Aston Villa (3), Burnley (2) – Our Villans win with a last minute penalty kick by Luiz

Saturday, Dec 30th, 15.00 – Villa Park, Referee: Stuart Attwell

Mid-Season Assessment:

There are many factors that have contributed to the success of our Aston Villa in this 2023-2024 season so far, most of them obvious, but not all.  Of course, we already knew that Unai Emery was an excellent manager – he had a great track-record for winning, and the team was already playing at a high-level last season.  Optimism was appropriate but would a reasonable person have predicted 2nd place at year-end?

It was reasonable to assume that Unai would continue to get the best out of his squad, those he had inherited and the astute additions (Moreno, Diaby, Torres, Lenglet, Duran, Tielemans, Dendoncker, Zaniolo), but somewhat surprising was that he would be able to persuade the owners to make a radical upgrade to the rest of the organization.

Like all good soccer managers, Emery knew he needed significant buy-in in material ways.  That would include the financial investment to enhance the team and the agreement to build a supporting infrastructure (front office).  In the year-plus in his position at Villa, the front-office changes – under new President of Football Operations, Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo (Monchi) – have been dramatic, designed to create an organisation that can meet the demands of a Champions League team such as Manchester City and Real Madrid.

Such an organisation can identify the talent around the world before it reaches its prime, recruit that talent, negotiate contractual terms, and integrate them into the club and support them with fitness and medical programs.

These factors are evident.  What is more difficult to assess is improvement in the culture of the club and its impact on the team’s performance.  For example, two Manchester teams have been able to dominate the Premier League since its inception (in 1992).  They have accounted for twenty (20) wins of the thirty-one seasons compared to eight (8) for London clubs (shared by Chelsea with five and Arsenal with three).  What made them so successful?  Why have Spurs never won and why has Liverpool only won once?

The culture that both Manchester teams developed was a result of the personality of their managers (Alex Ferguson at United for all Premier League wins and Pep Guardiola for 5 of the 7 at City).  It cannot be easily defined, but it can be recognised by the attitude of the teams as described by one of Ferguson’s players:

The attitude of not giving up until the final whistle and the whole “we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time” is what made United so great, not the tactics.

I submit that our Villans are not quite there yet, but they are displaying some of that resilience.  Being in 2nd place at this juncture compared to 16th in November of 2022 (less than 14 months ago) is a phenomenal improvement that was directed by Emery and suggests that gaining entry into the UEFA Champions League by finishing in the top four of the Premier League this season is within its grasp.

Kicking-Off the Second Half of the Season Against Burnley

Ending the first half of the season with a loss against Manchester United at Old Trafford, especially having held the lead until the 71st minute, could have been demoralising, but our Villains appeared to have left that disappointment behind as they started the game at Villa Park against long-term claret and blue rivals, Burnley.

This historic Lancashire team has been struggling to get traction after promotion from the Championship under Vincent Kompany.  Still, of late, their results had improved with a victory against Fulham at Craven Cottage 2-0, a 1-1 tie with Brighton also in London, and holding Liverpool at home to 1-0 until the 90th minute.

Our Villans knew what to expect and immediately took the game to the visitors, a strategy that turned into a well-constructed goal in the 29th minute.  When they lost the lead, they were able to regain it before halftime.  Still, they found themselves tied at 2-2 with time running out against a spunky visitor playing with 10-men since the 56th minute.

The heavy schedule (including Europa games) and key players unavailable, appeared to be sapping our side’s energy and ideas, and the fans started to get restless. Emery had to gesticulate to them to be patient.  Then, out of nothing, our Villans won a penalty that Douglas Luiz converted with a devastating shot that went in off the underside of the crossbar.  It was a shot, and a victory, that vaulted us into second place in the Premier League and lifted the spirits of all Villans, everywhere. 

This was not the first example this season of late-game heroics.  In the fall, we were losing to Crystal Palace late in the game, a loss that would have ended our home-game winning streak and left us with a hangover heading to Chelsea.  A long pass from Digne to Jhon Durán was converted into a wonder goal , in the 87th minute and we went on to beat Palace 3-1.  The team built on that with a solid performance at Stamford Bridge and came away with a victory over Chelsea, 1-0.  That pair of wins put us on the map.

