Aston Villa (2), Brighton (0) – Villa Bounce Back under Gerrard

What became apparent, even before the kickoff at Villa Park on Saturday was this was already a different Villa team and it had nothing to do with new manager Steven Gerrard’s player selection.  In fact, of those who were “dropped” from the team that started against Southampton, El Ghazi and Bailey were moved to the bench and then subbed-in to great effect in the latter (and key) part of the game.  The other switch was Konsa for Tuanzebe, with Ezri returning from a one-game suspension.

If not the selection, then what?  It was primarily the attitude of those in claret and blue.  They played with belief!  Belief in themselves, in their teammates, in the new manager, in the new system, in the owners and management, and in the crowd to be behind them, even if they made a mistake.  That Brighton happened to be their opponent seemed incidental.

In the first 10 minutes it became obvious that this was now Gerrard’s team and there were no doubters.  The formation reflected the priorities of the “gaffer”.  Number one, keep a clean-sheet if at-all possible.  This is a manager whose Glasgow Rangers allowed only 13 goals in their latest 38-game Scottish Championship season, losing not a single game.

Number two was have the front three press in the opponent’s half and have the midfielders take over when possession reached the opponent’s midfielders or forwards.  That meant that Villa midfielders also had to take on the wingbacks and not have Villa’s fullbacks do the job.  The objective was to protect the fullbacks from being exposed to balls passed beyond them and to save their energy for defending.

Number three was, have the midfielders drop into the fullback’s slot whenever the fullback was caught up-field on a possession change.  Gerrard undoubtedly had confidence in McGinn and Ramsey to fill those rolls, and in Nakamba to fill the hole in front of the back four.  It worked exactly as it was intended with almost no opportunities afforded Brighton in the game (only two shots on goal, both in the first half).

From a defensive perspective, the strategy worked perfectly from the get-go, and Brighton found it difficult to get out of their own half with the ball.  While Brighton’s backline and even their goalie, Jason Steele, playing his first Premier League game, were able to handle the pressure by Villa’s front three, Villa’s midfield group were very effective. 

Jacob Ramsey led the way, consistently being the fastest to respond to a loose ball and demanding the ball from throw-ins. John McGinn followed his lead and was able to create turnovers and convert them into chances.  Within the first few minutes, he dispossessed Trossard and, despite being surrounded by Brighton players, found Ollie Watkins on the left wing.  Blocked from getting down the wing, Villa’s leading goal scorer from last year turned inside and sprayed a perfect pass deep into the right corner where Matty Cash out-willed Cucurella to come up with possession.  The Spanish wingback was quickly joined by Dunk and Villa’s new Polish international passed back to McGinn who showed patience trying to find a weakness in the Albion defense.  Eventually, he clipped a pass for Buendia who had sneaked into inside-right channel only for Dunk to block him out and for the ball to go out for a goal kick.

It was McGinn, again, who interrupted Cucurella’s attempt to dribble and set up Ings fifteen yards outside the box with Buendia on his right and Watkins on his left.  As they came closer to the box, Ings passed off to Watkins who appeared unsure what he was going to do.  Hesitation allowed a backtracking Lamptey to dispossess Ollie.  While our Villans were able to regain possession, the opportunity was gone. The lack of training practice of the group was evident as they looked like total strangers to each other. 

Brighton finally got something going in Villa’s half when Lamptey got around Targett on the outside.  That came to nothing as our reliable fullback was able to block the cross at the cost of a corner.  The corner by Groß was diverted by Mings before any of Brighton’s big backline players could get a head on the cross.  This was only temporary relief as the ball landed at the feet of Trossard on the left corner of the box and he set to feed that same hungry Brighton backline only for Mings to again deny them.  It was back with Groß, only this time it was Target who blocked the cross and cleared the danger.  This was not pretty, but a reassuring sign of Villa’s defense’s ability to deal with crosses.

