Luton Town FC (2), Aston Villa (3), Our Villans find another way to win on the road

Saturday, March 2nd, 17:30 – Kenilworth Road

Referee: Michael Oliver

A remarkable feature of our Villans under Unai Emery is their ability to evolve.  That evolution has taken many forms and, for the team to move to the next level of accomplishment, it is mandatory.  One early sign, under Emery’s tutelage, was that quality players gained consistency in their performances. Furthermore, they have maintained that consistency.  The initial prime examples were Watkins and Martinez.  Ollie has become a more prolific goal-scorer while maintaining, or improving, other aspects of his game: assists, creating space for others, defensive duties and so on.  Similarly, Emi has greatly improved his distribution, be it the short passes to his center backs or long passes to wings or down the center.

Others (e.g., Luiz, McGinn, Bailey) are also constently playing at a high level and, often, superbly.

Team-wide evolutions include improved game control (e.g., offside trap, set pieces, maintaining focus, clinical finishing).

The most recent evolution is their ability to win against lesser teams who make up for their quality deficiency with effort and enthusiasm, especially in front of their home fans.  This particular skill was something that served Manchester United well under Alec Ferguson.  How many times did we see our Villans play their hearts out only for the “gaffer” to bring somebody off the bench who would score in the final minutes and steal a win from us, or finish us off?

There are multiple components that make this possible and Emery has put these pieces in place.  Last Saturday saw Luton achieve a stirring comeback from a two goal deficit that seemed likely to lead them to a win. Emery’s response was to make four substitutions in the 79th minute.  Two of those were to rest players who were struggling defensively (Digne for Moreno and Iroegbunam for Rogers) while two were high quality players who had goal potential and fresh legs (Diaby and Zaniolo for Bailey and Tielemans).

Not only did this substitution change the momentum of the game, but it also led directly to the winning goal.  As Emery likes to remind his players, three points are three points, whether you are playing against Manchester City or Luton Town.  That is why we are still in 4th place in the Premier League, five points ahead of Spurs who have a game in hand and 11 points ahead on Man. U.  Our destiny is definitely in our team’s own hands.

So, what happened in the game?  It should be said, that Ollie Watkins enjoyed an unfair advantage the moment he stepped on the field.  Having come through playing for Exeter and Brentford, he was very familiar with the Kenilworth Road stadium and he, immediately, looked at home. 

Meanwhile, our Villans were on an away game winning streak of two (at Sheffield United and at Fulham) while Luton had lost their last two home games.  With Konsa starting for Torres as the only change from the Nottingham Forest game, Emery once more showed that he was being cautious with players fitness.  The run would help Konsa to gain match fitness while our influential Spaniard would be saved for Europa and Spurs.

Luton’s makeshift lineup (due to injuries) showed lots of energy in the early going, while our Villans played conservatively out from the back, looking for openings.  The approach worked well for our Villans with Ramsey, showing flashes of last season’s form, found himself in a good position to deflect a dangerous cross by Bailey just wide of the far post (in the 3rd minute) and able to shape a brilliant curving drive from outside the box that would have settled in Kaminski’s top left corner if not for an equally outstanding save (14th minute).

When Jacob had to be replaced a couple of minutes later, there was concern among the traveling fans (and Villa fans everywhere) that this was a repeat of his off-season foot injury.  When new signing, Morgan Rogers, came on, it was a encouraging that Emery sensed that the West Bromwich boy has Ramsey-like potential and the youngster reinforced that soon after joining the game.

That would have to wait until after Watkins put his stamp on the game.  First, our in-form striker replicated Ramsey’s shot, only better.  Kaminski again saved at the cost of the corner.  Bailey took the corner, and it was perfectly placed to reach a location just outside the six-yard box with enough whip that all it needed was redirection.

Ollie stood aligned with the near post and, as the cross arrived, took a couple of steps forward and, then, effortlessly elevated above others and headed just inside post and just under the bar.  The ball bulged the net with Kaminski planted to his line. Luton 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 24th minute.  Halfway through the first half, our Villans had taken the lead in a clinical fashion.

Soon after, Rogers got his chance.  He immediately won a corner when his cross was blocked.  The initial corner from the left was partially cleared only for McGinn to zip in a dangerous cross from the right that Lenglet got on the end of, but his header was off the mark.

Then, when Rogers received an outlet pass from Moreno he carried and relayed to Bailey on the right.  Watkins broke into space ahead of Leon and, upon receiving Bailey’s pass he almost immediately shot from the corner of the box. The ball zipped past Kaminski before kissing the outside of the far upright.  That was inches away from a second goal for Ollie. That was in the 34th minute.

