Aston Villa (1) vs Manchester City (2) – Another Squandered Opportunity

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” and it only took 90 minutes.  To make matters worse, it had none of the suspense of the novel from which it derives (“A Tale of Two Cities”, by Charles Dickens).  In fact, we suspected the outcome before the game began.

This was a microcosm of the Villans’ season wrapped up in one game.  A spectacular start, a goal by the good guys in only 20 seconds, stunned the world’s most expensive soccer roster.  In fact, it was Man City who had taken the kick-off.  They attempted a pass to Mahrez on the right wing that Ramsey, playing on the left of Villa’s midfield four, got his head to.  When the ball bounced in front of him, he attempted to control only for Rodri to raise his foot too high and be penalized.  With the Spaniard vociferously disputing the call, Mings immediately placed the ball and noted that the Manchester blues were exposed with only three at the back.  Thanks to John McGinn racing forward, Villa had the same number. 

Mings made his favorite pass, down the left channel for the speedy Ollie Watkins to run down.  John Stones, covering, attempted an awkward clearance with his left foot and barely got a touch, but just enough to cushion the pass for Watkins.  That nick gave his potential England teammate a split second to see that McGinn was stride-for-stride to his right.  A sweep with his deft left foot, Ollie’s first touch, was enough to clear Ruben Diaz, heading over to cover.  Villa fans’ favorite Scot added another first touch sweep, and the ball was beyond the diving Edison and heading into the back of the net!  Aston Villa 1, Man. City 0. So easy and so quick!

Earlier in the season, and certainly with Jack Grealish on the field, this lead would have been a high mountain to climb, even for Man City.  Villa’s back four have been one of the Premier League’s strongest and most consistent all season. Behind them, Emi Martinez has been steady and spectacular when needed.  Unfortunately, without Grealish, there has been nobody in claret and blue to hold the ball, draw fouls, and set-up counterattacks with precision and pace. 

That became apparent, again, within five minutes from the restart.  The Villa, try as they might, could not gain any degree of possession and it seemed inevitable that a tying goal was only a matter of time.  A period of intense pressure, much of it coming through Mahrez on the right, was followed by Edison, Man City’s brilliant keeper, pushing the ball outside his area and lacing a pass, on a line, to Zinchenko (yes, the fullback) stationed on the left touchline well in the Villa half, fully 80 yards from where the goalie had made contact.  Cash was caught having to race back to cover the Ukrainian international but, as he approached, Zinchenko headed back to the feet of the young phenom, Phil Foden.  Foden, immediately brought the ball under control and, with barely a glance, aimed another bullet pass across to the right-hand corner of the Villa penalty area. 

Mahrez was there to collect and freeze Targett while Bernardo Silva overlapped the Villa fullback toward the goal line.  The pass was laid on a plate for the Portuguese international and, as he looked up, he could see Foden steaming into the penalty area.  Mings was guarding access to the 6-yard box, while Targett was just a foot from blocking the pass, but nothing was going to stop a simple pull-back between those two to Foden who casually side-footed into the net.

So, why was it so easy to slice open the vaunted Villa back-line?  Speed and precision were the major factors.  Four passes and a first touch-shot took barely ten seconds.  None of Villa’s midfield players had picked up their marks, with Traore being caught 50 yards adrift of Zinchenko.  Nakamba, as the holding midfielder, should have been positioned to prevent Foden receiving the ball but was distracted by Rodri entering the box.

Meanwhile, striker Jesus had raced toward the goal and dragged Cash and Konsa with him.  From 10-yards out, Foden was able to side-foot between the scrambling duo who barely had time to face the play.  Martinez was stuck at his left post and unable to do anything. Aston Villa 1, Man. City 1 and the pressure got worse.

There were 22 minutes on the clock and Villa’s balloon had been burst.   The light blues were dominating possession, up to 90%, and they were also passing at a completion rate of over 90%.

The visitors almost took the lead a couple of minutes later and, once more, it was Phil Foden performing the magic.  Gundogan, et al, played intricate passes to enter the Villa box and fed Foden who performed a Grealish-like dribbling show before getting the opening for a shot at the top corner of the net only to miss it by less than a foot.  Five Villa defenders were not enough to prevent him.

Then, two events reminded Villa fans of why the best is yet to come for their team.  The first occurred in the 28th minute.  Jacob Ramsey, a product of the Villa Academy, sped by Kyle Walker – no small accomplishment in itself – only for the England fullback to use a forearm to blunt his progress before Ramsey entered the penalty area.   The young Villan was unceremoniously dumped on his back.

The referee, Peter Bankes, according to his hand gesture, interpreted the collision as “incidental contact”, but Bankes was behind Walker and had missed the call.  A VAR check would have established that it was an intentional block and, since Ramsey was prevented a clear scoring opportunity, Walker would have been ejected with a red card. 

Edison, in fact, rushed to take the goal kick to preclude second thoughts on the part of the ref.  It worked, because Edison slipped over and miskicked to Douglas Luiz who immediately fed Ramsey who was marked, this time, by John Stones.  Jacob dropped his shoulder and went around Stones and smashed a left-footed shot into the side netting, just wide of Edison’s near post.

The Villa defense, meanwhile, had bent but had not been broken and City had only managed to get two shots on target.  Then inexplicably, Martinez must have lost his nerve with all the clever interplay and decided to intervene.  Another dink cross by Bernardo Silva was airborne long enough that the Argentinian felt compelled to punch it away as far as he could.