Similarly important, was Ollie Watkins’ remarkable header in the 90th minute at Bournemouth to rescue a 2-2 tie from a game we appeared to have lost.  The goal lifted the team going into back-to-back home games with Manchester City and Arsenal.  Those wins over two elite teams told everyone, including the players themselves, that they could win against anyone home or away. 

Our Villans were learning that the days of giving up are over!  That another claret and blues team refused to give up against us, even down to 10-men, made this win all the sweeter as was evident in a post-game interview with Douglas Luiz.

Now the team can look forward, with confidence, to a visit to Middlesborough in the F. A. Cup followed by a visit to Everton (A), then Newcastle (H), Sheffield United (A), and Manchester United (H) after.  The break in Europa Conference League games until March lightens their schedule and time for Tielemans and Digne to recover, while Kamara and Cash will be available for the Middlesborough game.

Against Burnley, Emery selected a line-up that, while not optimum, appeared adequate to gain all three points.  He again started Lenglet who struggled somewhat against Man U. but looked more confident in front of home fans.  Alex Moreno offered more offensive threat than the injured Digne with, fortunately, Burnley lacking much of a threat on the right wing.

Two other Villans who would benefit from the game minutes, Jacob Ramsey and Moussa Diaby, were selected over Zaniolo and Dendoncker.  While Cash had scored in the game between these two teams in the first half fixture, his absence through illness could be seen to provide more defensive strength with Carlos remaining alongside Konsa who was covering Cash’s position. 

As noted, the team started brightly.  In the first couple of minutes, Bailey was able to dribble into the penalty area before his marker, Charlie Taylor, blocked his cross out for a corner.  In a designed play, Bailey overshot the group in front of the net to reach Diaby who had found space behind, at the back post.

Moussa was ready and set to hit a shot on the volley with his favored left foot.  Our French international is known for his snap shooting and this would have been very dangerous if he had been able to keep the ball down.  Unfortunately, he was slightly off on the timing and ball went high and wide.

Then our Villans created a half-chance out of pure hustle in the 13th minute.  The Burnley back-line allowed a Carlos long ball to bounce in front of them and the very quick Alex Moreno took advantage, jumped in, got a foot on the ball and pushed it in Watkins’ direction.  Ollie swivelled and volleyed on goal in one motion. Burnley goalie, James Trafford handled easily, but it was a worthy effort.

Diaby, appreciating the opportunity to start, was full of running and almost intercepted a back-pass from Gudmundsson, but Trafford was suitably nimble and cleared.  Then, Diaby was found by Lenglet as he cut between Delcroix and Taylor, only for the latter to clatter into him.  Without that, Moussa could have been in on-goal.  Worse still, Luiz’s effort did not clear the wall.  That was in the 25th minute.

It was Burnley’s turn next to threaten.  Striker, Lyle Foster, out-speeded and out-muscled Lenglet on the right and put an excellent cross into the box only for it to be a half-step ahead of Amdouni, the Swiss international, who let it run to Odobert. The winger was well defended by Konsa and passed on the opportunity to Brownhill, who is never afraid to shoot, and he tried to beat Martinez from outside the box.  Emi slid over and let the shot go wide of his left post.  Still, a warning.  Burnley continued to press, and Brownhill managed to get another shot on goal from a scramble, again from just outside the box that Martinez handled comfortably.

With Burnley pressing our defensive threesome (Konsa, Carlos, and Lenglet) almost back to their own penalty area, our wonderful offensive leader, Ollie Watkins, showed how valuable he is. He found the right time to break down inside-left channel, with Carlos in possession.

The pass was on the money and Ollie gathered and was closing in on the Burnley penalty area   While our striker is fast, O’Shea, Burnley’s Irish international centerback, is no slouch, and he was there in a good position to protect against a shot on goal. Ollie started to carry the ball across the corner of the penalty area, as if ready to pull the trigger but, instead, layed a pass in the direction of Diaby and Bailey positioned just outside the 6-yard-box to his right.

Moussa stepped out of the way when he saw that Leon had a much better angle to meet the ball.  Our much-improved Jamaican international was ready, teed it up, and lashed a vicious drive into the roof of the net to Trafford’s left.  Delcroix’s effort to block the shot became a nick that only made it more difficult to save.  A brilliant finish and build-up.  Aston Villa 1, Burnley 0 in the 29th minute.

