Aston Villa (0) vs Tottenham Hotspur (2) – Villa Find Themselves Going Backwards

Credit to acting Villa captain, Tyrone Mings, for saying what Villa fans would want to hear in a post-game interview.  “Really frustrating! That was a game we could have got points from.  It is so hard to score in this league, so we can’t give away preventable goals!  We were good enough to have come away with, at least, a 0-0.  We cannot let this game define us.”

Coming right after the Newcastle debacle in injury time, when the team squandered a win, Mings is right to set expectations high for the next game against Fulham, again at home.  While admitting that losing Jack Grealish was a factor for the downturn in results, Mings rightly noted that the team had lost focus at times, and that had nothing to do with who was on the field.  Treating Grealish’s match fitness as a bonus is certainly the right mindset to maintain over the next two weeks. 

As for Fulham, they sit in 18th position in the Premier League which, with no change between now and the end of the season, would find them relegated for the third time in a decade.  While Newcastle are only two points ahead of them, the Magpies also have a game in-hand.  With Fulham’s game against Villa starting right after Newcastle’s game, the Londoners will know that result.  Manager Scott Parker will have them fully motivated under every circumstance.

Certainly, Spurs were not wanting for motivation for the encounter at Villa Park thanks to a major embarrassment three days prior.  From a starting position of a 2-0 lead, they were unceremoniously bounced out of the Europa League by GNK Dinamo Zagreb.  They were even trashed by their own goalie, Hugo Lloris, and rightly so.  With talent aplenty, even on the bench, manager Mourinho was apoplectic.

It showed in his starting eleven for this Villa fixture, and his substitute bench.  The latter was bookended by Gareth Bale, still one of the most talented players in the game and Dane Scarlett, a 16-year-old novice.  The message to the starting 11 was not very subtle.  If you do not perform to my satisfaction, I might replace you with the brilliant Welshman or by a kid nobody has ever heard of.  Yikes.

Mourinho’s most interesting line-up inclusion was that of Carlos Vinicius for the injured Heung-min Son.  Erik Lamela might have got the nod if not for being suspended for getting two yellow cards against Arsenal.  As it was, Vinicius was acquired as a contingency replacement, on-loan from Benfica, for an injured Harry Kane.  With Kane in the side, the Brazilian’s physicality might have been seen as protection for Kane from Villa’s strong and skilled center back duo of Mings and Konsa in the same way that Southampton’s Che Adams had helped Danny Ings.

For the Villa, it was no surprise that Matty Cash started in place of super-sub Elmohamady.  Cash’s willing running down the wing offered an extra dimension to a lukewarm offense of late.  What was a disappointment, though not a big surprise, was that Jack Grealish was not yet ready to play.  Based on his performance against Newcastle off the bench, Morgan Sanson was promoted to the starting eleven, just his second start since his transfer from Marseille.  Ramsey took Sanson’s place on the bench, presumably for his drop in form.  Mahmoud Ahmed Ibrahim Hassan, commonly known as Trézéguet, an Egyptian international, and Bertrand Isidore Traoré, a Burkina Faso international, shared the winger duties with the latter a bit of a fitness surprise judging by the pain he was in when last seen at Newcastle.

From the kickoff, both teams showed good desire, and the high-tempo game was fun to watch though the closest either team got to a scoring opportunity was when a Targett freekick from a good position on the left cleared everyone in the box only for Traoré on the right to curve a return ball back for Targett to beat the offside trap.  The wingback reached the ball as it dipped down in the 6-yard box, just wide of Lloris’ right-hand post but, with its whip and speed, it would have been a challenging shot for any forward and Targett did well enough to get the ball back into the “mixer” only for a white shirt to clear.  That was at the 20th minute mark.

The two standout Villans in the initial exchanges were the workhorses, John McGinn and Matt Targett.  It was their deep passes down the left wing that were making the Spurs defense skittish and McGinn’s aggressive pressing inspired teammates.  Not to be outdone, Cash made a great run down the right wing and into the penalty area at the goal line.  He had Trézéguet just outside the six-yard box and Ollie Watkins in the goal crease.  Cash chose, with justification, the more reliable shooter, but Spurs’ defense blocked the cross out for a corner.

For Spurs, it was Lucas Moura, who has played 36 times for Brazil, who stood out.  A perfect pass down the leftwing found Sergio Reguilón, Spurs’ Spanish international acquisition from Sevilla, racing up and pinging over a dangerous-looking cross that Konsa cleared. 

The next incident of note was a skirmish that evolved from a confident Konsa holding-off Vinicius from the ball on the touchline and the anxious loanee raising his elbow.  That is something that Ezri did not appreciate. Within a couple of minutes, they got to meet again.

