’s halfback for Grealish to collect at the goal line.  The burned halfback raced back and slid across to block.  When Grealish saw the block coming he prepared himself for the “take-down”!  The yellow card was immediately brandished, and Villa had a freekick just outside the box.

Despite a strategic update from Mings, Traore’s freekick, like the corner, failed to clear the first defender, again Bissouma, only this time the midfield anchor did a better job heading away.  There were shades of “Ground Hog Day” when the ball came to Luiz again, only this time his excellent pass to Grealish was to the leftwing where his captain had returned.  The change did not improve Grealish’s fortunes as he had a poor first touch and the ball rebounded to Veltman who immediately set to break.  That necessitated Grealish grabbing the Dutch wingback’s arm, good for another yellow card.

The Villa captain’s troubles continued as he was off the mark with a pass deep in his own half.  That resulted in Trossard dribbling towards the box and, predictably, enticing Luiz to trip him.  Fortunately for Luiz, it was not a yellow as it could easily have been.  At twenty yards, or so, slightly to the right of the goal, it was a good opportunity for a shot to the top right-hand corner, but Mac Alister failed to get the necessary dip and it cleared the bar easily at the 24th minute.

Just as Villa appeared to be gaining control of the game, sloppiness again bit them in the butt. Another bad first touch, again by Traore resulted in the ball being gifted to Maupay and, again, Luiz’s anxiety at the site of the box induced another freekick for bundling over the French forward.  This was in a very similar position to Luiz’s previous gift, only to the left.  This time it was Pascal Groß who came forward to try his luck.  He chose to shoot low and might have bothered Martinez if the solid drive had not been close enough that the Argentinian keeper just had to drop to his knees to gather.

While the hosts had not really threatened, Villa’s mistakes and the unnecessary freekicks were preventing them developing any momentum and pressure that could threaten Sanchez in the Brighton goal who, over a third into the game, had yet to field a shot.  The next Brighton opportunity came to Maupay in the 35th minute after the usually reliable Konsa lost possession when he tried to be too clever.  Fortunately, the angle was tight, and the Frenchman’s shot rebounded giving him a couple of more hacks, the last one into the goalie’s hands.

In the 39th minute mark, it was Barkley who lost control of a throw-in from Targett.  Trossard expressed his gratitude by heading towards the Villa penalty area and, after exchanging passes with Alzate, hit a bullet of a shot that forced Martinez to dive high to his left to palm the ball over the bar.  Barkley, in the meanwhile, had found a comfortable spot ten yards away, outside the area.

The corner was met with an excellent header by Brighton’s left wingback, Dan Burn, that Martinez had to dive high to his right to claw around the post.  At this point, there could not have been a Villa fan who did not have a queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach.  The resulting corner almost made that feeling justified.  Brighton got the first head on the cross and Trossard found Burn, again, but to his feet and he hit it first time only for Mings to block for another corner.  It took Ollie Watkins to finally clear, inducing a welcome Villa freekick in the process.

For a few minutes after, the Villans found their game and were close to creating an opportunity for Watkins only for Dunk to use his considerable size and strength to muscle the Villa striker away just as he was setting to shoot.  That seemed like it was the first time that Villa’s scorer of ten goals this season had even a sniff of a chance in the penalty area.  Credit to the youngster that his response to that missed opportunity was to track back even harder and to rob Mac Alister of possession with a well-executed slide.  Even with somewhat more of the ball, Villa could not create a real opportunity and they limped into halftime somewhat jaded. 

One can imagine that manager Dean Smith read the riot act.  While there were options for substitutions or formation changes, the team came onto the field for the second half with no changes, but more energy.  By the 47th minute mark they were able to finally test the Seagulls’ goalie.  It was not much of a test as Barkley hit a loose ball from the edge of the area right at Sanchez but, at least, it was a shot.

A minute later and Martinez was tested again.  This time Brighton put together an incisive attack that McGinn interrupted at the edge of the area only for his interception to bounce back to Mac Alister to blast low to Martinez’s right only for the ball to clip a defender on the way.  Instead of saving with his hands, the goalie’s knee had to suffice.  It certainly was not pretty, but Villa’s standout deserved the good fortune.

Closing in to the 60th minute, Matty Cash stretched to make a “Cruyff-like move” (according to manager Smith in a post-game interview) and pulled a hamstring.  To add insult to injury, Alzate bundled Villa’s excellent off-season signing, into touch and was not called for it.  With Cash disposed of, Alzate fed Trossard who carried the ball into the penalty area and blasted a shot that Konsa blocked almost straight up in the air.  If Cash had been there, he would have risen over Trossard and headed clear.  Traore, standing-in, was tentative and allowed the tricky Belgian forward to control and get a second bite of the cherry, this time firing just wide of the near post with Martinez scrambling to cover.

