Everton (1) vs Aston Villa (2) – So Now What?

The craziness of this, the pandemic season, suggests that just about anything is possible.  Who would have anticipated the collapse of the “Super League”, an attempted heist by billionaires that was thwarted by fans?  Who imagined Liverpool on the cusp of being eliminated from the Champions League with matters out of their own hands?

With only five games left for our Villa, they are still in the race to qualify for Europe!  This for a team that was one point from Premier League relegation a year ago and that has survived the loss of its leader and talisman for 10 games prior to this fixture against Everton at Goodison Park.  So, what happened against the Carlo Ancelotti led Everton, favored themselves to make it into the Europa tournament?

They got Watkins’d, that’s what happened!  So how does that work?  Well, any time the Villa need to turn defense into attack, they just loft the ball down either flank, beyond the fullback (or wingback) for Ollie to compete with one, or both, of the center backs.  Chances are that something good will happen.

Watkins beats Jordan Pickford to give Villa the lead

Usually (50% or more) he will control the ball, protect until he has another Villan available with space, and will lay it off for McGinn, or whoever, to continue the attack while Ollie finds an opening from where he can contribute (mostly by shooting on-target).

On the occasions that he does not control the ball, it is most likely because a defender has cleared out of touch for a throw-in or a corner, a good field position for the Villa.  Failure to deal with the Ollie threat is likely to be costly.  Just ask John Stones who saw Watkins set up John McGinn for a first minute Villa lead in the Man City game.  Foul the fleet-of-foot striker and the defender is likely taking an early walk down the tunnel.  Just ask John Egan of Sheffield United.

Then there is the harassment part of the Watkins’ portfolio.  Center backs, particularly, are likely to be set-upon within a few seconds of gaining possession.  Pass to a close-by teammate and you will likely pass on the problem.  Pass to a Villan and Ollie will be ready to run behind you.  Just ask Liverpool.

Watkins’ overall play, plus the 13 Premier League goals he has scored, were impressive enough that the two commentators (Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe) selected him as their preferred Euro backup to Harry Kane over Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin.  Without Grealish on the pitch, it’s Watkins who is inspiring the offensive performance of the team by example.  El Ghazi and Traoré are both improving on a week-to-week basis and adding another 13 goals between them.  Whereas they initially were poor at covering when the team was not in possession, both have improved that part of their game appreciably.  While El Ghazi could improve his distribution (he has no assists to add to his 8 goals), Traoré could more frequently spring Cash loose on the outside or take that route more himself.  He is overly inclined to rely on his left foot.

Everton also ran into what has become the Villa normal: excellent defensive play supported by spectacular goaltending by Emi Martinez.  After a below par performance against Manchester City, culminating with an immature loss of temper and a sending-off, Matty Cash responded in the way his team (and manager Dean Smith) would have wanted.  He played with intensity and confidence for every second of the game.  Mings and Konsa were very confident in possession and made the most of their distribution opportunities, and their contribution was reflected in the team’s overall passing accuracy rate (81%).

Luiz and McGinn both played at their usual high-level but with no momentary lags that can creep into their games.  They dominated midfield and were primarily responsible for the possession advantage that Villa held (53% to 47%) as well as the passing accuracy.

That leaves only Ross Barkley to comment on.  Just seconds into the game, it was evident that we were seeing a different Ross.  A reminder by the game commentator solved the quandary as to why.  This was the team and stadium where he started his Premier League career at the age of 16, having joined as a 6-year-old!  It showed.  He was home.  He was playing in his backyard.  His confidence and energy were at their peak.  He was hungry for possession and, mostly, made the right decisions with no hesitation.  Overall, he was a positive contributor to the win.

That is not to say his performance was above reproach.  On the Everton goal, he “lost Calvert-Lewin.” When it was his job to stop the striker getting an unimpeded run at the corner, Ross tried to grab a shirt and then gave up.  It was a similar effort that we saw at Burnley when he was assigned Ben Mee on a corner and became a spectator as the center back rose and headed home.  These are the only headed goals from corners that Villa has conceded this season.

As for Barkey’s effort that hit the outside of the post, itt was a good shot, but it had to be perfect to beat the England keeper.  Perhaps a pass to Watkins who was open to his right would have been a higher percentage choice.

The great news for Villa is that this line-up against Manchester United at Villa Park next Sunday, with Grealish replacing Barkley in a central role, most likely off the bench, gives the team the best opportunity of winning and launching them on a race to the finish line and, like last season, they could confound the pundits who said that they were “done for” with the loss of Jack!

