Aston Villa 3 – 1 Fulham
Two teams came into their Easter Sunday clash with the same number of points in 2021. However, the stakes are very different for Aston Villa and Fulham. Scott Parker’s men have been on the up after a disastrous start to the campaign, their defence has conceded less goals than Villa’s in 2021. Villa started the season fantastically, but a lack of goals in recent weeks has led to a poor run of form.
Premier League survival means a win was needed for the Cottagers, those in claret and blue wouldn’t be able to coast past their opposition like in the previous meeting that ended 3-0.
The big selection news from Dean Smith wasn’t what fans wanted to see. Captain, Jack Grealish, ‘had some soreness’ in the lead up to the game, and therefore wasn’t selected in the 20-man squad. Other than that there was one change to the starting XI that lost against Spurs. Anwar El Ghazi came in on the left for Trezeguet. Fans would be hoping that El Ghazi could hit a hot streak like he did in December, as attacking spark has very much been lacking. Fulham brought in Aleksandar Mitrovic, after the striker became the Serbian national team’s leading scorer over the international break.
The first-half was far from disastrous for Villa, but there were more of the same frustrations in the final third. In the opening minutes a Matty Cash cross dropped for Ollie Watkins, but the Villa striker couldn’t quite control the ball. Fulham were on top though, for the opening 20 minutes. Mitrovic’s low shot had Emi Martinez diving to his right early on.
Poor passes from Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traore allowed Fulham to break once or twice, but they couldn’t make the most of the opportunities. Villa had plenty of chances to create someting from dead-ball situations, as referee Andy Madley was whistle-happy, but the delivery too often wasn’t there. When the half was winding down, Ollie Watkins pounced on the ball in the box after a throw in, and Mario Lemina brought him down. A penalty was given, then on closer inspection it was clear Lemina touched the ball, even the most biased Villa supporter couldn’t argue with it being overturned.
As has been the pattern in Villa’s last few matches, there was improvement needed in the second-half. There didn’t seem to be any improvement either, as the minutes ticked by, and Villa failed to up the tempo or have a single shot on target. In a lull in the game, Tyrone Mings got the ball under little pressure, and tried to pass the ball first time to Ezri Konsa. This went horrifically wrong, as the scuffed pass dribbled through for Mitrovic to run on to. The Serbian made no mistake in front of goal, and in a nothing game, Villa were down once again.
The most worrying concern was with over 70 minutes on the clock, Villa had still failed to even hit the target.
With a handful of changes, Dean Smith attempted to mix things up. Keinan Davis and Trezeguet entered the fray, along with Jacob Ramsey.
These changes had the exact effect that Deano would have wanted them to have. A determined Tyrone Mings, seeking retribution, lashed in a cross which came to Trezeguet, who caressed a shot low into the bottom corner. Then a press came to fruition, as Davis stormed forward, looped the ball to the back post, and Trezeguet finished. Then, as Villa remembered how to play attacking exciting football, Traore took on his man down the right, and fired a cross to Ollie Watkins, who tapped in.
With three assists that were almost as good as the actual goals, Villa had turned round a stagnant display in the space of nine minutes.
Could this be the catalyst to get up and running again?
Emiliano Martinez – 8
Emi Martinez had to be sharp to make a good number of saves throughout the 90 minutes. Aleksandar Mitrovic stung his palms twice in the first-half, and late on Josh Onomah saw his diverted strike well held by the Argentinian shot-stopper. Mings’ mistake put Martinez in a difficult situation, and there wasn’t much more he could have done bar taking down Mitrovic. One missed catch in the first half was about as shaky as it got for him, as he was otherwise sturdy and reliable when it came to claiming and punching the ball.
Matty Cash – 6
In the opening skirmishes when Villa had their initially moves forward, it was Matty Cash who was causing Fulham problems. His pace in behind and crossing ability created a few glimpses for those in claret and blue. His attacking influence waned as the game went on, but his defensive solidity prevailed. Two tackles, two clearances and an interception show just how effectively he saw off Ademola Lookman and Ivan Cavaleiro.
Ezri Konsa – 7
Another spot on performance from Ezri Konsa. Wasn’t massively active, didn’t throw in many tackles or blocks, went about his job and did it well without any errors. With performances like this as a minimum every week from Konsa, it emphasises just how important it was to get him tied down to a new contract. Quality centre-halves are hard to come by, and the likes of Manchester United, Spurs and Liverpool have struggled for consistency in defence this season. The new deal should hopefully ward off any suitors for a couple of transfer windows at least.
Tyrone Mings – 6
Tyrone Mings picked up his first and second assists of the season. Unfortunately for him, the first wasn’t for a Villa goal, as his scuffed pass was perfectly weighted to play in Aleksandar Mitrovic to score. Trying to make up for his diabolical pass, he joined an attack, and after linking up with Matt Targett, he somewhat made up for his error with a cross to Trezeguet.
The mistake he made was so bad though, and is something that happened more often last season. It certainly won’t quieten Mings’ doubters.
That being said, his error was the moment that caused Villa to click into gear, and actually speed up their attack. Trying to make up for the mistake of a teammate was seemingly exactly what was needed.
Mings took responsibility for messing up and rather than feel sorry for himself, he was determined to put it right, which he did, sparking Villa to flip the game on its head.
