Aston Villa (3), Crystal Palace (1) – Is Emery a genius, or just lucky?

When Villa fans saw the announced lineup there was a sense that manager, Unai Emery, was changing the strategy to kickstart the offense that had failed to impress at Liverpool.  In fact, it was a variation on a familiar theme (4-2-3-1) with Zaniolo being a like-for-like for Bailey, only on the left forcing McGinn to have to change to the right.

This was the configuration employed against Everton at home and, in that game, patient build-up paid-off in the 18th minute when Leon Bailey was able to round Ashley Young on the outside and pull back for John McGinn to meet at the near post and score Villa’s first goal.  The rest of the game was dominated by Villa who gained a comfortable win (4-0). 

In this, only Villa’s second Premier League fixture this season, the 18th minute saw Villa with an equally easy chance to open the scoring.  Joel Ward’s pass back to Joachim Andersen wrong-footed the center back and let Ollie Watkins in one-on-one with former Villa goalie, Sam Johnstone.  The experienced Johnstone held his ground and Ollie stroked a shot to the right corner only for the goalie to dive and deflect it clear extending Watkins’ Premier League goal famine into the 5th game of this season.

Then, in the 35th minute a beautiful pass from Pau Torres was brought under control on the run by Moussa Diaby as he raced past replacement center back Richards and slid the ball clinically past Johnstone for his 3rd goal of the season only for VAR to decide that he was a fraction offside.  Goal disallowed. 

Villa put on more pressure and, before halftime, Matty Cash had two excellent opportunities to add to the two he scored at Burnley only to muff both.  Instead of going into the dressing room 2-0 leaders, or better, our Villans were stymied at 0-0.  Emery’s strategy had worked, but the results were not yet forthcoming.

When, less than two minutes into the second half Mateta, who had come on to substitute for the injured Ayew in the first half, rolled Torres on the right wing at the halfway line, he was able escape his marker and send a perfect cross for Édouard to collect just as Martinez lost his footing. Crystal Palace’s ace scored with the team’s first shot on target. Aston Villa 0, Crystal Palace 1.  Not a good omen for continuing a winning streak.

Villa responded, but looked increasingly frustrated as the Londoners got all their players behind the ball and suffocated every Villa attack.  In fact, in the 70th minute they came close to doubling their lead when Eze slipped through with only Martinez to beat only for Emi to reach a lob that was destined to land in the net.

Meanwhile, Emery appeared increasingly frustrated and unsure how to respond.  His first substitution made sense in that he added a more attack-minded midfielder (Tielemans) than a defense-minded midfielder (Kamara) in the 58th minute.  The only problem was that Tielemans had failed to show any spark in any of his substitution minutes (he played in all four of Villa’s four previous league games).

Replacing at the same time, Bailey for Zaniolo, made more sense in that the Italian was looking winded and fresh legs, that had proven scoring ability, was a no-brainer.  The next change was a bit of head scratcher.  Emery brought on Durán for McGinn.  It was the removal of the captain that might would have seemed strange except that McGinn had been in two very arduous games during the international break (against Cyprus in the Euro Qualifiers and against England in a friendly) and he was feeling it.

Moreno might have been considered for Digne, but the Spaniard was coming off an injury lay-off while the Frenchman was playing effectively and had barely been taxed defensively.   That turned out to be a good “no substitution” by Emery as, in the 87th minute, Digne found Villa’s Colombian striker in space just inside the penalty area.  The pass was taken by the powerfully built Durán on his chest, he allowed it to bounce, swivelled clockwise and powered a thunderous left-foot volley that flew past the keeper who barely moved.  Highlight reel quality and the Holte End erupted.  Aston Villa 1, Crystal Palace 1.

That was just the beginning.  Villa had tied the game, and they wanted more, and there were plenty minutes of extra time thanks to a long stoppage for Johnstone to be treated for cramp.  For once Tielemans did what he was known for.  He slid a perfect pass for Watkins to split the center backs only for Richards to slide for the ball but bring down Ollie in the process.  After VAR review, referee Darren England confirmed the decision and Douglas Luiz confidently sent Johnstone the wrong way and buried the ball in the left corner.  Aston Villa 2, Crystal Palace 1, at 90+8’.  That was a goal that Luiz deserved for being the man of the match for his overall play.

Still, Villa were not done, and nor was Tielemans.  With Palace pressing to get a tie, Villa broke-up an attack and Tielemans fed Diaby flying down the left wing.  He cut into the penalty area and as he came close to the goal line he checked for support.  Sure enough, there was Leon arriving and the ball was zipped to the Jamaican who controlled and fired before defenders and goalie could respond.  It was Aston Villa 3, Crystal Palace 1 at 90+11’.   The game was done and dusted! See the highlights: AVFCUK- video/

In the post-game interview, Emery had difficulty explaining his reaction to the result and, in this case, his uneasy grasp of English worked in his favor.  He appeared to be shocked that his changes worked so well, but who knows?

We can give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that when Plan A, came unstuck, Plan B was to bring on fresh legs, play with double strikers, and get the ball to the guys who can score.  It worked, as Villa joined three other elite teams in come from behind victories on the same day (Liverpool over Wolves, Man City over West Ham, and Spurs over Sheffield U.).

No, Emery is not a genius, but he is very knowledgeable, experienced, and maintains his poise.  With the possible exception of Diaby all the recent acquisitions are flawed (Torres, Tielemans, Durán, Zaniolo, and Lenglet) but they have, and will, contribute, to taking our Villans to the next level. Diaby, meanwhile, is a gem who will make everyone around him more effective. As for Luiz, he keeps getting better.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Konsa, Torres, Digne, Kamara (Tielemans 58′), Douglas Luiz, McGinn (Durán 71′), Diaby, Zaniolo (Bailey 57′), Watkins (Dendoncker 100′)

Unused Subs: Moreno, Chambers, Lenglet, Olsen, Marschall

C Palace: Johnstone, Ward, Andersen, Richards, Mitchell, Doucouré (Rak-Sakyi 100′), Hughes, Ayew (Mateta 25′), Eze, Schlupp, Édouard (Ahamada 90′)

Unused Subs: Holding, Clyne, Ebiowei, Henderson, Matthews, Riedewald

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