Tottenham Hotspur (1), Aston Villa (2) – Our Villans win to join the top four

Sunday, Nov 26, 14:00 – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – Referee: Rob Jones

Many of my fellow Villa fans seem to be in shock that, a third of the way into the 2023/2024 season schedule, we are in the top four of the Premier League.  It should not be a surprise.

Since Unai Emery was brought in to run the team thirteen months ago, a solid group of players has been turned into a very effective team on the field. That has been achieved with only three major signings (Pau Torres, Moussa Diaby, and Youri Tielemans). 

Great managers can have an immediate impact.  Pep Guardiola did that for Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp did so for Liverpool.  Mikel Arteta, based on Arsenal’s performances last season, and this season so far, appears to be on his way to join them.  All three of them invested far more than Villa have so far to reach their peak.  It appears that Emery is inclined to proceed with his current squad and to see what they can achieve in the P.L. and in Europa this season before making any significant new investments.

With Alex Moreno and Jacob Ramsey coming back from injury there seems to be enough strength and coverage to meet the necessary balance for the heavy schedule.  Of course, injuries to key players could change that plan.

While Man City, Liverpool, and Arsenal are the current elite teams, and will likely share the top three positions at the end of the season, any one of them could slip. Still, the team that did run into difficulties would be unlikely to drop to 6th or lower. 

Our Villans are deserving to be in the group that will be competing for the 4th and 5th Champions League qualifying slots with Newcastle and Spurs and those following.  We already have points advantages over both of those teams and will be favored to win our home return fixtures giving us a decided advantage of playing Champions League soccer next season.

That conclusion is buttressed by our having been able to come from behind against Spurs when, to be honest, we played sub-par in the first half.  The surprise change, to bring in Diego Carlos for Tielemans, appeared to disrupt both the backline and midfield.  Konsa found himself floating inside to his natural position in central defense and that gave Bryan Gil too much room on the wing.  Cash also appeared lost as a wingback, wandering inside, and chasing the game.  His frustration bubbled up and that led to his horrible tackle that took Bentancur out of the game in the first half.

Worse still, there was no link midfielder and Watkins and Diaby were starved for service, with Diaby throwing up his hands in frustration.  With Spurs dominating possession, they created plenty of chances.  It was thanks to Martinez’s brilliance and the individual defensive efforts of everyone in claret and blue that the hosts only scored once in the first half.

Like good teams do, our Villans took advantage of a gift.  First, Spurs conceded an unnecessary freekick, in first-half injury time and then they allowed our Villans to get a “free header” that tied the game.  Immediately, we had the psychological advantage.

During the halftime break, Spurs would not have been able to gain comfort from a recent win over our Villans because they had none in recent memory.  Nor could they gain comfort from their greater goal potential than Villa’s (Villa went into this game with 29 goals, second in the league after Man City with 32 goals).  In fact, no team had won against Villa all season that was not leading at halftime.

Not surprisingly, Emery “fixed” his line-up for the second half (Tielemans and Bailey for Cash and Diaby) and Spurs domination came to an end.  Gradually. our Villans gained ascendancy and went on to close out the win.

So, what happened?  Well, whereas Villa started three center backs, Spurs fielded none.  Decimated by injuries and suspension, their backline consisted of four full backs.  In the first minute, the lack of a dominant center back came into play.  Davies missed a cross from McGinn operating on the left wing and Matty Cash was left with a free header in front of goal that he failed to make good contact with.

Spurs did not appear to be rattled by their missing stars and responded brightly.  Udogie broke through our offside trap to reach a pass from Porro but lifted his shot well over.  Next, Kulusevski slipped between Torres and Carlos and curved a beautiful shot squarely against Martinez’s right post that rebounded to Johnson only to have his shot blocked by Torres.  The rebound caused a collision between the goalie and Konsa with Martinez finally able to dive onto the loose ball.

The helter-skelter start continued and Digne’s cross of a freekick was met by Torres who attempted to guide his header just inside the left post, but it went just wide with goalie, Vicario, stranded. 

Back to the other end and Kulusevski slipped a delicious pass through for Gil to run onto and blast a shot but Martinez had the angle covered and parried to Porro who headed over.  Next Bentancur split our defense to find Johnson open but the winger’s cross to Son was anticipated by Carlos and cleared.

Then, Davies tried to slip a pass between Diaby and Cash only for Moussa to get a toe on it and divert it to Cash who immediately aimed to pass over Davies for Diaby but Davies leapt and headed to Lo Celso who slipped a pass out to Gil who crossed for Son who should have buried the header only for the striker to lack commitment – it could have been the substantial frame of Emi Martinez only a few feet away.  Digne, at the back post, conceded a corner.  It was still only at the 20th minute, but fans had been riveted by all the action.

