Leeds (0) vs Aston Villa (1) – Mighty Win at Elland Road for Villa

 Manager Dean Smith knew he had to change the line-up and game plan if his Villa team was going to achieve a positive result against the always dangerous Leeds.  It was Leeds that had ended their early season winning streak back in October.  In that game, at Villa Park, the Whites had run our Villans ragged, managing to get 9 shots on target, out of 27 taken, and three of those past Emi Martinez.  In response, Villa only counted 4 shots on target out of 12 taken and were shutout.  Their first, and worst, defeat of the season.

Now that had to be put behind and done so without leader, Jack Grealish and star defender, Matty Cash.  The most recent performance in which the team lost to Leicester offered no solace.  Our Villans gave up two soft goals early and had to claw their way back into the game.  They came close, but not close enough.

Smith realized that they had to manage the game better and to do that he needed a tweaked line-up and a new strategy.  The first goal against Leicester was caused, in large part, by McGinn, Luiz, and Barkley being adrift from the backline when Maddison was in a position to shoot.  Shortly after, with Villa still reeling, Tielemans was allowed to the carry the ball unimpeded to the penalty area and slip a pass through a disjointed backline.  That led to Vardy getting the opportunity for a shot on-goal and for Barnes to blast the rebound by Martinez for the second goal.  Both goals were preventable!

The changes, at first, seemed risky.  Luiz and Barkley were two players who had played on the international stage and shone in big games the team had won.  However, both were playing much beneath that level recently.  Meanwhile, Smith had two players with less star power but who had been more effective when given first team starts.  Ramsey had played 90 minutes against Wolves when the Villa prevailed 1-0 and Nakamba had started against Arsenal when the team achieved the same result.

By putting these two alongside McGinn as a midfield threesome, they could better protect the backline and allow McGinn a bit more license to join attacks (Smith would have noted McGinn’s role in Traoré’s goal against Leicester).  In addition to freeing McGinn to join attacks, the Scot would be available to assist Elmohamady contend with the dangerous Raphinha.  Luiz and Barkley were dropped to the bench alongside Sanson who represented another late-game option.

What Smith could not plan for was the field condition being treacherous.  For whatever reason, the newly installed turf was not holding, and a number of players slipped, or lost their footing altogether, with unpredictable results.

Within seconds of the kickoff, this turf problem led to a missed shot that almost became a perfect pass and an opportunity to score.  Meslier, Leeds goalie, cleared first time straight from a back-pass to Mings who had settled under the ball, only for Bamford to lean into him from behind without attracting the attention of the referee.  This caused Villa’s captain to stumble.  With Robert’s assistance, the speedy Bamford was on his way with the ball and Mings trailing.  Reaching the penalty area, the striker cut inside and shaped to curve a shot towards Martinez’s top right corner only for his standing foot to go into a slide.  With the Leeds’ top scorer falling, the shot was wide and short, but almost perfect for Raphinha racing in behind Elmohamady from the left.  Unfortunately for the Brazilian, it bounced too high for him to do anything with.  Still, it was a wake-up call that this Leeds side is one of the most prolific in the Premier League (5th highest goals for) and that this was not pitch-perfect!

If that close call bothered the Villans, they hid it well.  Martinez drove the goal kick deep and Watkins was able to reach ahead of Cooper.  A glanced header to his right found Traoré who was already in motion and he directed, first touch, to El Ghazi who had pinched in from the left wing.  Villa’s Dutch scoring threat (5 goals in 14 games) ran straight towards Luke Ayling, feinted to go inside, and cut outside, forcing the wingback to concede a corner.

With Barkley not around to take, El Ghazi demonstrated his dead ball proficiency.  His corner had sufficient height and pace for Elmohamady, running in at the near post, to deflect it into the mix with his forehead.  The ball struck the arm of Ayling and could easily been called for a penalty.  Whether because of proximity to the deflection or the closeness of the arm to his side, play continued and Leeds cleared.

Shortly thereafter, the Villa were back causing mischief, this time down the right flank.  Watkins and Traoré worked possession until Traoré slipped outside Dallas who, like Ayling, was forced to concede a corner. Again, taken by El Ghazi, this kick was higher than the first, and came through to the left edge of the area, where Ramsey patrolled but the ball was too far beyond the youngster to control and shoot. 

Instead, Ramsey gathered, and Watkins came to give support.  Ramsey laid the ball back to his teammate, now just outside the area, and Watkins eyed the last of the black shirts (Villa’s away strip) on the right.  It belonged to El Ghazi who was onside and had his arm raised.  As the beautifully weighted pass came across, El Ghazi extended his right leg to control the pass first touch and hammered it home with his left from just outside the 6-yard box – all while slipping.  He looked to confirm that he was onside (he was, by about a foot) and then broke into a very satisfied grin.  Leeds 0, Aston Villa 1 and less than 5 minutes on the clock.