What should have been the first of a few goals and a comfortable win almost immediately became a headache.  First, Diaby was penalized for a clumsy trip near the touchline on Villa’s right.  Then, Gudmundsson’s free kick cross was perfect for O’Shea who shrugged off the much smaller Moreno and, instead of trying to beat Martinez, headed for a location close to Emi’s right-hand post.

It was too far for Emi to reach and beyond Villa’s defenders in the vicinity (Konsa, Watkins, and Ramsey).  The closest to it was Amdouni and the Swiss international made no mistake hammering the ball into the roof of the net.  Aston Villa 1, Burnley 1 in the 31st minute.

As is often stated, the most likely time for an opposition goal is right after you score.  That certainly applied to this goal, and it almost applied again after Burnley equalised.  A pass from Konsa to Bailey standing on the touchline was immediately relayed over Burnley’s backline catching them flat-footed. Diaby and Watkins broke free of their markers.  Noticing that Ollie had a step on him, Diaby took his foot off the accelerator only to realise that Ollie wanted him to take charge – Ollie had judged that he, himself, was probably offside (he was).   Diaby responded, but the hesitation allowed Trafford to gather the ball a few feet ahead of the Frenchman.

It was Burnley that next came close only to be disappointed.  In the 37th minute, Villa were pressing but an O’Shea clearance led to an Amdouni through-ball that Foster carried from the halfway line before confidently placing a shot between Emi and his left post.  By the slightest of margins, VAR found that the South African international was offside.

Shortly after, our Villans threatened again.  Jacob Ramsey was enjoying his best outing all season and drew a foul by Brownhill.  Luiz attempted a quick free kick before Burnley had prepared but Vitinho intercepted only for Burnley to lose possession at the edge of the penalty area.  It was Ramsey who ended up with the opportunity but, it was Brownhill, again, who slid and blocked what looked like a powerful strike.  Corner.

Our Villans failed to make much of the corner but a few minutes later they were on the scoresheet.  Again, it was thanks to Watkins’s great running into space.  With Konsa in possession, O’Shea pushed up hoping to get Watkins caught offside.  When Ezri lofted the pass down the inside-right channel, the Irishman had his arm up (hopefully).  When Ollie gained possession, he still had to deal with O’Shea, but he did so easily with a slick move to the goal line and a cross. 

Ramsey was closest at the near post, but it was a little behind Jacob.  He wisely let it go to Diaby who was perfectly positioned to side-foot the ball into Trafford’s far corner.  Easy-peasy.  The inevitable VAR check confirmed that O’Shea and Delcroix had trapped Watkins when they moved up, but Ollie had his eye on Taylor who had kept him onside!  Aston Villa 2, Burnley 1 in the 42nd minute.  Diaby had his first goal in two months and Ollie had another assist.

There was plenty of action at both ends of the field during the balance of the first half, but neither team came close to scoring despite the added seven minutes of injury time. 

Winning at the break should have been reassuring, but a combination of what happened at Man U., and missing Torres and Kamara, undermined that. Then, that confidence took a hit soon after the break when Moreno decided to dribble out from the back and lost possession.  Amdouni’s shot was on-target, but not strong enough to bother Martinez, though Villa fans in the Holte End would have been holding their collective breaths in the 48th minutes. 

Not surprisingly, the visitors did most of the pressing as they tried to even the score.  That seemed to become a hopeless cause when, in the 55th minute, Sander Berge committed his second yellow card infraction by pulling Luiz’s shirt to prevent his progress. Berg, a Norwegian, was sent to the dressing room with a red card.

The one change that Kompany made to withstand the onslaught was to insert the energetic and talented younger brother of Jacob Ramsey (Aaron) for the scorer Amdouni.  That change worked well for the most part.

For the next fifteen minutes our Villains dominated and created a series of great opportunities (9) to expand their lead – to Bailey (1), Diaby (4), McGinn (1), Luiz (2), and Ramsey (1).  Interestingly, none came to Watkins though he assisted in creating many.  McGinn’s was the best in terms of the quality of the shot and the save (in the 63rd minute).  The best build-up was by Bailey and Konsa to Ramsey who came close to finding the top corner of the net (in the 64th minute).  The most profligate was, by far, Diaby who had one good shot saved and three excellent opportunities skied over the bar.  Bailey’s shot may have found the corner if not for Odobert deflecting it away for a corner.