As Watkins has stated, he does not worry about missing since he knows that more opportunities will present themselves.  True to form, soon after an opportunity arrived.  When Rogers seized possession from a melee in midfield, Reece Burke grabbed the shirt of Villa’s eager forward to prevent him breaking forward.  Michael Oliver called the offense and showed Burke the first yellow card of the day.  Meanwhile, Watkins had indicated that he was open.

Luiz was alive to his teammate and Douglas took a fast kick that Watkins ran under and trapped with the inside of his left foot as he entered the penalty area.  With defenders frozen in an offside trap, Ollie looked up and coolly shaped a right footed curling shot beyond the dive of Kaminski, that hit the inside of the goalie’s left post before settling in the back of the net.  Clinical, as usual.

Even Ollie’s timing was perfect as he had recognized that Ogbene, at left back, was ball watching and was playing him on.  He waited as the referee’s assistant raised his flag before the VAR officials indicated “onside”. Luton 0, Aston Villa 2 in the 38th minute. 

Rogers forced Kaminski into another fine save in the 43rd minute to keep from our Villans adding to their lead.  With the halftime whistle blowing, the home team had failed to muster a single shot on goal.

Not too surprisingly, our Villans entered the second half feeling very confident.  Of the 61 times that our Villans had led by two goals at the half in the Premier League, they only lost once, against Manchester United at Old Trafford last Boxing Day.  This was not Old Trafford and complacency set in. They almost paid the price.

By sheer determination, and excellent direct kicks taken by Alfie Doughty, the home team were able to tie the game.  In the 66th minute our Villan defense failed to clear a corner by Alfie Doughty and, after a scramble in the crease, Tahith Chong forced the ball over the line. Luton 1, Aston Villa 2.

Sensing that they could repeat, and with the crowd willing them on, Luton kept pressing while our Villans conceded too many freekicks (19 in total) and corners (6 in total).  With the momentum working for them, another Doughty free kick found Carlton Morris who swept the ball beyond Emi Martinez in the 72nd minute.  Luton 2, Aston Villa 2.

Our Villans were rattled and, in the 75th minute, Morris had an excellent opportunity to give Luton the lead.  He rose above Cash to meet a cross only to head the ball into Emi’s grateful hands.

Emery immediately let four substitutes know that they were going on.  Digne, Diaby, Iroegbunam, and Zaniolo went on to replace Moreno, Rogers, Tielemans, and Bailey in the 79th minute. 

Iroegbunam, likely, gave Emery heartburn as his first contribution was to trip Ross Barkley in a location eerily close to where Doughty’s free kick led to Luton’s second goal just minutes before. 

Fortunately, this time, the offside trap worked.  That dealt with, the reconfigured squad started to take control of possession.  From the 85th minute on our Villans played patiently, probing for an opportunity to present itself. 

Finally, our Villans gained a foothold in Luton’s half.  Watkins passed back to Luiz who sprayed a pass to Cash on the right.  Matty found Diaby on the wing in line with the Luton penalty area from where he worked his way inside before rolling a pass to Ollie who returned the favor.

From a position just outside the corner of the box, Diaby could see that Luton had a solid line defending access to their goal.  What he also could see was Digne starting a run from the left touchline and into the box on the left, about to cut behind the last Luton defender on their right.

Moussa’s whipped cross was perfectly placed for our French international to meet at the corner of the 6-yard box.  Kaminski was well-placed to protect the near post but Digne’s header was powerful and just to the right of the goalie’s right leg and bounced emphatically into the back of the net.  A worthy game-winner.  Luton 2, Aston Villa 3 in the 89th minute.  Luton and their fans were stunned.

Digne raced over and hugged the sender of the gift, Diaby, also a French international.  Tres bon!

The final whistle blew and our Villans had all three points and a solid hold on the 4th place in the Premier League.

Luton: Kaminski, Burke, Mengi, Bell (Ogbene 6′), Kaboré, Clark, Barkley, Doughty, Townsend (Hashioka 53′), Chong (Mpanzu 84′), Morris.

Unused Subs: Shea, Krul, Berry, Woodrow, Nelson, Piesold.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Konsa, Lenglet, Moreno (Digne 79′), Bailey (Diaby 79′), McGinn, Luiz, Ramsey (Rogers 29′) (Iroegbunam 79′), Tielemans (Zaniolo 79′), Watkins.

Unused Subs: Olsen, Torres, Chambers, Kesler Hayden.

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