What prevented his clearance was that his captain, Tyrone Mings, was next to him and he had the same kind of thinking, only he planned to use his noggin.  There had been no opportunity to discuss, so they jumped simultaneously.  Not only did they impede each other, the gatekeeper was lying on his back when the intrusion, the ball, sailed gently into the open net.  Mings’ body-language said it all, while Martinez lowered his head.  Aston Villa 1, Man. City 2 and things were looking grim.  This was in the 40th minute of the game.

A minute later, a similar cross was headed clear by Traore to John McGinn who immediately zipped a pass from just outside his penalty area to the left wing for Ramsey, again, to run onto.  John Stones thought he could reach the ball ahead of the youngster, not having learned from Walker that Ramsey was deceptively fast.

It all happened so quickly that it was impossible, in real time, to see exactly what occurred.  Thanks to VAR, it became very clear that Ramsey had reached the ball a split second before Stones and had lifted it over the defender’s prone foot and was on his way towards the Man City goal, only to be clattered by the sliding Stones’ feet and legs.  An initial yellow card was withdrawn, and a red card was shown, the first of Stones’ professional career according to the commentator.  Stones did not complain as, head down, he entered for the tunnel.

With a couple of minutes left before half-time, there was no need for either side to make any changes and they went into the break to come up with two brand new game-plans for a totally new game.  When they came out after the break, each team had made a single line-up change.  Predictably, Villa added a striker (Keinan Davis) and Man City had added backline defender (Aymeric Laporte).  Man City removed their striker (Jesus) being quite comfortable with a “false nine” formation.  Villa were equally conservative by retaining Nakamba to support their backline despite their numeric advantage.

From the second-half kickoff, Villa seized the initiative and pinged the ball around the City half and looked dangerous.  When McGinn’s cross was deflected Walker left it for his goalie, but Davis nipped in and reached the ball first.  Edison’s momentum flattened the new striker, but Villa did not complain.  If there had been 40,000 in the stands, it would have been a different story.  Then Zinchenko let a hopeful cross go over his head only to find that Traore was waiting there.  The Villa winger worked his way inside and laid a pass back for Luiz to power a stinging drive to the top left corner of the net.

A brilliant goal in a lower league was merely practice for the world-class Ederson, though he did have to block it first before picking it up off the bounce.  That was at the 50-minute mark and it represented the high point of Villa’s endeavors.  Instead of feeding Watkins to his feet, they reverted to high crosses that negated their numeric advantage.

Then after 53 minutes, Cash foolishly, and unnecessarily, fouled Foden who had been running him ragged on each possession throughout the game.  It was just two minutes later that Cash carelessly gave up possession in City’s half to Foden and lost his cool, dragging the winger to the ground.  Naturally, a second yellow card and then a red followed. 

Villa had squandered their advantage and their fate was all but certain.  Like Villa’s season, Matty Cash has seen his own standing at Villa start with gushing praise but return to earth as the going got tough.  Villa fans, naturally, will take into consideration that this is his first year in the Premier League and he is, still, only 23 years old.

City who had barely broken into a sweat against a numerical advantage, immediately settled into an even more comfortable containment strategy.  That was typified by turning a freekick deep in the Villa half of the field into a time-wasting exercise having brought up their center backs.  Short passes backwards probably ate over a minute of the clock and avoided exposing themselves to a fast break.

In Smith’s defense, his options off the bench were limited.  The injuries to Trezeguet and Sanson left a big hole and two options had already been used: Ramsey started, and Davis had been subbed for him.  Nakamba, who had put in a lot of miles chasing light blues was laboring and, in normal circumstances, having Barkley replace him would have been a big plus.  Given the enormous disappointment with the trajectory of his time with Villa, it was hardly surprising that Twitter Wags were saying that the team was down to 9 men once the Chelsea came on.

That was in the 63rd minute and, true to form, his first pass was intended for either Watkins or Davis but went directly to Zinchenko.  Barkley, as noted in similar circumstances, reflexively went racing towards the ball to get it back – a playground response – that was easy to evade and left his team exposed.

Later, as he found himself marking Walker, his lack of concentration was palpable, losing the speedy ex-Villan on a couple of give-and-goes with Mahrez that both led to excellent opportunities for City to add to their lead.

Most frustrating for his teammates, when he did have an opportunity, thanks to Targett dispossessing Walker, he totally muffed his lines.  The left wing was open, and Watkins came over for the feed from Ross 15 yards up the line.  Barkley, instead, and inexplicably, drove the ball past Watkins in the general direction of Davis well covered by Diaz.  Watkins appeared flabbergasted and frustrated.  Worse still, it took a minute and a half of City possession and a golden opportunity to add to their lead for Villa to regain possession.

The bright spot for the Villa was the performance of their backline with Targett, Mings and, especially, Konsa, outstanding.  In fact, it was interesting to see how Konsa was able to mark Foden so effectively, especially after the grief the winger had caused Cash.  Of course, the circumstances were very different.

The Villa were left to rue another season defining opportunity that they let slip through their collectively fingers.

Next West Brom, and what will that bring?

ASTON VILLA (4-1-4-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Nakamba, Bertrand Traoré, John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Jacob Ramsey, Ollie Watkins

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Taylor, Hause, Ross Barkley (s 63′), Anwar El Ghazi, Carney Chukwuemeka, Engels, Davis (s, 46’)

Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson; Kyle Walker, Dwight Stones, Ruben Dias, Zinchenko, Bernardo Silva, Rodri Hernandez, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyadh Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden

SUBS: Zack Steffen, Fernandihno, Ferran Torres, Eric Garcia, Ake, Benjamin Mendy, Aymeric Laporte (s, 46’), Joao Cancelo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *