Nottingham Forest (2), Aston Villa (0) – Villans never get out of the blocks and Forest prevail

Sunday, November 5, 14:00, City Ground

If our Villans’ brilliant early season run had to come to an end, this was the time, the place, and the manner for it to happen.  Better to be on a weekend that our rivals were also stumbling, located away from Villa Park, and at the hands of two forgivable culprits. 

So, who were the guilty parties?  The most obvious was our normally exceptional goalie, Emi Martinez, who has been regularly saving more difficult shots than the two Forest put by him.  The other was Nicolò Zaniolo who could be faulted for failing to track Aina who scored the first goal, and for not adding much to our offense.

While we like to think that professional soccer players, especially superstars, should never have bad days, even they can be affected by what happens away from the pitch.  For Emi, the recent award of the Ballon d’Or prize for outstanding goalkeeper of 2023 by his father was an emotional moment and probably did nothing for his match-preparedness.

As for Zaniolo, the ongoing criminal investigation into his sport-betting in Italy, was reportedly distracting him enough to throw him off his game.

It is also possible that this being the one-year anniversary of Emery’s hiring and that he has had the most successful first year of any Premier League manager with 22 wins and the team being so close to jumping into a top-four spot could have affected the whole squad.  Too much hubris can ruin anything.

Regardless, there are plenty of reasons to feel comfortable that Unai Emery and the players will put this defeat behind them and return to winning ways.  With AZ Alkmaar coming to Villa Park on Thursday, they do not have long to wait.

So, exactly what happened?  The first indication that Nottingham Forest was not going to be intimidated by our Villans’ impressive form was demonstrated in the first couple of minutes.  McGinn’s pass inside their left fullback for Cash to run onto was too heavy and our first foray gave Forest the ball back.  Forest, then, crisply zipped passes down the left that found former Liverpool player, Taiwo Awoniyi, in space.  With no hesitation, he passed inside to Sangaré who immediately teed the ball for Domínguez to run onto and shoot first-time.

The shot was well wide, but the fluidity and brazenness were impressive.  From the ensuing goal kick, the ball was passed out to Lucas Digne who was subjected to heavy press just outside the penalty area but our French international performed an excellent pirouette that freed him.  Digne then fed Zaniolo and raced into space up the left wing for the return pass.

The Italian, meanwhile, attempted to dribble free only to lose the ball and, as Forest set off down their left wing, failed to transition to defense.  Less than 10 yards from Nicolò was Olaoluwa Aina, the Forest fullback who was tracking the play.

When Elanga ran into traffic in the way of Cash and Konsa, he reversed and passed to the arriving Toffolo who immediately squared to Aina.  Zaniolo, who suddenly realized the danger, hopped but then stopped.  He was still 10 yards away and knew he had missed this bus.  Aina shot first time, with the inside of his right foot, and Emi seemed to see it and dove the right way, but he was too slow, and the ball went under and ahead of his outstretched hand.  Nottingham Forest 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 5th minute.

Our Villans, at least, appeared to not be rattled but neither did they show much energy or imagination.  Finally, in the 12th minute, they won a corner that McGinn took short to Luiz, only for our usually reliable and talented Brazilian to curve a cross that sailed well out of play.  That was not a good omen.

With Zaniolo and Cash being outpaced on the wings, we were forced to try to find gaps in the coverage in the center of the field.  There were no gaps.  Consequently, we just passed it across our backline.  We pumped-up our passing accuracy percentage but barely got into the Forest box!

Still, Luiz did make an important tackle against a marauding Elanga in our box, always a risk.  As well as making himself a nuisance, Forest’s Swedish international was teaming up well with Toffolo to keep Cash from making his usual dangerous crosses across the 6-yard area.

When Matty finally resorted to whipping in a left-footed cross, it gave our Villans their best chance to score but it was not Zaniolo’s day.  He headed well over.  This was shortly after he had tried to cross from the byline only to direct the ball into the grateful hands of goalie, Odysseas Vlachodimos. 

In the 36th minute, Zaniolo was fed the ball by Diaby with only the goalie to beat but his first touch was poor and Vlachodimos was able to save easily.  It seemed that his day could not get worse, only for Aina to bundle him over when he was weak in the tackle a few minutes later.  This led to an opportunity for Forest to add to their lead, an opportunity they spurned.

Nicolò must have been grateful that the halftime whistle came before he inflicted more damage to Villa’s chances.

It was no surprise to anyone that Zaniolo was replaced by Bailey when the teams appeared from the break.  Our Villans started the second half with more energy, and, within a minute, Watkins had tested Vlachodimos with a shot from a narrow angle, courtesy of a pass from Digne.

Villa’s revival was over within a minute when Forest added a second goal with another shot from outside the box.  This time, a deflected cross bounced awkwardly in front of Konsa and Awoniyi.  The Nigerian international pushed the ball out to Toffolo who saw Mangala moving into shooting range and slid him the ball.   The Belgian midfielder went for power rather than placement and Emi was caught between pushing the ball back into play or tipping it over the bar.  Instead, he deflected into his own net.  A calamity.  Nottingham Forest 2, Aston Villa 0 in the 47th minute.  Forest had mustered two shots on goal, both from distance, and they had a two-goal lead.

When our Villans did finally get a good scoring opportunity, it was from the usual suspects, McGinn setting up Watkins in the 56th minute.  However, Ollie headed it tamely wide.  He shook his head in disbelief and, that, we knew was the game.

Forest had no difficulty maintaining their lead as our Villans proved unable to create chances.  Though we had ten corners, none appeared to be rehearsed, and none led to a shot on goal.  When you would expect a manager to look to a substitute to make something happen, Emery chose to bring on Tielemans (59’), Carlos (78’), and Dendoncker (86’) with nary a Premier League goal between them this season.  It illustrated how thin the squad is to mount a serious threat for a top four position in and simultaneously compete in Europe.  Certainly, the return of Jacob Ramsey will be a major boost.  Beyond that, additions in the January transfer window are almost certain.

Let us hope momentum gets us there still winning.

Nott’m Forest: Vlachodimos, Aina (Williams 86′), Niakhaté, Murillo, Toffolo (Aurier 71′), Sangaré, Mangala, Domínguez (Yates 87′), Gibbs-White, Awoniyi (Danilo 82′), Elanga

Unused Subs: Turner, Nuno Tavares, Williams, Kouyaté, Andrey Santos, Yates, Aurier, Danilo, Boly

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash (Tielemans 59′), Konsa, Torres, Digne, McGinn, Kamara (Diego Carlos 78′), Douglas Luiz (Dendoncker 86′), Zaniolo (Bailey 45′), Diaby, Watkins

Unused Subs: Diego Carlos, Tielemans, Traoré, Moreno, Chambers, Lenglet, Olsen, Bailey, Dendoncker

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