Brighton (0) vs Aston Villa (2) – Villa Adjust and Comfortably Beat Brighton

Brighton turned out to be the perfect opponent to kickstart our Villans’ return to winning ways.  That the win was on the road, a double over a team currently ahead of us in the table, a shutout, an early goal, and a result never in doubt, combined to, as Birmingham Mail reporter Ashley Preece noted, plant a smile on his face that could not be removed.  I am one of the of those numerous Villa fans with the same condition.

Our team went into the game smarting about our home loss to Watford but buoyed by knowing that Brighton had not won a Premier League game at home since September and that, in the reverse fixture that our Villans won 2-0, the Seagulls only managed two shots on goal despite 63% of the possession.  That reality certainly reinforced the game strategy to allow the home team possession but to deny any decent opportunities.

A precursor of the strategy was the selection of Ings over Buendia in the starting XI.  This change would reduce the number of lost possessions by the Argentinian in locations from where our opponent could counterattack, but also promised to free Watkins from the double coverage that he was encountering as a lone striker.

Another plus was the availability of Konsa, post suspension, to team up with Mings, created a settled feeling that started at the back and permeated through the team.

As well as giving Ings another opportunity to prove himself, Gerrard gave Douglas Luiz another start despite a widespread call to replace him with a more robust presence as the holding midfielder.  The Brazilian appeared to be aware of his precarious hold on his position responding irritably to any decision called against him.  This quickly led to him picking up a yellow card in the 25th minute for a senseless skirmish with Trossard. 

When Gerrard had no alternative other than to replace Luiz in the second half after an egregious error, the manager waited a decent amount of time before subbing in Morgan Sanson.  He evidently did not want to embarrass his talented, but erratic, South American, a sensitivity he had not shown when he subbed Sanson against Man U.

As well as good managing from Gerrard, our claret and blues were helped by the decision of Brighton’s oft-praised Graham Potter to employ a back-three instead of a back four.  That may have been because of a lack of options but, as early as the 16th minute, the structure was found suspect. 

It all started with our goalie, Emi Martinez, passing wide to Matty Cash on the wing.  Though deep in his own half, the Polish international was able to drive a line-hugging pass down the right wing for John McGinn to run onto.  Initially Cucurella must have thought that he was going to beat our Scottish talisman to the ball, but he was a step short.  When McGinn redirected the ball, and his run, around the young Spaniard, Cucurella was in trouble and Dunk, the only other defender around, was also exposed.

Cucurella was forced to concede a foul (and pick up a yellow card) for pushing John off the playing field.  As it turned out, this infringement led to the Villa pressure that resulted in our first goal.

The initial freekick was headed out as was a follow up, but clever interplay between our two new signings (Digne and Coutinho) gave the Frenchman enough time, and space, to arrow a dangerous cross to the 6-yard box that was headed clear but only to Cash.  Our fullback is no stranger to shooting and he chested the ball down and instantly volleyed with the outside of his right foot.  The combination of power, curve towards the goal, three bounces and the shot’s precision – directly toward Sanchez’s right post – left the goalie no opportunity to get down to, let alone save.  When the ball rebounded off the post into the back of the net, the goalie was on his knees and too late to even pray.  Brighton 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 17th minute.

Worryingly for Gerrard, our Villans almost lost the lead within 5 minutes, and it was Cash who created the opening.  A pass out to Solly March was short and our goal scorer had an opportunity to intercept and set off on another counterattack but, in his excitement, he missed the ball completely.

March raced with the ball into the Villa penalty area, drew Konsa to him and lateralled to Maupay who stood just outside the 6-yard box.  The ball was slightly behind the Frenchman who, perhaps unintentionally, teed up the advancing Mac Allister.  The Argentinian with a Scottish name hit an almost perfect shot first time.  It was to the left of Martinez and between Mings and Luiz with enough power that it was unstoppable.  The only problem was that the ball kept rising until it clipped the crossbar – the top of it – and disappeared into the crowd (a happy group of Villa fans).

Mac Allister looked mortified.  He sensed he would not get another chance that easy, and he did not.  Perhaps it was this missed opportunity, but the balance of the first half featured more scrappy play and niggling fouls than memorable soccer.  It was during this period that Luiz got his yellow card, with another six players joining him in the book.

Still, there was one example of top-drawer attacking play during this time, and it came from young Jacob Ramsey, our Villans’ most dangerous player of late.  Receiving a pass in the inside left channel, he found his view of the goal blocked.

Ramsey does not panic in possession, so he went on an anti-clockwise rotation maneuvering through multiple defenders, until he was just outside the 6-yard box with only one defender between him and an opportunity to shoot.  Unfortunately for Jacob, that defender was Veltman, and the Dutchman went into a perfect slide tackle that redirected the ball out for a corner.