As experienced soccer fans know only too well, failure to take chances can lead to disaster, and it almost did.  With Villa fans wondering who would score, and when, they were sucker-punched as Foster beat our offside trap and found a space between Martinez’s left hand and left post to tie the game in the 71st minute.

It was a jump by Gudmundsson over Luiz to reach a Trafford goal-kick that was Villa’s undoing.  Holding an aggressive offside line, our Villans got caught by the headed flick-on combined with Foster showing great timing, speed and strength to hold off Moreno and Carlos, before a clinical finish.  VAR confirmed that Moreno and Carlos had played the scorer on, Aston Villa 2, Burnley 2 in the 71st minute. 

The crowd was in shock.  Villa fans had the awful feeling of this being Manchester United déjà vu and the magic carpet ride was over, a feeling enhanced by the vocal response of the visiting fans, “Go on, Burnley; Go on, Burnley!”

Fortunately for our Villans, Torres had been substituted in for Lenglet and his composure settled the team and the fans.  It was four patient minutes before we conjured up another opportunity from a cross after an excellent run by Moreno that was just a smidgin too high for Watkins who headed over.

The failure of Diaby to, again, get a shot on goal, led to Emery bringing on Durán to replace him in the 82nd minute.  The mercurial nature of the Colombian had made Emery cautious in his use of Durán, but Unai must have concluded he had more to gain than lose.  That Moreno had forced Burnley to concede another corner presented an auspicious time.  Nothing came of the corner, but within a few minutes Durán proved his worth.

Like many of our Villans’ big goals of late, credit goes to the genius of Leon Bailey.  Knowing his marker, Charlie Taylor, must be getting tired, he forced him into a stop-start run down the touchline and then put the burners on to round the fullback at the goal line within the penalty area.  With six Burnley defenders in the 6-yard box, the best options available (Luiz and Durán) were waiting for a pull-back.

Burnley defenders responded, none faster than Aaron Ramsey, and he intercepted the pass.  A split second later, the equally fast Durán took the ball off him, tempting the younger Ramsey to poke the ball away.  To do that, he went through the legs of Durán, catching the recent sub in the heel.  Durán fell to the turf as if he had been shot.

Referee, Stuart Attwell, was right there and immediately whistled and pointed to the spot.  Penalty and an opportunity to clinch the game.  Between a VAR confirmation and a yellow card for Jacob Ramsey for pushing and shoving, minutes passed.  Meanwhile, captain McGinn held the ball to allow Luiz to gather himself.

There must have been much going on in the Brazilian’s mind.  None of the three penalties he had previously scored was draped in so much tension.  He, himself, was culpable for contributing to the team’s poor defence of the second equaliser and his own efforts at scoring (a shot from distance and direct shot from a corner) were ill-advised.  As he later admitted, the schedule congestion and loss of key players had created an extra burden.

Now, he had to clear those issues from his mind, take a deep breath and totally focus on the technique and the power.  After what seemed like an interminable delay, he did his little running on the spot, and then to the ball and bang.  The ball exploded off his foot and then the underside of the cross bar down to the ground, up and against the underside of the bar again before spinning into the back of the net with Trafford having guessed, correctly, that it would be to his left.  Still, there was no chance to save.  Aston Villa 3, Burnley 2 in the 89th minute. 

In the remaining injury time minutes, Durán displayed another component of his skillset by using his significant size, strength, and speed to clear all three crosses into Villa’s penalty area and charged down a cross.  Emery must have appreciated that.  The Holte End certainly did.

The final whistle went, and a sigh of relief went global to the Villa-sphere.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Lenglet (Torres 62′), Moreno, Bailey (Dendoncker 93′), McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Ramsey, Diaby (Durán 82′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Torres, Chambers, Zaniolo, Durán, Dendoncker, Marschall, Iroegbunam, Proctor

Burnley: Trafford, Vitinho, O’Shea, Beyer (Delcroix 17′), Taylor, Gudmundsson (Roberts 74′), Berge, Brownhill, Odobert (Trésor 74′), Foster, Amdouni (Ramsey 59′)

Unused Subs: Rodríguez, Roberts, Redmond, Ramsey, Trésor, Bruun Larsen, Delcroix, Obafemi, Muric

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