Aston Villa (3), Fulham (1) – Villans win number 13 at home and close in on top four

Sunday, November 12, 14:00, Villa Park – Referee: Simon Hooper

One feature of Emery’s managerial style is that he finds ways for players to play to their full potential.  That was on full display Sunday when our Villans welcomed Fulham to Villa Park.  The manager was very conscious of the potential fatigue factor that the prior Thursday’s Europa Conference League fixture would have on his players.

Against AZ Alkmar, he had relegated Zaniolo to the bench due to the distraction he had been experiencing with the betting inquiry going on in Italy.  In his place he brought in Leon Bailey, and he also brought in Youri Tielemans to start for Douglas Luiz who appeared listless against Nottingham Forest four days prior.

Based on Tielemans’ performance for 74 minutes, Emery concluded he was ready to play a midfield role in the Premier League.  This would be his first Premier League start for Villa since his acquisition in the summer.  He had played some part of all eleven prior games, but always off the bench.  In this game, he would be playing on the left side of the middle 2, in a 4-2-2-2 configuration.  Both Bailey and Zaniolo would start on the bench.

Emery had concluded that Tielemans would provide more support for our team’s primary threats, Ollie Watkins and Moussa Diaby.  That had been a particular Villa weakness against Forest.  It turned out to be a judicious decision.

Not too surprising at home, our Villans started on the front foot from the kickoff and, when McGinn dispossessed Willian in his own half, he immediately unleashed a long pass over Tim Ream, Fulham’s US international, for Ollie Watkins to run onto.  I would have bet on Ollie winning that race, but it was overhit and Leno, Fulham’s German goalie, was able to rush out and gather.

Less than a minute later, Villa were again threatening.  Diaby, McGinn, and Watkins converged on Leno and Ream trying to play it out and the center back was dispossessed.  Watkins passed it off to Diaby who had a split-second to turn in the box only for Palhinha to appear from nowhere to strip the ball away.  Villa recovered, but the chance was gone.

Then, Villa’s new England call-up, Konsa, was able to beat Jiménez to a Fulham clearance and the home team was back in possession.  Our Villans continued to demonstrate their improved composure passing the ball around in their own half, even when pinned next to their corner-flag, and were rewarded with a golden opportunity.

At the halfway line, McGinn pirouetted through a tackle by Palhinha (the Premier League’s most prodigious tackler) and immediately curved a pinpoint pass down the left wing for Digne to run onto.  Tielemans was live to the opportunity and raced inside of the Frenchman and ahead of Iwobi where he collected Digne’s pass and attempted to pull a cross into the mixer from the goal line.

The right center back, Calvin Bassey, had closed in and was able to block the cross.  Though off-balance, Tielemans was able to push the ball back to Digne who instantly zipped a pass to Diaby waiting near the penalty spot.  Our excellent off-season acquisition flashed a first-time shot to Leno’s left but the goalie was able to parry it out for a throw-in.  Barely five minutes had passed and Tielemans had made his mark.

A minute later our Villans were awarded a penalty.  From a throw-in, a series of intricate passes culminated in a delicious lob relayed by Watkins that caught Fulham’s backline flat-footed as Diaby slipped by them and volleyed a return to Watkins who struck a shot that appeared to hit the arm of Fulham’s Castagne on the way to the top corner of the net.  Referee Simon Hooper pointed at the spot, for a Villa penalty.

As it turned out, the ball had missed the arm and hit the eye of the Belgian right back as indicated by VAR and Fulham could breathe a sigh of relief, at least for a moment.  Within a minute, or so, Villa had created another incisive foray that was just a few inches away from creating a golden opportunity for a shot by Watkins. 

Like most good things in this game, it started with John McGinn.  A 50/50 ball came to our Scottish international in the middle of Villa’s half of the field.  McGinn out-tussled Palhinha and, though surrounded by four white shirts including Palhinha, the ball was immediately dispatched to Digne who was already in-transition to attack.  Watkins veered toward the leftwing touchline dragging a couple of defenders toward him, while Tielemans flew by and Digne’s pass arrived as if it was a perfect sprint relay handover.

Bassey smelled the danger and closed in only for Youri to slow as if intending to double-back, but then span the other way and left the defender momentarily immobile.  The pass from the goal line to Watkins was a little ahead of where it needed to be and closer to Palhinha who gratefully cleared.  Notable was that we had three other Villans in the box committed to getting that early goal, Diaby, Cash, and the arriving McGinn.

As significant as the incisiveness of the attack, was what happened when it broke down.  Palhinha passed to Jimenez who had Pau Torres breathing down his neck and was forced to pass it to De Cordova-Reid.  Before the forward could take control, a recovering Tielemans shielded the ball out of play.  Our Villans had regained possession for the next attack.

With no early defensive duties, Konsa was suddenly called upon in the 21st minute.  Fulham broke through on the right.  Castagne recognised the opportunity to breach Villa’s high backline by racing from deep.  De Cordova-Reid laid a perfect pass for the wing-back to run onto and Castagne’s pass was destined for Jimenez to reach at the 6-yard box, only for Konsa to slide and excise the threat.  The ball was whisked out for a corner with surgical precision.

A Fulham go-ahead goal would have created a whole different dynamic, possibly with shades of the Crystal Palace fixture when our Villans went behind and only equalised in the 87th minute.  That was too stressful the first time and would have been even more stressful here.

As it was, Fulham did not threaten again in the first half, but our Villans did.  Again, it was Tielemans who found a soft spot in the inside-left channel and anticipated Douglas Luiz’s relay towards the left touchline.  Our Brazilian saw Youri accelerate and curved a pass down the line.  White shirts were closing in, but Tielemans had evidently sized up his best option.

Diaby was heading for the “sweet spot”, just outside the goal area with Robinson behind him.  Tielemans did not have to control the ball because it was perfectly weighted, and he just redirected it on its way.  Leno made a half-dive for the shot from Diaby that he anticipated.  Maybe distracted, Diaby failed to make contact, but Robinson was right behind and could do nothing to prevent the ball bouncing off him and into the net for an own goal.  Even if he had avoided contact, Matty Cash was right behind to cash-in, so to speak.  Our Villans were on the board, Aston Villa 1, Fulham 0 in the 27th minute.

Not a brilliant goal, but fans and players alike were ecstatic that the pressure had paid off and we were on our way to extend the winning streak.  To their credit, both sides maintained the intensity and quality of their play and Konsa was again called upon to make a dangerous intervention.

Villa’s high line was, again, the cause.  Opposing teams are tempted to try the long ball and this time it was a perfect pass from Iwobi, from well behind the halfway line, to Pereira, Fulham’s attacking midfielder, who timed his run impeccably and had 5-yards on Konsa as the ball bounced just outside Villa’s penalty box.

As Pereira slowed to bring the ball under control, Konsa made a brave, and ultimately correct, decision.  He athletically extended his right leg around Pereira and contacted the ball around waist height, clearing the danger.   Pereira rolled over on the ground and stayed for a few minutes, presumably hoping for a freekick to be given and, possibly, a yellow or red card to Konsa.  No infraction was the referee’s decision, suggesting that any contact was minor and/or incidental. 

Konsa’s judgment, akin to picking up a live grenade and throwing it back in the direction it was just launched from, was a sound one.  Ezri was going for the ball outside of the area and had unimpeded access.  His worst-case scenario was to be penalised for unsafe play for which he would have received a yellow card.  The freekick would have been in a dangerous area but far less dangerous than Pereira having a one-on-one with Martinez.

Our Villans continued to press and a superb long diagonal pass by Pau Torres found Matty Cash a step behind Robinson closing in on the Fulham box.  Our wing-back controlled the ball and headed across the face of the goal, but Fulham had numbers back and neither Watkins nor Diaby were open.  Not shy, Matty did his best to shoot for a top corner, but his shot was down the middle and Leno easily gathered.  A great pass, that deserved a better finish.

Minutes later, McGinn was driving through the heart of Fulham’s midfield to, once again, be fouled.  From the freekick, Digne tried to clear the backline with a chink only for Palhinha to clear.  With Villa’s tall defenders still out of position Jimenez managed to head the clearance for Willian to race onto in the Villa half.  For a split second it looked like the Brazilian was heading for a golden opportunity to tie the game just before halftime.  That was until Matty Cash closed from behind, and to Willian’s left, and executed an exquisite, and legal, slide that cleared the danger.  Villa fans could breathe again.

That was in the 41st minute, and less than a minute later, our Villans added to their lead out of nothing.  A speculative cross by Digne saw Robinson rise above Diaby to clear only for the ball to find McGinn.  Our Scottish international ran onto the ball, faked that he was going to his right and switched back to his left leaving Palhinha stumbling then, without hesitation, John laced the ball just inside right post.  Though he was still outside the penalty area, the ball was hit so hard and so far to his left that Leno had no chance of reaching it.  Villa fans went into full throttle to hail the team captain and leader.  Aston Villa 2, Fulham 0 in the 42nd minute.

Our Villans maintained their pressure in hopes off adding a third, but Fulham stayed solid on defense and, like the good team that they are, did their utmost to pass their way through our Villans’ fortress-like defense.  That they settled for two low percentage efforts from outside the box, by Jimenez and Willian, that Martinez easily gathered was an indication of how well our Villans were playing.

The second half saw Fulham manager, Marco Silva, bring on Harry Wilson for De Cordova-Reid who had been all but invisible in the first 45 minutes.  That seemed to spark Fulham to play with more gusto while our Villans started to appear leggy from their Thursday night Europa game.

When Iwobi joined an attack, he was a touch faster than Torres, and then Konsa, and that left Jimenez with a glimpse of goal.  The striker, without a goal for 18 months following a horrific injury, was unlucky that his shot, headed to sneak in Emi’s right-hand post, was diverted by the faintest of fingertip saves.  Instead, the shot rebounded squarely off the upright straight to Willian who skied the ball over the bar.  Emi pounded his gloves to make sure that his save had registered.  That was in only the 48th minute and though Fulham tried hard, and had most of the possession for a while, they could not get on the board.