That was in the 26th minute and five minutes later, our Villans came even closer to scoring.  From a throw-in on the right Douglas Luiz received a bouncing ball.  Showing tremendous skill, he hit a volleyed pass to the far post where Watkins was waiting.

Cucurella saw the danger and rushed over to compete with our young striker, but Ollie’s jump had plenty of hangtime and he was able to ignore the defender and cushion a header down for the onrushing McGinn.  Sanchez saw the danger, rushed off his line, and blocked our Scot’s shot on-goal as soon as it left his foot.

Not much of significance happened between this effort and the halftime whistle, except for a defensive block of a cross by Lamptey.  The significance was because of who made the block and the timing.  It was by our highly priced loanee from Barcelona, Philippe Coutinho, whose defensive contributions have been ridiculed.  I suspect that those casting aspersions are reflecting more on his reputation as a long-ago star for Liverpool.  Today’s Coutinho seems much more of a team player.

Blocking crosses coming into the penalty area just before the half is a great way to make friends.  Going into the dressing room up 1-0 against a Brighton team that had failed to test Martinez even once was the status that Gerrard must have been dreaming of before the game.

Brighton looked no more likely to score when they started off the second half.  In fact, the first opportunity fell to Coutinho when the Seagulls conceded a freekick just out their penalty area on the left.  Was this going to be the occasion that Villa fans had been waiting for?  Would Coutinho remind us of his Reds’ days by converting?  Gerrard’s old teammate did the best he could when he struck a shot with enough whip that it cleared the wall, then dipped down towards Sanchez’s low right-hand corner. The goalie dove hard to his right to beat the ball out.  An excellent shot and a save of the same order.

What followed was balanced play with neither team looking likely to score until Mings “punted” the ball down the inside left channel.  Like the ball that Cash missed in the first half, Veltman misjudged and found himself outside of Watkins and a step behind him with Dunk in a similarly poor position, behind on Ollie’s right.

There was still lots to do, but there are few as good as our striker at running with the ball at a goalie and clinically finishing.  The ball bounced twice before Ollie caught up with it and, without slowing, all he needed was one touch with his right foot to bring the ball onto his left foot and a confident strike to the goalie’s left and into the corner of the net.  It was almost automatic.  Brighton 0, Aston Villa 2 in the 69th minute.

As happened after our Villans’ first goal, a few minutes after the second goal Solly March delivered another opportunity for a game-changing goal.  This time it was from the right wing, and it was a cross that begged to be headed into the back of the net.  It was Welbeck – who had come on in the 63rd minute – who was profligate.  He headed the ball well wide when it appeared easier to get it on-target.  Perhaps he expected Cash to reach the cross, but the velocity and whip made it hard to anticipate and Matty’s jump was too late.  Welbeck did not even have to jump, but he failed to anticipate the amount of whip and missed the target.

When Luiz was replaced by Sanson in the 72nd minute, it might not have occurred to many fans that there was likely a connection to a play that Luiz made before Villa’s second goal.  This Brazilian, who had not played for the Reds, made a very sloppy cross-field pass that was easily intercepted by the dangerous Lamptey.  Welbeck saw the opportunity that this presented and had a jump on Konsa in the inside left channel.

Luiz, for his part, attempted a rash tackle of Lamptey only to fail to get the ball, hurting himself in the process.  With Luiz sprawled, and possibly distracting him, Lamptey rushed his pass.  The wing back failed to recognize that Martinez was in sweeper-keeper mode and already on his way to easily intercept the pass and end the danger.

The Watkins goal and the close call by Welbeck did not distract from Gerrard’s conclusion that it was time to remove the accident waiting to happen called Luiz.  Sanson finished out the game with no drama, exactly as the manager wanted.

Gerrard had more game management to do, and he brought on Ashley Young for Ings and Iroegbunam for Coutinho, and all performed admirably.   Despite our defense’s best efforts, Brighton finally registered a shot on goal in the 80th minute.  It was by Maupay and was partially scuffed.

Martinez dropped down and gathered.

Time to smile.

Brighton: Sánchez, Veltman, Dunk, Cucurella, Moder (Welbeck 63′), March, Mac Allister, Lamptey, Bissouma, Trossard, Maupay

Unused Subs: Ferguson, Alzate, Caicedo, Groß, Offiah, Steele, Leonard, Duffy

Aston Villa: Martinez, Digne, Mings, Konsa, Cash, McGinn, Ramsey, Luiz (Sanson 72’), Watkins, Ings (Young 79’), Coutinho (Iroegbunam 86’)

Unused Subs: Olsen, Hause, Chambers, Buendia, Bailey, O’Reilly

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