That corner was cleared, but Spurs ended up with another opportunity to put a cross over from the left, only this time it was Ben Davies who was the provider.  Digne responded to another bouncing ball goal-side and once more conceded a corner.  Davies joined the set-piece fray, halfway between the corner flag and the goal.  He was there to head flick-on a low cross to clear Villa’s tall defenders and give Son an opportunity to meet the deflection at the far post.

Davies succeeded in shedding Torres and drawing other claret and blue shirts.  What he failed to do was make contact with the ball.  Consequently, the ball came directly to Lo Celso waiting at the edge of the box directly in front of Martinez’s right post with nobody within yards of him.  The Argentinian midfielder watched the ball bounce twice on its way and caught it on the volley with his left foot right at Emi.  It was a blazer, but it was too tempting for Carlos who tried to block it with his thigh.  Bad idea.  He only deflected the shot and it flashed to the right of the world’s best goalie and into the net.  Tottenham Hotspur 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 22nd minute.

Our Villans have learned not to get overly distracted by the whims of the game and, from their kickoff, they almost scored.  The ball went from Konsa to Cash in their own half on the right and Cash guided a pass through to Diaby who one-touched back to Kamara, inside to Luiz who found McGinn across the halfway line, and, separating himself from his marker, Pedro Porro, in one motion, John controlled and turned clockwise and released a peach of a pass for Digne to run onto.

Once our French international was level with the Spurs penalty area, he curved a wickedly whipped cross around Porro’s outstretched leg.  By the time the ball reached its target, Ollie Watkins’ head, it was at the apex of the 6-yard box, and our silky-smooth striker was a yard ahead of Emerson and Davies.  The header was exquisite, just enough contact to hit the ground two feet in front of the goal line and deep in the corner of the net.  Vicario could only stare and complain that Watkins was offside.  Undoubtedly, he was offside when he headed, but it would take VAR to decide whether Ollie had passed his markers before, or after, the ball left Digne’s foot.  It was 23.16 when the ball crossed the line and 26.04 when the call was made: offside by the faintest of margins, still 1-0 to Spurs.

Our Villans executed a heavy press after the resumption of play, and it was during that press that the injury to Bentancur occurred courtesy of Matty Cash.   Our sometimes-careless wingback was given a yellow card, the only non-technical yellow card given by referee, Rob Jones, to either team during the game.  With another referee, it could have been a red.

The disallowed goal seemed to give our Villans more confidence and, with Højbjerg replacing the limping Bentancur, the game moved to being played mostly in the midfield.  One of the few times that Spurs looked dangerous again, Son broke from the halfway line and sent a powerful curving strike around Martinez only for the referee’s assistant to then raise the flag for offside.  On another occasion, a retreating Kamara was Johnny-on-the-spot to get back for a dangerous cross and his deflection went straight into our goalie’s arms.

Still, Villa appeared to be content to go into the dressing room at the half only one goal down when Spurs had dominated so much of the play (almost two thirds).  That was until Lo Celso (yes, the scorer) gave up an unnecessary freekick near the touchline on Villa’s right-hand side closer to the halfway line than to the penalty area.  The six minutes of added time were almost complete when Luiz prepared to take the kick.

It should be noted that Luiz, a Brazilian, is in his 5th season and that every year he has played he has improved and statistics support that.  In previous years he scored the occasional goal directly from corner kicks and this year he has taken on the responsibility of taking Villa penalty kicks (he has scored each time).  He is also an excellent set-piece practitioner.

Amongst Douglas’s other attributes is his ability to tune-out distractions which is essential in set-piece plays.  As usual, Luiz lifted the ball up to look at it, then meticulously placed it down, slowly walked back along the curve he would follow to strike the ball – in this case, to provide as much anti-clockwise rotation as he could.  His aim was to have the ball clear the line of players (about 5 yards outside the penalty area) and to be at head height for an advancing claret and blue shirt to meet at the penalty spot.

Pau Torres was the first Villan to the spot, and the ball flew off his forehead.  He knew that the rotation would carry the ball from right to left (he had failed to consider that on his earlier effort).  This time his header started its trajectory heading slightly right of Vicario’s left post but then curved just inside the upright.  Vicario dove and was close, but it was a perfect header.  Aston Villa had scored against the run of the play and were going into the break feeling elated and confident.  Tottenham Hotspur 1, Aston Villa 1 in the 45+6’ minute.

There was no surprise that Unai Emery replaced Matty Cash with Leon Bailey for the second half with Cash carrying a yellow card.  There was some surprise that Tielemans came on for Diaby.  On reflection, it made a lot of sense.  Diaby had looked frustrated during the first half and had never appeared as sharp as he had been earlier in the season.  Meanwhile, Tielemans had been a game-changer against Fulham and appeared ecstatic to assist on the first goal and make an impact throughout that game.

Both new players made a positive impact.  Still, it was Spurs who started the second half with more urgency.  When Luiz impulsively fouled Johnson on the right corner of the penalty area in the 48th minute, a dangerous cross required Emi to dive from his line and punch the ball clear before a white shirt could cause more problems.