Then, in the 8th minute, our Villans earned their first corner.  It was due mostly to Ramsey’s hustle to disrupt the opposition and find space behind Webster.  Brighton’s right center back managed to block the cross for a corner.  Targett’s cross was well placed to the far post, but Mings was thwarted by one of Brighton’s 6’4” center backs.  The clearance came to Cucurella who was again dispossessed by McGinn who, despite the Spaniard hanging over him, directed an excellent cross wide of Steele’s right post.  It could have been an excellent header opportunity for Ings if not for Webster getting his 6’3’’ frame in the way of Danny at 5’10”.  Size does matter and our Villans had another corner.

While that was cleared, Villa finally had an opportunity on goal soon after.  Again it was John McGinn who won possession in the midfield and immediately curled a perfect pass for Watkins to run onto on the left.  As Webster and Lamptey retreated to defend, Ollie slid the ball back to Targett who scooped a cross towards the right edge of the 6-yard box, a perfect set-up for Matty Cash to run onto.

Cash’s aerial ability allowed him to rise over the two players under the cross and head down.  The header was perfectly placed and solidly delivered.  Credit to Steele for quick feet and blocking the ball out with a strong right hand at his side.  Gerrard’s body language suggested he thought he was seeing his first goal only to be disappointed.  That was in the 12th minute.

In the 20th minute, it was Brighton’s turn to appear close to scoring.  Breaking down the left wing, Cucurella skimmed a teaser across the face of the 6-yard box, but Konsa was closer than Trossard and he was able to let it pass.

Then Villa came even closer when Ramsey carried the ball to the edge of the penalty area and fed Buendia who instinctively redirected to Ings, heading between Webster and Duffy, only to fail to control the ball.  Steele was instantly off the line to beat our striker before he could strike.

Shortly after, another Cucurella cross was blocked by Konsa and Ramsey, but the ball came right back to Trossard who blasted a shot from a tight angle.  Martinez, standing close to his post, easily parried out of danger.

With halftime approaching both teams increased their pressure to get that all-important first goal.  McGinn arced a beautiful pass from the inside-right position for Targett to meet ten feet wide of the goal.  Ollie was in the 6-yard-box to meet the volleyed cross only Targett skewed it out – possibly being distracted by Ings trying to reach the same ball.

It was Brighton who got the last bite of the cherry.  This time it was Moder who carried the ball down the left wing before fizzing the cross through the crease.  Trossard’s attempt to redirect on goal was unsuccessful, but it took the ball away from Villa defenders and toward Lallana.  Targett was able to compete and get a touch only to redirect again to the talented young wingback, Lamptey.

Ramsey was close, but he had ten yards to make up from a standing start whereas the wingback was already racing.  Remarkably, Martinez was able to sense the danger and dash off his line and get a strong right hand and arm out to block the shot.  Well-deserved high-fives followed for the goalie.

Halftime and time to take stock.  Indeed, not having given up a goal was a major improvement and there were enough positives to believe that if anyone was going to break the tie, it would be the team that did not have to beat Emi Martinez.

Early in the second half, it appeared as if Villa had broken through when John McGinn floated the ball in from a freekick and found Tyrone Mings, whose header back across goal was just kept out by the diving Steele.

After that Brighton dominated possession without creating a single clear-cut shot on goal.  With Gerrard so focused on the shutout, it was something of a surprise when he brought on Leon Bailey for Danny Ings in the 66th minute though, arguably, the Jamaican could not be less successful than Ings in holding the ball.  Similarly, Ashley Young seemed more likely than Buendia had been in any capacity, offense, defense, or plain holding the ball.

Then Gerrard put on El Ghazi for the hard-working Ramsey and, finally, it became apparent that the new manager had a notion that this game could be won.  El Ghazi’s first contribution was in his own half, backtracking and intercepting a cross-field pass and headed it down to Watkins.  He was also solid in supporting Targett in fending off crosses from Brighton’s wing.