Matt Targett – 7
Matt Targett was defensively sound, and was one of Villa’s creative outlets on the front foot. In several quick moves on the left, Targett was the architect. His play with Mings and Traore set up the first Villa goal, and when Villa did have attacks prior to the 70th minute, Targett was usually part of them. The throw-in from Targett in the first-half also created the situation in which Villa nearly won a penalty.
Douglas Luiz – 5
Despite putting in a tackle here and there, Douglas Luiz didn’t add a lot to the Villa cause. In possession, the Brazilian was pedestrian, and slowed down the progression of the ball up the pitch. It was remarkable how much Villa improved once Smith took off both Sanson and Luiz, and how much snappier the play became. With the performances of the Brazilian being so poor in recent weeks, a spell on the sidelines may give him some time to sort himself out, as well as giving someone else an opportunity.
John McGinn – 6
John McGinn definitely looked more lively playing further up the pitch, but the quality in the final third often wasn’t there. At every opportunity, the Scot looked to shoot, which never ended well, with shots blocked or sent sailing over the bar. Alan Smith on commentary said he ‘wouldn’t put it past McGinn to score from there’, he can’t have seen many of Super John’s long range efforts recently. Still, especially in the first half, at least the Scottish international managed to drive Villa up the pitch through the midfield.
Bertrand Traore – 6
There’s an unpredictability about Bertrand Traore that always makes him a threat. It also makes him immensely frustrating to watch. Often he would do well to take on his man and try and work a cross or a shot, but too regularly the Burkinabe winger would throw himself to the ground too easily, losing possession in a promising area. It was his ability to take on a defender that created the third goal, where he bucked the trend of only scoring worldies with his right foot, to put in a hard cross to Watkins.
Morgan Sanson – 5
Morgan Sanson played in a deeper midfield role than was expected when the team was announced. While this allowed John McGinn greater freedom to try and create, it didn’t help Sanson at all. The Frenchman wasn’t particularly creative from deep, and was something of a lightweight defensive presence. Much like Luiz, he was far too slow progressing the ball up the pitch, and Villa looked far better with the ex-Marseilles man off the pitch.
Anwar El Ghazi – 4
Anwar El Ghazi is definitely in a cold spell, he was anonymous for large parts of the match, and looked scared to get involved. His diabolical first-half backpass was the low point in a shocking performance. When the Dutchman stepped up to take set-pieces he was poor, and he didn’t even look willing to take a shot on as he usually is.
Ollie Watkins – 6
It was a quiet game for the most part for Ollie Watkins. The service to him was virtually non-existent, and the few half chances he did get he couldn’t make the most of. However, with the addition of a striker partner, in the form of Keinan Davis, Watkins could evade the attentions of the Fulham centre-halves. The chance that came to him late was an easy one, but he got in the right position, away from the defenders, and put it away.
Off the Bench (The Cavalry)
Trezeguet – 9 MOTM
The mystique around Trezeguet grows. Villa seem to need to be going through a truly awful period of form for the Egyptian to spring into life and become the hero. His first effort, heading wide, left a lot to be desired, and it seemed as if the winger was going to be as impotent as ever in front of goal. Little were fans to know, Trezeguet had decided that this was the day he was going to save.
As if feeding off negative online fan energy, his shooting boots charged up.
The chances he tucked away were much more difficult than some others he’s had this season. From missing open goals to scoring two in a few minutes, ‘Our Son’ is back. Considering what had gone on before he came on, you’ve got to make him the MOTM.
Keinan Davis – 8
Who is this striker? And what has he done with Keinan Davis? The game was drifting away from Villa, a goal down and moving the ball slowly, not threatening the Fulham keeper. Enter Keinan Davis. The powerful forward gave the Fulham centre-halves something to think about, using his body to battle for the ball, and pressing them hard off the ball. This pushed the Fulham defence back, and allowed for chances to be created. His work for the second goal was magnificent, energetic pressing, pace and a pinpoint cross to the back post. He needs to start against Liverpool in a partnership with Watkins, and put pressure on the shaky Reds centre-backs.
Jacob Ramsey – 7
Jacob Ramsey added legs and pace in the midfield, when Villa needed to get on the attack and bag some goals. He played the right passes, and was a key part of Villa’s revival. The youngster also wasn’t afraid to stick a foot in, as he made two tackles and an interception, to prevent any Fulham fight back.
Dean Smith – 7
When a team is repeatedly going through long periods of failing to register any shots on target, the tactical approach of the management team has to be questioned.
Hopefully, the penny has dropped now, after Villa scored more than one goal for the first time since the 3-2 loss against Burnley.
What Dean Smith could do to change things worked. All of his substitutions greatly improved the team, and the change in shape allowed for faster progression of the ball up the pitch. It was another concerning performance for an hour, and then with the changes it was like watching the team of late 2020 again.
The real test comes now. What will Smith do against Liverpool? Will he continue to play with one striker and three in midfield, or will he change to what caused such a marked improvement against Fulham?
There’s also the chance that Jack Grealish may be back for the game against the Reds (lets not hold our breathes though), and maybe that may halt any possibility of playing two strikers. Liverpool will be looking to end their awful run of home results, as well as trying to get a measure of revenge for the 7-2 drubbing at Villa Park.
Let’s hope Villa can show more of what they showed in the final 20 minutes in this game, and not the previous 70.