With Villa having failed to win only once after leading (that against Burnley), fans and players would have been universally confident of leaving Yorkshire with three points despite the 86 minutes remaining, though not over-confident. 

The next period of play did nothing to shake that confidence as Villa played with much composure and Ramsey, especially, demonstrating his speed and anticipation to break-up a couple of attacks.  Then when a ball bounced invitingly beyond Villa’s back line, Mings did well to shepherd it back to his goalie, very coolly.  Credit to Martinez, too, for his early call and quickness to gather.

As a reminder of the Whites’ threat, good hustle by Struijk and Roberts gave the Welsh international a chance to run at the Villa defense with the ball and spray a pass out to Raphinha.  This time the Brazilian had time to control and to turn inside Elmohamady and hit a solid drive goalward.  Konsa had anticipated and was already sliding to block.  What Villa’s talented partner to Mings could not do was direct the ricochet.  The ball fell nicely for Roberts, still in the vicinity, and he laced the bouncing ball from just a few yards away above the advancing Martinez.  The Argentinian has hands that are fast and strong, and he used his right-hand to bat the shot away.  That was in the 11th minute.

That Leeds uprising presaged a Villa tightening their coverage with Nakamba, Ramsey, and Target all intercepting passes from the home team.  One of these led to El Ghazi finding himself in possession, and with space, cutting in from the right wing.  He set to shoot with his right foot, and disposed of a retreating Struijk, and then put everything behind a shot with his left.  The angle and distance were against him, but it took another strong hand, this one Meslier’s, to push the shot over the bar.  That gave El Ghazi another opportunity to shine, and his corner was on the money.  Mings overpowered Cooper and got an outstanding header away, except that Bamford managed to get his head in the way to send it out for a corner.  The next corner did not yield anything of note.

Villa fans did not have long to wait to see El Ghazi at it again.  The Dutchman latched onto a loose ball in a similar spot to his last effort, just outside the box, only this time he hammered it first time with his right foot and Meslier had to be alert again, diving down to his left post to gather the powerful shot before it doubled the score.  The last five minutes, it had been all-Villa, and they deserved to have added to their lead.

Finally, Leeds were able to get the ball to Raphinha, close to the halfway line.  The Brazilian outpaced McGinn and Elmohamady and was able to direct a cross from the goal line.  The remarkable Tyrone Mings was there to block it and, to prevent any follow up. McGinn was there to put the ball behind for a corner.  The corner came to Llorente who directed a solid header on-target, but it was chump-change for Martinez who snagged it like a “fly-ball.”

The 24th minute created an opportunity that confirmed Smith’s team selection.  Ayling’s pass in-field from the right wing in his own half was anticipated and intercepted by Nakamba who immediately fed it to El Ghazi, now in the middle of the park.  The Dutchman one-touched it to Watkins who had found space between the backline and the holding midfielder, Struijk.  As El Ghazi found space away from his marker.  Watkins returned the favor, and El Ghazi took the shot so quickly that Meslier could not even set himself.  He was frozen in an awkward crouch as the ball zipped 6” wide of his right post.  This was what Villa had hoped to get from Nakamba, Villa’s own N’golo Kanté.

Smith must have also been pleased to see how McGinn covered a dangerous cross with his midriff and invited his goalie to pick it up despite howls by the Whites about a pass-back to which, based on lip-reading, he uttered a familiar Glaswegian response.  Then, when the Whites were able to provide Raphinha possession in the penalty box, the winger appeared set to test Martinez only for McGinn to slide across to block.  Raphinha pulled back and reset but, by now, he had Traoré and Elmohamady to confront and the ball slipped away for a goal kick.  Brilliant team defending.

McGinn was equally effective a couple of minutes later, backtracking, and shepherding Raphinha over the goal line and preventing him crossing or gaining a corner.  Then Nakamba made such a nuisance of himself on the Leeds right wing that eventually the home team gave up there and recycled to Dallas who took off down the left wing.  He was harassed by Traoré and passed prematurely to Raphinha who was not ready.  Leeds’ frustration was setting in.

When Leeds did get an opportunity to break with Mings flat on his back up-field, it was El Ghazi who tracked Ayling halfway down the pitch to put the ball out and give his captain a chance to get back.

