Aston Villa (1) vs Brentford (1) – An Unsettled Line-Up Struggles

The fans at Villa Park were abuzz with excitement when the Bees’ Saman Ghoddos passed back to his goalie, David Raya, to challenge the Villans’ backline with a hefty boot from well outside his own penalty area.  The excitement was tinged with anxiety, a product of a Villa line-up that was missing captain Tyrone Mings and two of the stars of our first win of the season against Newcastle.  The outstanding midfield trio of that game was now absent John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey, both victims of COVID-19 exposure.  Yikes!

On the upside, there was some relief in seeing last season’s players’ favorite player, Matt Targett, back in the squad, joy in 17-year-old phenomenon Carney Chukwuemeka making his Premier League debut, and a sense of destiny that Axel Tuanzebe was back in claret and blue after having been re-loaned from his parent club, Chelsea.   This concoction made for a sea of mixed emotions to deal with on an eerily sunny Birmingham day (we Brummies like to boast about being Britain’s “gloomiest city”).

The Bees’ response to Villa’s surprise squad was to take the game to the home side from the outset with Ivan Toney racing down the ball to the goal line, to compete with Matty Cash and getting the latter’s attempted clearance in the gut for his troubles.  That discomfort did nothing to deter the striker.

Shortly after there was a passage of play that turned out to be a harbinger of how the game was going to proceed and conclude.  A stellar string of Villa passes that turned defense into offense went from Konsa to Luiz, back to Konsa, back to Emi, out to Targett, inside to Luiz, a one-touch outside of the foot pass back to Targett, on the move up the wing, to Ings who came back ten yards from his marker to receive, immediately out to El Ghazi who turned inside and saw Chukwuemeka had advanced into the inside left spot and was open. In no time at all, the ball had traveled from the Villa penalty area to the edge of the Brentford area and Villa’s rookie had only Brentford left center-back Pinnock to beat to get a shot on goal. 

A moment’s hesitation before Chukwuemeka made his move was all it took for a retreating Brentford midfielder to pilfer the ball from behind and slide it back to Raja.  The ease at which the Bees squelched a Villa attack deflated the crowd and relaxed the goalie, but inspired Dany Ings.  After initially holding his position, Villa’s brilliant striker closed on the goalie in a flash (totally missed by the camera crew) and came within a whisker of blocking the clearance.  That whisker was the difference between the ball rebounding into the net and it deflecting to Matty Cash, well inside the visitor’s half.

A goal by Villa at that stage would have dealt a crushing blow to the Bees’ confidence and repeated the impact that Ing’s brilliant goal against Newcastle had.  Instead, it became a footnote that gained significance when Brentford, instead, scored the first goal of the game five minutes later.  That, in turn, energized the visitors’ high-press and allowed the Bees to play out of the back with a level of confidence bordering on swagger.

One might have expected our Villans’ quick equaliser to have redressed the confidence factor, but it did not.  Two reasons were likely contributors.  The first reason was the nature of each goal, the second was Villa’s lack of an imposing leader on the field.  Mings is a larger-than-life figure who commands a game by example.  Konsa is an excellent player but he, nor any of his teammates, can do what Tyrone does.

So, what was it about the goals that was so significant?  To start with, both goals reflect the level of coaching that each team has been through to reach the pinnacle of international soccer, the English Premier League, and the quality of their individual players.

That Brentford with a tiny stadium and a commensurate budget is in the Premier League is a testament to Thomas Frank, their Danish manager, and to the person who hired him and built the foundation of the Bees’ current team from 2015-2018, our own Dean Smith.  It’s a legacy that includes the development of Ollie Watkins and Ezri Konsa from Griffin Park to national team consideration.

What Brentford lack in individual brilliance, they make up in organization and effort.  Their goal culminated five minutes of play where they dominated possession.   They did that by their forwards contending for high balls and picking up the spoils.  When an attack failed, they harassed defenders into rushed clearances.  When they forced throw-ins deep in their opponent’s half, they brought up Pinnock to take well-rehearsed long throws.