After the medical team confirmed that Cash was unfit to continue, Ahmed Elmohamady was brought on as his replacement.  Meanwhile, Seagull’s manager Graham Potter took advantage of the break to decide to bring on Adam Lallana with an eye to adding another scoring threat.  Play resumed with Traore taking a freekick from just inside the halfway line from where he lofted his cross into the middle of the penalty where the 6’ 5” Sanchez gobbled it up.  That had to have irritated the Villa center backs who wasted their energy racing both ways, especially Konsa whose heels were clipped by Burn on the return and was out of position for what next transpired.

It was Burn who started the attack up the left channel and, when the cross was repelled, it was Mac Alister who was the quickest and strongest to react and he laid it wide to Groß who found Maupay, but the Villa backline was, again, too strong and an attempted shot fell to McGinn.  The Scot attempted to release to Barkley but, once again, Bissouma was quicker and picked off the pass.

Despairing of passing their way to a goal, the Seagulls manufactured the next best thing, they tried pulling a “Solly March” out of the hat.  That was the brilliant strike that the left wingback curved into Martinez’s top left corner to win the fixture at Villa Park in November.  With March injured, the next best option was Veltman from the right wingback position.  This shot was very similar in most respects to March’s with the decisive difference that Martinez had been “warmed up” by multiple similar efforts already in this game and was ready for, yet another, brilliant one-handed save.  It was even more impressive in that Martinez dove wide to his left intent on palming with his right hand, only for a deflection off Targett’s toe to take the ball higher and he had to react, midair, and throw his left hand up to do the job!

The goalie’s game-saving effort almost became a game-winning effort.  From the corner, Brighton tried to manufacture another shot but, Watkins, who was back, turned an errant pass into an instant outlet to Traore, and set-off, himself, towards the left wing on the break.  The Seagulls had plenty of bodies back, but all were drawn to the fleet-footed striker as Traore raced forward and glanced over his right shoulder.  I cannot imagine that he was surprised to see his captain already caught up and seeing a clear path down the inside-right channel.  Traore’s pass was perfect, hit with the outside of his right foot, it was teed up for Grealish to run onto.

Grealish’s usual brilliant control would have seen him one-on-one with Sanchez and Burn two-yards adrift.  Instead, the first touch saw the ball skew to the left and Grealish slowed and the blue and white mob, led by Burn, surrounded the skipper.  The opportunity was lost.  The consolation prize was a corner as Barkley hammered a shot off Veltman. 

This break in action in the 66th minute gave Smith an opportunity to bring on the fresh legs of Trezeguet to replace Traore.  No doubt, the Egyptian international’s superior defensive attributes were a major factor in the change.  While no connection was apparent, Villa soon fashioned one of their best moves shortly after.  Targett fed Grealish on the left and, for one of very few times, if any, that led to a pass that almost reached Watkins in the six-yard box reminding Villa fans that this is a team that can score a goal from next to nothing. 

Brighton returned to the offensive, and looked dangerous, only for the ball to squirm loose to Luiz who passed it back to McGinn.  Confusion between these two led to another opportunity for Burn.  He used his considerable frame to power a left-footed shot that was, fortunately for the keeper, right at him.  It was too hot to handle, and he let it drop in front of him, then grabbed it and threw it to Grealish on the left wing.  Hounded by Veltman, the Villa captain ended up fouling the wing-back and giving the Seagulls another set-play opportunity.

While Groß’s cross was cleared, it was Brighton who won every loose ball for the following minutes until, eventually, Luiz bundled over Mac Alister and, finally, getting a yellow card for his troubles while gifting the hosts yet another set-play.  The Villans repelled the initial probe, but soon after a pass for Mac Alister to run onto in the inside-left channel almost undid the Villa.  It initially looked as if the ball was going to bounce behind for a goal kick only for it to hold in the air long enough for the energetic Argentinian to reach simultaneously with his countryman.  Martinez knew better than to try to be fancy and pushed it behind.  Nothing came from that and Villa were able to break out.

It was Luiz who received the ball on the left touchline, and he fashioned a probing pass down the middle for Watkins to challenge Dunk for.  Ollie won the battle and headed on to Trezeguet who mistimed his run and was already offside by the time his striker had made contact.