From deep in his own half, Reguilón delivered a long teasing ball down the left wing for Vinicius to run onto with Konsa putting his body in the way.  That generally stops forwards given the Villa standout’s speed, strength, and skill.  Vinicius, with a lot to prove, kept tussling and the ball ran to Martinez coming out of his penalty area.  What was unfortunate for the Villans was that Emi’s clearance was not very robust (it may have bounced and come off his shin).

What followed was a confluence of good fortune (or bad fortune) depending on your perspective.  Desire was undoubtedly a major contributor.  Early in the season, it was the difference-maker for the Villans.  On Sunday, it tipped the scales in Spurs’ favor.

As the ball traveled from just outside Villa’s penalty area towards the halfway line the closest players were Matty Cash and Moura, both fast and determined.  With Moura sensing a goal opportunity he raced towards the ball while Cash tried to get his body in the way.  Moura won that encounter and, with Martinez scrambling back into his goal, the forward checked out his alternatives.  Kane was positioned inside him and offered a give-and-go option.  The England captain held possession for a split second to freeze Konsa while Moura never slowed and swept outside Ezri for the return.

Spurs still had lots to do.  The ball was heading to the corner of the 6-yard box to the goalie’s right and Martinez moved to that post to cover the shot.  Meanwhile, Mings was cutting off the angle to the far post by sliding to block.  As for Matty Cash, he had not slowed and, from behind Moura, he was racing and sliding to prevent a pull-back by the Brazilian.  Mings may have been too fast for his own good as he flew by Moura just before Cash arrived.  Moura managed to find the instant between the two sliding defenders to pass through and, though Cash got the slightest nick of the ball with his right foot, it was not enough to block its path to the two Spurs forwards unmarked in front of the open net.  Lo Celso let the ball run to Vinicius for the tap-in.  Spurs had drawn that so important first blood.  Aston Villa 0, Tottenham Hotspur 1 in the 29th minute.  It was Spurs’ first shot on goal. 

This was Vinicius’s first Premier League goal and he was naturally excited though his mugging for the camera was over-the-top for a tap-in.  Of course, this was a heady upgrade from his success against Marine AFC, Spurs’ FA Cup January fixture that was the biggest mismatch in the 149-year history of the FA Cup (Marine being in the 8th tier).  In that game Vinicius scored two tap-ins and tried to break the net with his first, from 12 inches away.  Yikes!

The Villa’s immediate response was to play on as if there was no hill to climb.  That paid off with another freekick opportunity, thanks to the still jittery Spurs’ defense.  From another good position on the left, Targett made another excellent delivery that Mings was about to attack at the front of the line only for the ubiquitous Moura to nip ahead and use his noggin to sky the ball over the bar.

As the half continued, Spurs’ defense found their feet and the balance of play tipped in their favor.  Another move down their left wing where Traoré was having trouble tracking against Reguilón had another excellent cross coming on a tee to Vinicius just inside the penalty area.  He was well set to receive and hammer with his left foot but Konsa timed his “on one-knee” block to perfection and the ball rebounded away to safety.

Spurs came back and forced a couple of corners, sensing that another goal could make their lead secure.  Again, it was Moura who zipped over crosses with just enough height for Harry Kane to exploit his aerial superiority. The first was right on the money and Kane rose impressively and seemed almost certain to score.  Then, inexplicably, he headed the ball directly down onto the ground.  Facing his own goal, Watkins was forced to concede another corner.  The replay solved the mystery.  John McGinn had leaned back into Kane just prior to the ball arriving and caused the striker’s hips and legs to pivot one way, resulting in the top half of his body to go the other way, downwards.  Nice.

When Lucas repeated to the very same spot, Martinez took it upon himself to clear which he did with a strong hand.  The ball, however, went not much more than the edge of the area where Traoré settled under it, facing his own goal, and set to make a backwards header.  This is not a comfortable situation for any soccer player, least of all someone with lots of skill but wanting in the brawn department.  Not for the first time, Traoré muffed a clearance.  Ndombele, who was immediately behind the Villa winger backed up and swung for an ambitious volley off the bounce.  With Martinez scampering back, it looked like the mishit ball might loop into goal.  Instead, it landed safely on top of the net.

Halftime arrived and the Villa had to feel frustrated that, as well as conceding an unnecessary goal, they had lost control of the game.  The lead would allow Mourinho to play his protective game plan and rely on fast breaks that came their way.

The second half did not start well for the Villa as they soon gave up possession in just outside their penalty area.  When Cash tried to find Traoré from deep in own half the pass curved away from the touchline and allowed Reguilón to nip the ball from the winger. Sanson, nearby, attempted to dispossess the Spaniard only to step on the top of his foot in the process.  Despite the howl of pain, Moura picked up the loose ball and fed Kane who carried the ball towards the center of, and just outside, the penalty area.  Mings held the line and moved to his left anticipating a Kane curler.  Sure enough, the England star wrapped his right foot around the shot and sent a beauty that went just wide of Martinez’s left post with the goalie stretched to cover.  In fact, credit was due to Mings for extending his very long left leg to get the merest of touches that probably prevented a second goal.  The corner was cleared.