So why did the Villa come away from Goodison Park with a spring in their step while the Toffees left with their tails between their legs?  Was it knowing that Jack was on his way back?  It could have also been the lift they got from scoring an injury time equaliser against West Brom, a goal that was valiant Keinan Davis’s first in the Premier League.  Having Wesley Moraes back on the bench after a 16-month injury-recovery, was also a boost and a Ross Barkley looking relaxed and confident, a plus.

Whatever factors were at play, Villa came out of the starting gate with elan and a sense of purpose.  They zinged the ball around and played with cohesion.  Everton’s dithering efforts to play out from the back a motivator to the claret and blues.  When Pickford exchanged passes across the 6-yard box with Holgate, Watkins came within a whisker of pinching a goal.

It was all Villa in the early stages and when a long ball to Watkins down the left channel was allowed to run to the goalie, Pickford tried to shield it over the goal line.  Ollie nipped around him and stole the ball.  There were too many blue shirts around to get a shot at the empty net, but it was a warning.

Sure enough, in the 13th minute Watkins picked Holgate’s pocket, jumped up after being tripped, and stroked a clinical strike between the advancing Pickford’s legs.  Everton 0, Aston Villa 1, and so easy.  A minute or so later, Konsa lifted a pass over the Everton back-line and Watkins shrugged off Ben Godfrey, but this time Pickford was able to block with his leg or Ollie would have had a brace.

Play was wide open and end-to-end, and it was no surprise when Everton scored.  From a corner, Calvert-Lewin lost his marker (Barkley), Konsa stumbled in traffic and Martinez anticipated a downward header rather than one aimed into the roof of the net.  Everton 1, Aston Villa 1, and back to square one in the 19th minute, except Villa were still running rampant.  When another Watkins’ effort was saved by Pickford it came back to McGinn who lashed a volley at goal, only for Godfrey to block.

Then Martinez made one of his customary game-changer saves.  An excellent pass by Andres Gomez to Digne racing clear on the left wing was instantly volleyed just outside the 6-yard box for a Calvert-Lewin diving header.  Villa’s excellent off-season acquisition had no time, but still managed to get a strong right-hand down to save his team from suddenly being behind.

Shortly after, Everton appeared ready to mount an attack as Richarlison gained possession in midfield but, just as quickly, was dispossessed by McGinn who dispatched an incisive pass to an open Traoré at the edge of Everton’s penalty area.  Pickford raced out and was able to repel the Burkinabé’s shot with his right foot.  Traoré wheeled around while the goalie scurried back and, this time, arced a perfect shot that was headed from the edge of the box on the right to the far top corner of the net.

Only a goalie of Pickford’s size, speed, and athleticism could have retreated and thrown himself upwards to claw the shot out of the sky and behind for a corner.  Not surprisingly, the England goalie gave himself a self-congratulatory smile.

A couple of minutes later, in the 32nd minute, Villa come even closer.  Barkley gained possession in midfield and passed to Watkins in traffic, but the striker sprayed the ball wide to a rejuvenated Matty Cash racing down the right channel, while the Villa forwards headed toward the Everton net.

A couple of seconds later, Cash delivered a delicious whipping cross in towards the 6-yard-box that was tantalizingly close to Barkley, but a yard beyond his reach.  That made it perfect for Watkins arriving at Ross’s left and the off-season signing from Brentford judged the bounce perfectly and struck it with his knee.  Pickford’s reflexes were outstanding, and he pushed the shot out with his left hand.

With Barkley surrounded by two defenders the ball came loose to El Ghazi who blasted a shot that came right back off the crossbar.  Everton managed to scramble the ball away and Villa had to wonder what it would take to get that second goal.

Barkley must have been thinking the same thing when he received the ball five minutes later.  In fact, he must have also been surprised that the Villa had possession.  Seconds before Everton were looking dangerous deep in Villa’s half when Cash used his remarkable speed to nick the ball and feed Traoré up the wing.

Then, just as Traoré started to run with the ball, the Brazilian international midfielder, Allan, bore down on him.  A slight-of-foot trick later, Allan was left standing and Traoré had found Barkley who raced, unchallenged, toward the box.  Watkins added to the defensive uncertainty by cutting outside to the right, well positioned for another one-on-one with the goalie.  Ross ignored that and set himself for a left-footed shot that was as solid and straight as would be needed to beat Pickford.  Even with the keeper’s great ability, a shot 6” to the right and Barkley would have scored his 4th goal of the season.  Instead, he heard the resounding thump as the ball came off the outside of the post.

