Tottenham Hotspur (2) vs Aston Villa (1) – Our Luck Runs Out

Our Villans arrived in London after two confidence-building performances only to run into the talented Tottenham Hotspur with a lot to prove.  While our claret and blues were more poised and took the early initiative, our hosts were determined not to lose for a fourth time is a row.  The early indication was that this contest could go either way, to the upstart visitors or to the threatened member of London’s elite clubs (alongside Chelsea and Arsenal).

Certainly, Villa’s high press had the desired effect in unnerving a defense with no obvious leader.  The backline of Walker, Alderweireld, Vertongen, and Rose has long gone and so have Modric and Eriksen, and with them the composure and swagger.  They still have lots of talent: one of the world’s best goalies in Hugo Lloris, the iconic Harry Kane, a revolving door of star names, and the remarkable Son Heung-min, but there is fragility.

From the kick-off, Mings joined in the press intercepting a pass and getting the ball to Jacob Ramsey at the goal line only to be bundled over from behind by Royal near the corner flag.  The modest youngster does not have the swagger and brashness to demand a freekick, so none came.  A few minutes later, as Watkins oozed by Højbjerg as if he wasn’t there, the Danish international didn’t hesitate to hack Ollie’s legs from under our striker.  Ollie is too dangerous a customer to let get a run on the backline so early in the game.

Unlike the Man U game, Villa’s set-pieces were not as much a factor as Spurs seemed particularly focused on the second ball from each freekick.  This, their first, saw Targett receive the pass on the left wing – to get a better angle to cross – but our wingback took a split second too long and a Spurs defender got a foot in the way to deflect, making it easier to clear.  It was an early sign of the struggle ahead.

Meanwhile, Son and Romero began to express their influence.  The South Korean came back to help his beleaguered defenders clear.  Gathering the ball just outside his own penalty area, he was surrounded by Ings, McGinn, and Cash yet managed to dribble through and force a Villa foot to cede a throw-in lest he break away.  Then Romero, seeing Son in space in enemy territory, pinpointed a pass that had Cash scrambling to position himself to cover.  The danger for Villa was averted but Spurs were able to mount an attack, as Villa were forced to regroup.

Still, Villa appeared more dangerous at this stage and in the 8th minute, after Watkins had drawn a crowd on the right, Luiz carried the ball across the outside of the penalty area and punched it over to an open John McGinn in the inside-left channel.  McGinn found himself a little flat-footed and stretched his left leg to gather, only it was a heavy touch that saw the ball get far enough away that an alert Emerson Royal was able to jump in and block-out the Scot.  McGinn’s tackle, from behind, was judged to be a foul. Matt Targett was just 10 yards away, wide of McGinn and unmarked, and his expression betrayed his disappointment that a golden opportunity for a breakthrough goal had gone in an instant.

One Villa player who was not getting much opportunity to participate in attacks was Danny Ings.  With Watkins coming short to receive the ball or finding channels to run down the wing for passes from the back, Ings was stuck staying in the middle waiting for a pass and, otherwise, pre-occupying Dier and Romero.  He did that admirably, with little reward to show for it.  To his credit, when he noticed that a Villa midfielder was caught too far forward on a possession change, he did an admirable job of giving chase.  His clean slide-tackle on Royal as he broke down on the rightwing was as good as any by a career fullback.

What this also signified was that the Spurs were finding a rhythm.  After some excellent play by Højbjerg that led to Son having a half chance and Kane a high cross to fight for, Lucas Moura fed a perfect pass for Son to gather as he cut across the penalty area.  The only thing that prevented a golden scoring opportunity was Konsa being step-for-step inside his mark.  Son, denied a sight of goal, stopped when he got to the inside-right channel, turned and attempted to curve a left-footed shot around Villa’s unsung hero, only for Ezri to block it.

A further sign of the momentum swinging in Spurs favor occurred around the 20-minute mark when Romero stripped the ball from Ollie Watkins as he tried to slide by the Argentinian.  The audacity of his thievery was akin to Grealish being robbed – it was disturbing.  Even worse, when Reguilón passed to Son on the left touchline and Cash rushed to contain, Son was able to feign a turn inside, then spin and take off down the wing leaving Cash sliding by unceremoniously.

Fortunately, Villa’s team defense responded with Konsa blocking the way outside and Luiz preventing any passage to goal on the inside rout.  A pass to Ndombele near the penalty spot was well anticipated by Hause who extended a long leg to deflect and, momentarily, clear only for the ball to land at Kane’s feet.  This season’s Kane lashed a shot high and wide.