Shortly after, Targett found space on the left and hoisted a teasing cross that Lloris could not gather at the far post.  Traoré jumped onto the loose ball, inclined to aim a curver of his own with his left foot, but every player in a white shirt knew that script and closed him down.  Traoré smartly ad-libbed and scooped the ball temptingly to the far post for Ollie Watkins to attack.  Unfortunately, the formidable Tanganga was in his way and Ollie headed onto the back of the head of the defender and then was called for shoving.

Within a minute or so, Spurs were on another break.  This time, it started with Kane deep in his own half dribbling through a cluster of four claret and blues, laying off to Lo Celso who then sent the ball out to Moura on his left.  The Brazilian ran at Cash, zigging and zagging, and leaving the Villa wing back stumbling.  When Moura set to shoot Konsa was pulled in to block and that left room to slip a pass back to Kane who had space to gather and shoot.  That would have happened if not for Mings’ telescopic left leg, again, to deflect the ball (and the danger) away.

Finally, the Villa conjured up a clear-cut opportunity.  Konsa cut off a Spurs through ball and immediately found Luiz, who one-touched to McGinn.  The Scot waited for Sanson’s run into the inside left channel to pierce the Spurs’ backline.  The pass was perfectly weighted with a little backspin and the Frenchman was composed enough to look up and pick out Trézéguet with a pull-back volley.  The Egyptian bravely shot with his left foot on the half-volley only to miscue and allow Rodon to block and hack it clear, but only to Luiz who fed McGinn who manufactured an actual shot on goal.  Lloris gathered easily.

That was at 58 minutes.  That was it for the still hobbling Reguilón and Ben Davies took his place.  Right after, Dean Smith threw on El Ghazi for Traoré hoping to squeeze a goal out of the dangerous Dutchman.  True to form, from almost his first touch he let go an impressive shot from well out and left, only for the ball to skim just wide of Lloris’ right post.  The French international keeper likely would have saved it, but it was well worth the effort.

Not long after, Smith decided to give Barkley another chance to shine off the bench.  Typically, it takes Ross a while to get into the pace of the game (as noted by the commentator).   The Chelsea loanee watched the ball being passed out to Moura on the left and relaxed halfway between the penalty area and the halfway line. 

Meanwhile, Moura drove with the ball towards the penalty area before leading Kane, on his left, with a pass to the goal line.  Whether surprised by the pass or too tired, Kane was not in a good position to make the cross.  Cash, having assumed he was going to have to intercept went into a slide.

Kane instantly changed his plan and planted his right foot just inside the goal line while attempting to back-heel the ball with his left foot.  This would not have been the first time that Kane had pulled this trick out of his bag, and then watching the defender sliding by.  Only this time, Cash’s slide took Kane’s legs from under him and Mike Dean pointed at the spot!  Kane confidently smashed the ball to Martinez’s right as the goalie dove to the left.  It was 68 minutes and Aston Villa 0, Tottenham Hotspur 2.

To their credit, Villa played as if they still believed they could claw back into the game and in the 72nd minute they came close.  Thanks to fine work by Konsa and McGinn, Trézéguet found space with the ball on the right corner of the penalty area, and he cut around Davies to curve a low hard left-footed shot to Lloris’ right post with the keeper possibly unsighted.  The ball skimmed just past wide with Lloris rooted.

In the 79th minute, Smith gave Davis a run, substituting for Trézéguet and the stout-hearted striker made an instant impact.  When he received a pass on the left, he took on Davinson Sanchez and beat him to the goal line then lay a pass to an open Barkley on a platter.  The former England international had almost too much time as he stealthily decided where to shoot.  Indeed, there was a clear channel to the corner of the net to Lloris’ right.  His shot was low and hard, but Tanganga anticipated and slid over to block.  Barkley held his head in disbelief.  Hindsight suggests that any amount of lift would have made the difference.

That was in the 82nd minute and it was Villa’s last chance.  The whistle blew and the team was left ruing the two very preventable goals out of just three Spurs shots.  With two weeks to prepare and, likely having Grealish return, the future certainly looks better than the recent past.

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

SUBS: Heaton, Taylor, Nakamba, Barkley (s 66’), El Ghazi (s 58’), Engels, Elmohamady, Davis (s 79’), Ramsey.

Tottenham Hotspur: (4-4-2): Hugo Lloris, Japhet Tanganga, Joe Rodon, Davinson Sánchez, Sergio Reguilón, Lucas Moura, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso, Carlos Vinícius, Harry Kane. 

SUBS: Gareth Bale, Joe Hart, Eric Dier, Moussa Sissoko (s 81’), Deli Alli, Steven Bergwijn (s 66’), Ben Davies (s 58’), Dane Scarlett, Alfie Devine

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