Luiz atoned a couple of minutes later by intercepting a pass in midfield and immediately passing to McGinn who had more space.  It only took a split-second for our Scottish international to find someone open and he dispatched to Bailey on the right.  Leon cut in from the wing and let go a curving shot with his left foot, aimed to tuck inside the far post.  Vicario was able to dive and reach the ball but mishandled.  Still, he got enough of it to deflect the ball onto the post from which it rebounded into the prone goalie’s arms.  He kissed the ball!  The game, now, had everything.

Next, in the 55th minute, Son shot from close-range and Martinez went down well to save and, then, a few minutes later, had the ball in the net.  This time, Højbjerg fed Johnson who fed Son who neatly finished only to see the offside flag raised.  Both Johnson and Son had been caught by the best offside specialists in the Premier League.

Then a through ball required Vicario to come well out of his area to clear with a diving header.  The ball came directly to McGinn who recognized a golden opportunity with the goalie scrambling back.  Unfortunately, McGinn’s first-time effort was off the mark.

When our Villans did finally score, it was far easier than all the previous frenetic attempts.  With Spurs tiring, our Villans had more time on the ball, and they used it to pass the ball around.  A long sequence involved half of the team and culminated with Konsa passing to Kamara to Watkins to Tielemans and back to Watkins.  Watkins received the relay as he stepped between the Spurs backline, and he immediately stroked a shot wide of Vicario.  Tottenham Hotspur 1, Aston Villa 2 in the 61st minute.  We had the lead, and we were away from home at a top-four team!

The air seemed to have left the Spurs bubble as they walked back for the kickoff.   Ange Postecoglou, the Spurs manager, looked on stoically.  He knew he had little to choose from on his bench. 

Still, if our Villans thought that they had nothing to worry about they would have been incorrect.  Out of a scramble in our penalty area, Porro manufactured a shot into the ground that almost found its way into the corner of our net.  Fortunately, Emi was very sharp on this day, and he dove and pushed the ball out for a corner.

Our Villans came close to sealing the deal with a third goal, but they lacked the clinical finish that they showed against Brighton. Watkins could easily have had another hat-trick.  When Digne’s freekick was well-saved by Vicario, Digne went to take the corner on the right.  Again, there was plenty of pace and whip.  This time, Watkins was there to get his head onto it, and it bounced tantalizingly close to Vicario’s far post with the goalie stranded before flashing wide.  Ollie gave it a wry smile.  That was in the 71st minute.

Though Spurs looked out of it, they sprung to life a minute later.  Son broke down the left and found Johnson whose quick feet let him get in point blank on Emi, but our goalie went down well and saved.  Kulusevski was first to the rebound, and he rolled a pass for Højbjerg to meet just outside the area and the Dane hit a sumptuous strike that was aimed to Emi’s top left corner only for our goalie to show why he is top-rated, clawing the ball around the post.  Even Højbjerg had to applaud.

In the 82nd minute, Kamara completed an excellent Villa build-up with a snapshot from outside the box.  Vicario dived and pushed the ball to his right.  Villa’s best forager was first to the ball and Porro had no chance of preventing McGinn from creating another opportunity.  Boxed in at the goal line, our captain scooped a pass over Vicario to the far post where Ollie was waiting in the same location he had failed to score from against Fulham.  This time he made sure he headed with authority only for Ben Davies, spread-eagled on the line, to take it on the back of his head from where the ball went out for a corner.  The officials missed what had happened and not only gave a goal-kick but also gave Ollie a yellow card for dissent.  When Porro’s shot hit the post a couple of minutes later it was a reminder that there is a fine margin between success and failure.

In the 85th minute, Kulusevski, who had an overall excellent game, fed Porro whose shot bounced off Martinez’s right post back to Son who booted it into the net only to be flagged, again, for offside.  Son, who had seen three goals disallowed looked incredulous and exhausted. 

For our Villans, there were lots of positive takeaways from this game.  Our first come from behind win on the road.  Brilliant goaltending by Martinez to make-up for the howler at Nottingham.  Seeing Jacob Ramsey back in the side.  Watkins scoring again.  Great play from all our mid-fielders.  The incredible composure of Pau Torres as well as proving himself an important goal-scorer.  Being able to win when the team was outplayed for much of the game.  The positive vibe given off by all players when they left the field.

Spurs: Vicario, Porro, Emerson, Davies, Udogie, Bentancur (Højbjerg 32′), Lo Celso (Véliz 86′), Johnson, Kulusevski, Gil (Skipp 71′), Son.

Unused Subs: Forster, Austin, Dier, Donley, Dorrington


Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Carlos, Torres, Digne, Cash (Bailey 45′), Kamara, Luiz, McGinn (Ramsey 91′), Diaby (Tielemans 45′), Watkins (Durán 92′).

Unused Subs: Olsen, Moreno, Lenglet, Dendoncker, Iroegbunam.

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