Kane was somewhat more effective when, following a freekick award at the halfway line he noticed Martinez well off his line and immediately snapped a shot over Emi’s head.  The necessity of a quick shot made it impossible to get the necessary arc and our goalie was able to backtrack and save comfortably, then flash a smile.

Spurs were enjoying most of the possession at this stage and Villa were unable to mount any concerted pressure.  When McGinn tried to gain possession from Son at the halfway line and failed, Højbjerg gathered the ball and he and Son took off at speed forcing the Villa backline to retreat.  Son took the pass and raced towards the right touchline.  Højbjerg, on the other hand, ran straight toward the penalty area and waited in a central position just outside the box.  Claret and blue shirts were in flux, trying to corral Son and make sure that all other white-shirted threats to score were covered.  Højbjerg, just inside the D, was almost ignored.  The lateral crisp pass to the defensive-minded Dane was perfect and allowed him time to assess his options.

With Hause and Luiz focused on Son, that left Konsa and Mings to face the threat.  With an uncovered Kane wide of him, Konsa was left trying to block faced in Kane’s direction.  That meant that a shot to the goalie’s right would likely be blocked by Konsa or saved by Martinez.  The alternative was a shot to Martinez’s left, as close to the post as possible.  This had the added advantage of being across the grain of Mings’s run from the left to the center of the box. 

Between Konsa and Mings, it appeared that Martinez did not get a clear view of the ball until it passed behind Mings.  It was halfway to the goal before it became visible and there was no way for Martinez’s dive to reach the ball before it crossed the line just inside the post.  Spurs 1, Aston Villa 0 at 26 minutes and 16 seconds.

The goal was the culmination of mounting threats by Spurs.  Once they scored, Spurs seemed to lower their pressure and our Villa gained more possession and chances in the balance of the first half.  The two that were instigated by John McGinn were the most dangerous.  In the 39th minute, as the fiery Scot was being pressured inside his own half, he saw that Targett was heading past Royal on the left.  The long looping pass was perfect, landing at our wingback’s feet inside the penalty area.  The split second it took to control and set to shoot was just enough for the Brazilian defender to slide to clear the ball away for a corner.  A brilliant defensive move that, unless perfect, would have resulted in a penalty.

Villa’s pressure and corners continued with none of the success of the Man U game.  Still, one led to a volley by John McGinn from outside the area that was awfully close to Lloris’s left post and high enough that the Frenchman would not have reached it. 

The half completed with Villa looking like they were still very much in the game and nothing after the break suggested otherwise.  Within a minute Luiz fed McGinn racing through the middle and the Scot paused as he reached the penalty area for Matty Cash to appear to his right.  The pass was on the money and the goal-scorer for Villa against Everton hit a shot first time. The shot hit Dier’s heel and spun up and into the 6-yard box where Ings was ready to pounce and Lloris looked uncertain.  Both were probably surprised when an acrobatic scissor-kick, by Spurs’ young Oliver Skipp cleared the danger but only for a second.

The ball was returned by way of a well-whipped cross from Douglas Luiz that Royal could only clear to Targett behind him.  Villa’s player of the year last season controlled and smashed a shot that looked to be heading toward Lloris’s top left corner little more that 10 yards away when Romero got his body in the way and, likely, prevented the game being tied up.

What followed a couple of minutes later was not significant but was reassuring.  When Harry Kane, who had an industrious, if quiet game, tried to dribble past Ezri Konsa on the left wing, he was easily dispossessed and, in frustration, tripped the young defender.  With Konsa down the whistle blew and England’s most expensive player leaned over and put out a hand.  Ezri took it and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.  A simple, but too rare, reminder that this is a game between fellow players, not dire enemies.

Shortly after, a Son engineered opportunity almost led to a second goal for the hosts if not for Mings getting in the way of a Ndombele blast.  Then Konsa had to slide to clear a golden opportunity for Son to score when Martinez and Hause had mangled a pass.

It was Villa who came close around the 60-minute mark as Ramsey carried the ball down the inside right channel before slipping a pass for Cash to run onto, but Lloris was wise to it and raced out to gather.  This episode seemed to animate young Jacob because he took two powerful shots from close in.  The first was blocked by Dier out for a corner.  From the corner, Ramsey had an even better shot only for Danny Ings to find himself in the way.