Another approach to advance the ball down the field, is the high ball over the full backs.  Pinnock’s pass to Rico Henry, early on, forced the aggressive Matty Cash to have to backtrack and concede a corner.

It was from that corner that the goal opportunity derived.  A glancing headed clearance by Cash arrived at the far corner of the penalty area where the wing-back, Canos, waited with no Villan in the vicinity.  The Spaniard controlled the ball, then headed towards the goal line as Luiz and El Ghazi rushed over to block the cross.  Neither appeared prepared for a low pass to the 6-yard box, an area well-endowed with claret and blue shirts.  In fact, the cross was directed to Jansson with little room for him to gather and shoot, but that was not the plan.

What appeared to be a training ground play saw the Bees’ defender deflect the daisy-cutter pass 45 degrees behind him towards Ivan Toney, the Bees’ striker, ready to shoot from halfway between the 6-yard box and the penalty spot.  The beauty of the play was its simplicity and deception.  The look of disgust on Ashley Young’s face as Brentford’s 32-goal scorer of last season (exceeding Ollie Watkins’s 26-goals in the previous season) was left alone to sweep the ball into the top corner of Martinez’s net was palpable.  It was Aston Villa 0, Brentford 1 in the 7th minute.

Of course, that defensive breakdown was a natural consequence of the makeshift nature of the Villa squad.  Notably missing was the one of the best players in the Premier League at sensing danger and snuffing it out at inception.  It is hard for a Villa fan to imagine John McGinn not seeing that play develop and not getting to the ball before it reached Toney! 

Chukwuemeka had to have felt uncomfortable in the knowledge that he was filling McGinn’s shoes.  The rookie was one of many who were stunned.  Villa fans around the world would have been shaking their heads in unison.  Behind at Villa Park to an upstart team.  Okay, the Bees had beaten Arsenal 2-0 at home, but this was their first away goal in the Premier League and the game had barely started.

The visitors were over the moon and played like it in terms of confidence and energy while still maintaining their composure.  Their high press was well organized and well executed.  This made it more difficult for our claret and blues to build from the back, and we found ourselves chasing buttercup yellow strips all over the field. 

Finally, thanks to a freekick, Villa found themselves in possession in enemy territory.  The ball ended up bouncing to Buendia on the right wing and he took advantage by hitting a well-volleyed cross that almost fell to El Ghazi.  With the ball still bouncing around the Bees’s penalty area, Canos attempted a volley of his own down the right wing to Toney with only Targett back to cover.  This time Villa’s full back did well, picking the ball out of the air with his left foot and then cushioning it to the retreating Tuanzebe who, in turn, laid it back to Luiz and on to Konsa. 

The captain for the game, returned the ball to Martinez to let his team reorganize.  After a few seconds, Emi drove the ball to Targett well up the wing.  Targett had enough time to look up and see that Ings had broken past the twins (Jansson and Ajer) and Villa’s full back laid the ball in his path to run onto.  Ings used his speed, skill, and experience to control and set, ready for the arriving El Ghazi.  A quick give and go, and Ings broke between the twins and, with his second touch, executed a perfectly weighted pass across edge of the area arriving at the same time as Buendia.

What characterizes star players is their desire for the ball.  The Argentinian had raced over from the right wing to make himself available to Ings.  Instead of waiting for a pass he came towards Ings, looking for it.  When the pass arrived, he was in motion and able to pirouette anticlockwise, allowing the ball to pass between his legs and onto his right foot. This allowed him to see Cash racing up the inside right channel and outside of Rico Henry.  That would have been Buendia’s best option if not for Henry and Pinnock simultaneously leaning in that direction.

What had suddenly opened up was a clear sight of goal and Emi number two followed through with his spin to launch all his momentum behind a bullet of a shot directed at Raja’s top left corner.  Despite the best effort of the goalie, the power and placement were too much, and from just outside the area the ball flew into the corner of the net.   As the commentator called it, it was an “absolute beauty” that turned the fans from fretful to overjoyed in an instant.  That Buendia has inherited Grealish’s No. 10, and all the expectations with it, made this a crucial moment in his Villa career. Aston Villa 1, Brentford 1 in the 13th minute.