Villa’s midfield trio seemed to be intercepting every other pass and almost every shot.  One block gave the Villans a chance to add to their lead.  Roberts dwelled on the ball outside the Villa penalty area and that was an invitation for Watkins to charge the ball down and, in possession, set off down the field.  Villa’s excellent off-season acquisition from Brentford outpaced Roberts and he got a shot on goal that, save for a partial block by Dallas, would have troubled Meslier.  Once again, the Villans looked more likely to score.

For the balance of the half, the visitors harassed Leeds defense before they could mount any meaningful attack.  With the whistle blown and a very entertaining period at an end, the Villa must have felt pleased with their effort and the lead.  Still, they might have felt they had done enough to get that second goal.  They certainly had the better chances.

In his post-game interview, Dean Smith allowed that he did change tactics at halftime.  Concerned that they could not maintain the high-energy high press for the full ninety minutes, he reverted to, what he called, a “lower block”.  In other words, they went into a more defensive posture.  If not “parking the bus”, then something comparable.

Judging by how the Villans started the second half, fans would not have recognized any change in strategy.  There was a high press out of the gate and El Ghazi drew a foul on the left wing.  The big boys from the back, Mings and Konsa, joined the fray and Traoré directed the freekick towards the latter at the near post.  Only an alert interception by Bamford prevented a scoring opportunity for Konsa. 

The home team were soon on a dangerous looking break when Ramsey demonstrated his superior speed and maturity.  He succeeded in catching up with Costa and nudging him off the ball.  It was enough to stop the play and draw a freekick, but not enough to generate a yellow card. 

With Villa holding a disciplined line, Raphinha’s freekick went straight to Martinez.  Soon after, another cross by the home team went into the welcoming grasp of the keeper.  This time Martinez rolled the ball to Ramsey who took off up the left channel doing a decent impression of Jack Grealish.  His captain would have been impressed to see such a confident dash and the perfect timing and placement of his pass to El Ghazi, inside Ayling, for his winger to run onto.  With the Leeds defense stretched and their concern about the Dutchman shooting, that left Traoré available on the edge of the area.  El Ghazi realized the Burkinabe international was in a better position and he passed.  What he did not consider, nor did his teammate, was the treacherous turf.  Traoré’s attempt at a nifty move had him on all-fours and handling the ball.  A freekick for the Whites and one very aggrieved soccer player in black.

With Leeds failing to threaten, Leeds manager, Marcelo Bielsa, brought on Alioski for Struijk and rearranged his line-up.  Still, the Whites continued to have trouble breaking the Villa defense down with Villa harassing in packs.  A pass back to Cooper, with no way forward, led to the Whites’ captain’s attempt to thread the needle to pick out Raphinha cutting through Villa’s backline.  For it to have any chance of success, it required so much velocity that even the accomplished Brazilian could not control it.  The ball ran out for a goal kick.

The Villans were not done trying to add to their singular tally and McGinn found himself causing mischief in the inside left area, spinning his wiry body to get into the box.  A solid rebuff by a Leeds defender was enough to flatten him and he appealed for a penalty.  The referee, Peter Bankes, was not interested and McGinn had no time to argue as he raced back to his defensive duties.  Matt Targett demonstrated his priorities similarly as he raced back from a forward foray.  He niggled at Roberts who was breaking at speed.  Roberts was so agitated that he lashed out at Villa’s greatly improved wingback enough that Matt, himself, took umbrage and they both got yellow cards. 

The yellow fever seemed to be spreading as a brilliant run by El Ghazi down the left channel from deep induced Klich to unceremoniously pull him down from behind to join the club and to further disrupt the flow of the game, much to the Villans’ advantage. While bringing on Harrison for Costa was intended to assist the Whites’ efforts to score, it, also, was another time waster as was Klich’s unnecessary foul on McGinn next to the right-wing corner flag.  Worse still, it gave El Ghazi another chance to show his dead ball skill, laying the cross on a tee for Mings to meet powerfully with his noggin at the near post.  Save for an excellent defensive deflection by Cooper, that could have bulged the back of the net.

The Villa were still comfortable as the game entered the last quarter.  A potentially dangerous break from the corner on the Leeds left wing found Targett, covering for Elmohamady, slide across to clear the ball into the stands.  Then Ramsey repeated his previous run and pass to El Ghazi who, this time, had more room and time to shoot.  Yet again, the turf gave, and his shot sailed over the crossbar and the Dutchman kicked the air in disgust.

Villa, by now, were very settled into their “lower block” with the four back line players defending the penalty area and letting McGinn patrol the right flank and Ramsey the left.  In the middle Nakamba grew in influence and confidence defying any forward to find a way past.  It says something that in the four games he started and his four sub appearances, the opposition has yet to score!