Just a couple of minutes later, Villa’s pressure paid off.  This time it was Konsa who carried the ball into the Spurs half and fed Watkins only for the ball to be blocked on the way and come back to him.  This time Konsa found Ramsey with a pass that sucked Romero forward to intercept, only young Jacob is deceptively fast, and he reached the ball first, pushing it out to Ings, just before being clattered by the Argentinian.  Ings carried and pushed the ball onto Targett, unmarked outside and he proceeded into the penalty area.  With the angle on Royal and Dier coming over to cover Watkins, Targett threaded the needle, and the fast and skillful Watkins met the ball at the near post.  The ball was in the net before Lloris could move.  Spurs 1, Aston Villa 1 in the 67th minute.  Meanwhile, the rash Romero was 5 yards adrift with a yellow card waiting for his troubles.

As the commentator put it, “That’s a super, super goal from Watkins” displaying surprising enthusiasm for a Brit.  This was the perfect way for our striker to open his scoring account for the season.  Echoing the thought that most Villa fans had at that moment, commentator noted that the game was following the same script as Villa’s last visit when they came back from a 1-0 deficit and went on to win the game 2-1.  Two players would have been particularly sensitive to making sure that this did not happen again.  One was Romero, whose rash effort to the loose ball had left the gap that Watkins exploited to score.  The other would have been Reguilón who, all on his own, gifted both Villa goals back in May (an own goal and an inept intercepted clearance).

Just a few minutes after the tying goal both were challenged.  First, Romero found himself competing with Ollie for a ball down the right wing.  He could have been forgiven for hoofing the ball into the crowd but, instead, he calmly stroked a pass to Skipp, up the wing.  Skipp and Spurs kept their composure, and the ball was worked to Reguilón on the wing.  He was still in the Spurs half with Villa’s back line advanced reflecting their confidence.  Son saw the opportunity and headed behind Konsa into space on the wing and Reguilón immediately slid a perfectly weighted pass down the line. 

At this stage, the danger seemed limited to Son.  Hause made sure the South Korean international stayed wide and Konsa, Luiz, and Mings were closing in to fill the gap behind the big center back, leaving no opening for Son to pull-back to Kane who was arriving at the penalty spot.  Meanwhile, Martinez was ready at the near post to make sure there was no net to shoot at.  What Son was able to perceive, or sense, was that Moura had a step on Targett in the inside-right channel facing Martinez’s vacant left half of the net.  As Son reached the corner of the six-yard box, he zipped over the cross between three Villa defenders, past Martinez towards Moura who was arriving for a tap-in, only for Targett’s desperate slide to block turn into an own-goal. Spurs 2, Aston Villa 1 in the 71st minute.

Last year’s team, especially the version without Grealish, would have exuded despair. This year’s side projects resilience.  Ings for one, appears to thrive on adversity and he came close to converting a Targett volleyed cross into a spectacular shot, only for the bottom to drop out of it forcing him to improvise and still get off a decent effort with his other foot that forced Lloris into a good save.  Spurs did all the right things to run out the clock, emphasizing possession over shots and dribbling, and never letting their guard down.  The crowd got behind them and that helped them and made it harder for our claret and blues.

Even in hindsight, it is hard to come up with strategy that would have improved our odds of a better outcome.  No serious observer of the game came up with an answer.  Of course, those who live in the social media world were very disappointed that the same team could win at Old Trafford and then lose at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium a week later.  The consensus was “we weren’t as sharp”. 

The reality was that Spurs had Son and they took their two best opportunities whereas Man U had far more opportunities and barely troubled Martinez.  As for offense, our Villans generated more good chances against Spurs and had double the number of corners than we did in Manchester.  Spurs wanted a win far more than Man U did, and that was the big difference.

Spurs: Lloris, Romero, Emerson, Reguilón, Dier, Skipp, Son, Ndombele (Lo Celso 76′), Moura (Gil 89′), Højbjerg, Kane.

Unused Subs: Gollini, Winks, Scarlett, Alli, Sánchez, Doherty, Rodon.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Mings, Hause (Traoré 80′), Konsa, Cash, Luiz, Targett, J Ramsey (Buendía 69′), McGinn, Ings (Archer 89′), Watkins.

Unused Subs: Steer, Nakamba, Tuanzebe, Philogene-Bidace, El Ghazi, Young

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