When Lallana beat Luiz to a 50/50 ball outside the Villa box, he was able to feed Maupay with room to head into the area.  Konsa wisely allowed the Frenchman to go around him rather than take a chance of touching the slippery dribbler and conceding a penalty.  Villa’s center back was also confident that the combination of his partner Mings and Martinez, plus a tight angle minimized the risk of a goal.  Sure enough, Mings moved over and blocked Maupay’s path.   The left-footed shot was weak and wide of the left post as he fell while shooting.  Maupay’s scream to the referee for a penalty got him a finger-wagging rebuke from Mings and the cold-shoulder from Chris Kavanaugh.

The next action of note was in the 76th minute when Smith brought on Villa’s latest signing, Morgan Sanson, from Marseille, to replace Barkley who seemed to have answered the question as to why he could not even get on Chelsea’s bench this season.  Certainly, the spark he once possessed was missing. 

Villa fans could take heart with the change when the Frenchman’s first touch, from a Martinez clearance, was immaculate and his second set Trezeguet off on a run that ended up gaining Villa a freekick and a yellow card for Trossard.  Better still, a lively Sanson participated in the next Villa attack and, with Grealish holding the ball on the left touchline, headed for the near post where he was positioned to meet the low cross.  If not for a desperate attempt to block by Veltman that resulted in a deflection, Sanson could have glanced the ball into the far corner of the net instead of it rebounding wide of the post off his knee.

Villa fans had an opportunity to ruminate on the fickle finger of fate while Brighton made their last roll of the dice, bringing on Danny Welbeck for Maupay in the 80th minute.  Of course, the memory of Welbeck scoring in the November fixture immediately erased Sanson’s close miss.  That foreboding feeling appeared justified when Welbeck’s first touch was a poke at a bouncing ball near Martinez’s left post that would have sneaked in the corner of the net if the goalie’s hand had not slapped it away for a corner.

It was the 87th minute before Villa fans were able to enjoy the sight of a Villa midfielder beating Bissouma to a loose ball.  Sanson, who glides deceptively quickly like Watkins, cut in front of the Malian and induced him to foul.

The Villa were starting to play at the level that has made them so attractive to watch, but not for long as Trezeguet carelessly tripped Lallana on the edge of the area to the right.  Trossard showed the most interest but was unable to get enough elevation though he did gather the rebound in space and laced it with his towards Martinez’s left corner.  A decent bouncing effort, but nowhere close to what it was going to take to beat, arguably, the Premier League’s hottest goalkeeper, on this evening.

Already in injury time, the Villans played out the game, willing to accept the point and thank their goalie for making it possible.  Ruminating on the 26 to 4 shot-differential with 9 to 1 on-target ratio, Smith and his coaching staff, will be looking to make some kind of shake-up to face a rejuvenated Leicester.  It could be players and/or formation. 

With Cash almost certainly having to be replaced by Elmohamady, it is likely that the more industrial Trezeguet will be called upon to help contain speedy and talented Harvey Barnes.  Certainly, Barkley looks like he is likely to drop to the bench with, possibly, Luiz joining him with Nakamba and Sanson chomping at the bit to replace them.  We will see.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that last season the Villa were on the unlucky end of performances, deserving more than they came away with.  The difference that a great goalkeeper and striker makes is that the situation is flipped this season. For Villa fans, it sure beats the alternative.

Postscript: Dean Smith, in his pre-Leicester game press-conference threw some light on what he sees as the reason for the team’s inconsistency. “We played a game against Manchester United on New Year’s Day and then had to close the training ground down due to a COVID-19 outbreak and ended up with no one training for ten days.

We came back and had six games in 18 days with zero training again.  It was pretty much recovery strategies and with that, you’re going to get some inconsistencies.”

All good points and suggests that he may show more patience with those players who have not met their potential.  We will see.

Brighton Hove Albion (4-1-3-2): Robert Sanchez, Ben White, Lewis Dunk, Dan Burn, Joel Veltman, Pascal Groß, Yves Bissouma, Steve Alzate, Alexis Mac Allister, Leandro Trossard, Neal Maupay

SUBS: Michal Karbownik, Aaron Connolly, Adam Lallana (s 62′), Jakub Moder, Danny Welbeck (s 80′), Percy Tau, Davy Propper, Andi Zeqiri, Christian Walton

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

SUBS: Tom Heaton, Ahmed Elmohamady (61’, for Cash), Bjorn Engels, Marvelous Nakamba, Trezeguet (66’, for Traoré), Keinan Davis, Anwar El Ghazi, Morgan Sanson (77’, for Barkley), Jacob Ramsey

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