Barkley continued to be industrious and as effective in possession as he had been early in the season.  Predictably, Luiz tarnished an excellent outing with another unnecessary yellow card.  Chasing his countryman, Richarlison, down the right wing, he appeared to have a good angle, but decided to use his arm for leverage.  Richarlison knew what to do and, as soon as he felt the touch, he went down.  As well as putting himself and his team at risk, the location was ideal for a cross that Calvert-Lewin could attack.  Martinez used his fist to make sure that could not happen as he punched clear.

Luiz, soon after, showed one of his better sides.  He called for a short goal kick from the goalie, carried between pressing blue shirts and found Barkley running into space ahead.  The Chelsea loanee ran at the Everton defense with teammates in-tow.  Barkley fed El Ghazi as the Dutchman reached the left corner of the box, but the Villa winger let the ball run too far ahead.

That turned out to be a perfect pass for Watkins who had a step on Godfrey and immediately struck a shot toward the far corner of the Everton goal that, fortunately for Godfrey, caught the back of his heel and deflected out for a corner.  That was about it for the first half, but with 6 shots on goal (compared to 2 for Everton), the team must have been disappointed at the score line.

The Villa started the second half as if they were defending a lead.  They increased their work-rate, tightened up their defensive play, and focused on retaining possession.  It worked, and Everton became increasingly frustrated at not getting opportunities to get the three points they needed to help their Europe chances. 

Typical, was Mings’ play early in the half.  Advancing to the halfway line on the left to keep a Villa attack going, he immediately raced back to his own half when possession was lost.  Always alert, he was still able to intercept an errant Everton pass and start a new Villa attack.

Then, a long Mings pass down the left channel saw Watkins out-hustle Godfrey and Holgate and forced Godfrey into giving up a corner.  From the corner, Everton cleared, and Calvert-Lewin was one-on-one with Cash covering for Targett.  Significantly, the England international decided not to try to dribble past Cash and passed back instead.  Later, Calvert-Lewin gained possession on the left wing and once again was one-on-one with Cash.  This time he tried to squeeze around the full back only to lose the battle and for the Villa to gain a goal kick.

Whenever the Villa did lose the ball, they seemed able to easily recover or found that Everton helped them in that regard.  In the 55th minute, Mings made a mess of a header that fell for Richarlison to run onto.  The Villa’s acting captain immediately rushed to cover, and the Everton forward scuffed a shot that went well wide from a tight angle.

It also appeared that Villa were winning all the individual battles.  When Barkley took a short corner to Watkins, the Villa striker froze Allan and then went around him comfortably in the penalty area before rolling a teasing pass across the 6-yard box that caused consternation and desperate defending, but no goal.

Similarly, when Target jumped in front of Iwobi to intercept a pass in the 73rd minute, the Nigerian international’s efforts resulted in a foul being given.  Similarly, when Konsa blocked a Sigurdson shot, the Icelander ended up fouling out of frustration.  When Calvert-Lewin finally got a look at goal, though from well outside the box, he desperately shot wide.

Then Villa showed Everton how to create and finish a goal.  First, Luiz intercepted a pass on the left at the halfway line.  He fed Cash, who fed McGinn, who immediately found Traoré on the right wing.  The Villa winger headed inside with the ball on his left foot, looking as if he might fancy a long-range shot or a cross before he noted that El Ghazi was well situated just outside the penalty area on the left.

A running pass skimmed over to his teammate who was well poised to receive.  El Ghazi took the ball on his left foot and adjusted to shoot the ball with his right foot.  When Seamus Coleman set himself to block the shot, he only helped the shooter.  Now El Ghazi had a guide around which to curve the shot to the right post.  Pickford dove, but the shot was too hard, too curved, and too far away for the goalie to have a chance of stopping.  Everton 1, Aston Villa 2, in the 81st minute and Villa had all the marbles.

Everton did not give up, but they never threatened, and it appeared that if either team was going to make it to the Europa Cup it would be Villa.  If a derby win set the Villa up to win in Lancashire, then perhaps winning in Lancashire may have set them up to win on Sunday at home against a Manchester team. What better time to face Man U?

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

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Hause, Jacob Ramsey (s, 88’), Engels, Davis (s, 90+2’), Nakamba, Wesley, Philogene-Bidace

Everton (4-2-3-1): Pickford, Coleman, Godfrey, Holgate, Digne, Allan, Andre Gomes, Iwobi, Sigurdsson, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin

SUBS: Keane, Delph (s, 70’), King (s 82’), Mina, Nkounkou, Bernard (s, 76’), Davies, Virginia, Olsen

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