Come 60 minutes, Emery gave a respite to Diaby who had never stopped running, replacing him with Leon Bailey.  It turned to be exactly what was needed.  From a Fulham corner, Ollie Watkins headed the ball well clear to Fulham’s last man, the unfortunate Robinson. The fullback gathered the ball twenty yards outside Villa’s box and swerved to avoid Lucas Digne and Kamara only to lose his footing on the rain-soaked surface.

It was Bailey who recovered possession and the race was on.  Bailey was joined by McGinn, with Iwobi and Pereira representing Fulham scrambling as they backed up.  Close behind were four more white shirts, and our own Ollie Watkins joining the chase.

Bailey passed to his captain who was a little ahead of him and to his left, and then Bailey cut over and swung behind McGinn.  When three of Fulham’s defenders converged on McGinn just outside their penalty area, he swiveled and then split the defense with a pass for Bailey to run onto, uncontested.  Leon looked up and stroked a finely crafted cross between three white shirts in a line and goalie, Leno.  Meanwhile, Ollie Watkins had sprinted from one end of the field to the other and was there at the far post ready to deflect in the cross and add to his goal tally of six in the Premier League.  An exquisite counterattack. Aston Villa 3, Fulham 0 in the 64th minute.

As Villa fans started to think it would be a good time for a shutout, Fulham surprised them.  From just inside Villa’s half, Wilson conjured up a sumptuous pass for Robinson to break our backline inside of Cash and behind Konsa.   Ezri appeared to misjudge the flight, maybe thinking he could get a head on it only to see Fulham’s other US international trap and immediately dispatch a pass to Jimenez.  The Mexican’s drought ended as he tucked the ball into Martinez’s left corner of the net.  Aston Villa 3, Fulham 1 in the 70th minute. 

Silva followed the goal with an influx of four players off the bench, but none had the ability to threaten a Villa defence that had immediately refocused.

In fact, it was Villa who had the next best chance to score.  The move started with Konsa carrying the ball from just outside his penalty area to the halfway line, drawing a crowd and then, laying it off to Luiz.  Villa’s outstanding midfielder found Digne joining the fray on the left touchline, and he drew the attention of Castagne.  With the space behind Castagne now open, McGinn slid over and Digne fed him the ball – in a good area to eat up a couple of minutes with a two-goal lead.

The physically imposing Bassey immediately blocked our captain’s progress and McGinn reversed course only to find Castagne was in his way.  John is at his most dangerous when apparently trapped.  He leant forward, almost doubled over, swivelled and barrelled his way past Bassey’s attempts to shoulder then push, and then grab McGinn.  Rebuffed, the defender wisely gave up and John carried on, along the goal line, into the penalty area before glancing up.  With Tielemans, Bailey, and Watkins all available to score Villa’s 4th goal of the game, Palhinha desperately extended a foot to block McGinn’s cross.

Palhinha’s only problem was that he was facing his own goal.  The deflection went towards the goal and Kepa stretched to reach it while Robinson retreated to head it.  In fact, the ball hit the underside of the crossbar and came down in front of Watkins.  What should have been a simple header into the vacant net and a brace for the in-form striker turned wonky.  The ricochets had given the ball some serious spin and by the time it reached Ollie’s head it was over his ear.  The header turned into a pass to Bailey who gathered and attempted to squeeze the annoying orb between Kepa’s left foot and the left post.  It was not to be.  The ball hit the outside of the post and went out of play.  Meanwhile, Watkins had pulled his claret shirt over his head to hide his embarrassment.

Watkins would have had an early opportunity to erase his blushes if Ream had not intercepted Luiz’s excellent through pass.  Still, it was a home win, number 13 in a row and our Villans solidified their claim to 5th spot.  It was also a game to put the Nottingham Forest disappointment in the rearview mirror.  Very significant was that Tielemans established his value as an excellent midfield link player, something that Zaniolo aspired to but did not accomplish.

In fact, everyone in the line-up proved that they belonged.  McGinn was especially important scoring and assisting and keeping Palhinha occupied for the full 90 minutes.  Luiz was quietly excellent making the pass that led to our first goal and always appearing to have the game in control.

With Ramsey coming back from injury and Bailey dynamite off the bench, there is no reason to doubt that we can continue to excel.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Konsa, Torres, Digne, Kamara, Douglas Luiz, McGinn, Tielemans, Diaby (Bailey 62′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Traoré, Moreno, Chambers, Lenglet, Zaniolo, Durán, Olsen, Dendoncker

Fulham: Leno, Castagne, Bassey, Ream, Robinson, Iwobi (Reed 82′), João Palhinha, De Cordova-Reid (Wilson 45′), Andreas Pereira (Cairney 74′), Willian (Traoré 82′), Jiménez (Carlos Vinícius 74′)

Unused Subs: Rodák, Tete, Ballo-Touré, Lukic, Carlos

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