By introducing offensively minded March, MacAllister, and Maupay, Brighton’s Potter had also signaled that he was going for the win.  With only six minutes left of the ninety, most of the light blue shirts were in, or around, the Villa penalty box.  A loose ball came to Nakamba close to his own goal, and he had the composure to find Ashley Young just outside the area. Young saw room to run and he carried the ball for 30 yards, or so, while Watkins headed for his preferred inside left channel as El Ghazi did the opposite, cutting behind Watkins towards the center.

At just the right moment Young executed a brilliantly weighted pass to Watkins who drove Duffy backward, the center back intent on not letting our fleet-footed striker get around him.  Duffy, presumably, was also hoping for help from the desperately pursuing Bissouma and Webster.  As they approached the penalty area, El Ghazi made a diagonal cut to give Ollie an option to pass to Duffy’s right.

Instead, Watkins used El Ghazi as a decoy and, without slowing down, cut inside and behind Bissouma, wrong-footing him and Duffy.  Webster had all but given up the chase, but Dunk was adjusting and moving to his right to block Ollie’s view of the goal.  Ollie continued his lateral move for a few more feet, beyond Dunk, then fired an unstoppable shot past Steele and into the far corner to send Villa Park wild.  Aston Villa 1, Brighton 0 in the 84th minute.

You would think we had won the cup final.  Still, we had a few more minutes and, after the Wolves game, nobody was counting their chickens yet.  Villa did the right thing, and kept the pressure on Brighton, looking for the second goal that would seal the deal.

Image:Watkins celebrates his goal

Villa’s pressure resulted in a corner on the left.  El Ghazi and Young both went to the corner suggesting they might be going to kill the clock. Instead, they passed the ball to Targett who lofted a high cross to the far post that Steele whiffed and Mings almost reached.  With the ball heading out for a throw-in Mings decided to give chase and, remarkably, reached it before it crossed the line and slid it back to McGinn.

The Scot had to fend off a couple of Brighton defenders before he could fashion another whipping cross to the waiting Watkins in the 6-yard box.  A sliding Webster managed to intercept and clear the ball except that Mings had jumped up and was running towards the net as if he had anticipated Webster’s ball.  All our very imposing center back did was unload a thunderous blast at an almost empty net – Steele was still staggering back to his feet.  Aston Villa 2, Brighton 0 in the 89th minute. Mings, our tortured captain, let out a roar of relief having exorcized all the angst of the losing streak and raced to the fans in the Holte End to celebrate.  See: Mings Goal

Bailey almost put the cherry on top with a first-time volley parried by Steele in stoppage time, and there was a sense of jubilation and relief in equal measure at full-time as Villa ended their rotten run, with tricky fixtures on the horizon.

What was even more significant than the team’s fluidity when in the lead was the example shown by Ashley Young.  This England teammate of Gerrard’s has been tapped to demonstrate by example what he is looking for and be the boss’s intermediary to the other players. 

On the former count, Young’s slide to block MacAllister’s shot and then to take a kick in the thigh as he cleared the rebound while prone on the ground was exactly the level of commitment Gerrard expects, even when 2-0 up.  The team needed that when facing Wolves with a 2-0 lead and did not get it.  If they had, it is likely that Dean Smith would not have lost his job.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Targett, Mings, Konsa, Cash, McGinn, Nakamba, J Ramsey (El Ghazi 84′), Buendía (Young 74′), Watkins, Ings (Bailey 66′).

Subs: Steer, Sanson, Hause, Davis, Tuanzebe, Carney Chukwuemeka.

Brighton: Steele, Webster, Dunk, Duffy, Cucurella (March 64′), Moder, Groß (Mac Allister 89′), Bissouma, Lamptey (Maupay 79′), Trossard, Lallana.

Subs: Scherpen, Burn, Sarmiento, Locadia, Veltman, Richards.

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