Like the Bees’ reaction to their goal, Villa became ascendant, and the visitors barely hung on.  Just a minute later El Ghazi broke ahead of Jansson and Ajer down the left and cut into penalty area and was about to square a pass to Danny Ings in space when a desperate lunge by a defender behind caused the Dutchman to stumble enough and show enough of the ball for the defenders to clear for a corner.  An appreciative Ings, despite missing out on an excellent opportunity, showed his appreciation at the effort.

Then, Villa had the opportunity to bring up their tall defenders for a freekick won by El Ghazi and taken by Targett.  The delivery was good, giving Chukwuemeka a chance to compete for a header on goal.  When a defender reached the ball first, the loose ball was cleared but right to Cash who immediately rifled a cross field pass to El Ghazi, just outside the box on the left.  He was faced by Henry, still on his “wrong” wing for the set play.  El Ghazi, who had been giving Canos all kinds of grief, had the same effect on the left wing back, faking him to his left then pulling the ball back to the goal line before laying up a beautiful cross into the 6-yard box.

Tuanzebe was there but a defender went up with him and Villa’s loanee missed the ball completely allowing it to travel to Konsa right behind.  The tussle in front of him and the setting sun combined to handcuff Ezri, and the ball bounced off his knees.  That turned out to be a perfect set-up for Danny Ings who instantly shot low to the goalie’s right.  In real time it was almost too quick to see what happened.  Even with the replay it was hard to fathom how the goalie was able to get down so quickly to make the save and return to his feet almost as fast.  Ings threw his head back in disbelief that he had not scored.

That proved to be a pivotal moment.  While only at the 20th minute mark, a goal there and Villa would have had control of the game. As it was, the Villa dominated possession and chances for the balance of the half but never really threatened to beat the outstanding Raya.  In fact, the best opportunity during that time was at the other of the field when a couple of fortunate bounces led to Henry having a great chance from the left. His agonizingly slow shot went just wide of Emi’s left post.

When the interval came, Smith may have been considering that close-call and his limited options on the bench.  The injuries to Traore, Trezeguet, and Bailey and the lack of match fitness of Ollie Watkins meant he lacked the fire power to dominate the opposition, even one lacking Premier League experience such as Brentford.  When the Villans had failed to break the tie by the 60th minute, Smith decided to focus on not losing.  Certainly, replacing Chukwuemeka with Nakamba was a strong indication of that thinking.

Sure, he brought on Watkins for Ashley Young but, by then, there were only about 10 minutes left in the game.  What was encouraging was how well Watkins blended with his new teammates and it was Villa’s star striker who went closest to scoring the winner with an impressive leap and header from an El Ghazi cross and a left foot shot that forced Raya to dive smartly to cover, both in injury time.

That good news was, temporarily offset by concern that Kosa had suffered a serious knee injury when Pinnock clattered into Cash who, in turn, fell into his teammate and landed on his knee.  Reports, after the game however, indicated that it was nothing serious.  An unfortunate consequence was that it postponed Cameron Archer’s debut off the bench in the same week that he had scored a hat trick in the Carabao Cup.  No doubt, he will get other opportunities but, it’s safe to say, the crowd would have preferred Archer getting a chance to be a hero to Hause protecting a point, even though that was the right decision.

On balance, a good performance and a step in the right direction for our Villans in a game where fate had dealt them a poor hand.  Final score: Aston Villa 1, Brentford 1.

Aston Villa: Martínez; Cash, Konsa (sub. Hause, 89 mins), Tuanzebe, Targett; Douglas Luiz; Buendía, Chukwuemeka (sub Nakamba 63 mins), Young (sub. Watkins, 79 mins), El Ghazi; Ings

Unused subs: Steer, Hourihane, Guilbert, Philogene-Bidace, Archer, Aaron Ramsey

Brentford: Raya; Ajer, Jansson, Pinnock; Canós, Nørgaard, Ghoddos (sub Wissa 66 mins), Janelt (sub Baptiste 89 mins), Henry; Toney, Mbeumo (sub Jensen 80 mins)

Unused subs: Fernández, Stevens, Thompson, Bidstrup, Forss, Dervişoğlu

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