The Villa offense had become the singular figure of Ollie Watkins.  When McGinn was able to break out from defense and thread a pass down the left wing, there was the striker racing onto it, then carrying the ball to the goal line before zipping a dangerous cross through the 6-yard box.  Ramsey was the closest Villan, but his script did not have him charging into the net!  Still, a Leeds throw-in deep in their territory was a good enough outcome as the clock approached the 70-minute mark.  Hernandez was brought on for Roberts, Bielsa’s last roll of the dice suggesting a touch of desperation that his team had not tested Martinez once in the second half.

McGinn, the canny Scot, proved his immense value to the team once again.  As Hernandez, Alioski and Raphinha probed with no success on the left they passed it back to Klich who shaped to thread a pass to his right.  McGinn, ten yards away, was onto the ruse and anticipated the return ball to the left wing.  An outstretched right leg gained the Scottish international possession and he headed down the right wing, slowing as Klich came over to challenge, and then accelerated outside.  Klich was sucked into the foul that could have very easily been another yellow card for the German and the end of his game.  As it was, the freekick kept the clock ticking and brought Villa’s victory closer.

With the Villans almost on cruise-control, a little aside sent a minor shock wave through Villa’s fandom.  Martinez, according to the commentator was taking a painkiller and having Mings take his goal kick.  This meant that Villa’s ace keeper was injured, and that was not good news.  Martinez not showing any signs of being hurt and no sign of Tom Heaton warming up turned concern to curiosity that was later explained by the Argentinian having experienced a slight groin pull.  Most reassuring was seeing Emi confidently leave his line to pull down high crosses.  The one that came from Raphinha after Targett had fouled him at the edge of the area was particularly calming as Targett had been highly aggressive considering he was already on a yellow card.

Another momentum disruption followed as Smith decided to give Sanson an opportunity to fill Ramsey’s shoes, given their comparable attributes.  Each, certainly, plays with high energy, commitment and confidence.  Smith is fortunate to have such a duo, providing the necessary backup during a tight schedule.  Ramsey may be slightly more robust defensively while Sanson’s French Ligue 1 statistics suggest that he will contribute to the team’s goal scoring. In a little over ten minutes of playing time, Sanson did himself no harm and made it very difficult for any Leeds player to dwell on the ball.

Not to be outshone, Nakamba was once more outstanding when most needed.  In the last five minutes Leeds broke in numbers and were in possession to the right of the goal when the Zimbabwean international intercepted a dangerous pass by Raphinha and calmly cleared while inducing the Brazilian to trip him.  His refreshing smile was the closest he came to showing hubris – a great team player.

Still, Leeds were not finished and they came close to the perfection that was needed to break through Villa’s combination of solid defense and brilliant goaltending.   On a break from his own half the relatively fresh Harrison, on-loan from Man City, carried to close to the penalty area forcing the Villa backline to retreat.  With Bamford poised for something to head near the Martinez’s left post, Mings and Targett were fixated on the fair-headed striker who already had 13 goals under his belt. 

Harrison’s chip seemed to be what Bamford was looking for, only the ball carried beyond all three to where Raphinha was arriving.  He was to the right of the goal and Martinez was easing over to cover the near post, but a header down could have easily undone the less than 100% keeper.  Raphinha had come to the same conclusion except he missed the target and the header bounced wide. 

One more cross for Leeds, but even with Leeds keeper, Meslier, up, it was easily pulled out of the sky by Martinez to effectively put the result to rest.  Too bad he ran his cleats against Mings’ calf on the way down.

The final whistle soon followed, and the Villa could celebrate knowing they could win without Jack Grealish and their midfield woes were, for now, behind them.  Suddenly nothing on their upcoming schedule seemed unwinnable, certainly not a trip to Liverpool.  Who knows where this could end up?

LEEDS (4-1-4-1): Illian Meslier, Luke Ayling, Diego Llorente, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas, Pascal Struijk, Helder Costa, Tyler Roberts, Mateusz Klich, Raphinha, Patrick Bamford

SUBS: Alioski (s 53′), Casilla, Hernandez (s 71′), Harrison (s 64′), Davis, Gelhardt, Cresswell, Jenkins, Huggins

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Ahmed Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings (captain), Matt Targett; Jacob Ramsey, Marvelous Nakamba, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ollie Watkins, Anwar El Ghazi

SUBS: Heaton, Taylor, Kesler, Engels, Luiz, Sanson (s, 79’), Barkley, Trezeguet (s, 88’), Davis.

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