By Jonathan Parkin
The second of the back-to-back cup games for Villa came at the King Power stadium. The Villans came up against a high-flying Leicester side that had easily dispatched Villa 4-1 only last month. Villa would have to vastly improve on their limp FA Cup performance against Fulham, to earn a trip to Wembley, in a season where a shot at a trophy seemed very unlikely.
Smith stuck with the formation that had helped Villa gain all three points at Burnley. In a very Guardiola-esque way, the Villa boss had selected no recognised striker, with a ‘fluid’ frontline of Grealish, El Ghazi and Trezeguet. Unlike the Spaniard however, Smith’s selection was forced by a lack of forward options, as every centre forward in the squad was out of contention. Jonathan Kodjia was allegedly ‘ill’, though it brings up questions of whether Kodjia was dropped as he’s on his way out or as a statement to the owners.
Villa battled hard throughout the 90 minutes for a well-earned draw, which should please both Dean Smith and the Villa faithful. Despite the lack of striker, Grealish and co made the most of the scraps left to them by the Foxes and grabbed a goal. A sloppy lack of awareness from Douglas Luiz gifted Leicester a goal to reply in the second half; but the defence fought hard and kept the Villans in the tie going into the second leg.
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Orjan Nyland- 8
Orjan Nyland had a very good game in between the posts. The big Norwegian claimed high balls well, and made himself big on a number of occasions to make saves from tight angled shots. His passing out from the back wasn’t an issue either, as he didn’t really have to do any. Nyland looks like he is growing in confidence with each game, and Villa’s problems in the net don’t seem as large as first thought, when Heaton got injured.
Frederic Guilbert – 8
It has been easy to criticise Frederic Guilbert’s gung-ho playing style when the Villa were playing with four at the back. Yet in this game with the added stability of the back three behind him, his all-action play was an asset. Not only did the defender grab a goal from bombing into the box, he also knew when to hang back and defend responsibly. The change of formation seemingly suits many of the players, such as Guilbert, a lot better than the old system.
Ezri Konsa – 7
Though he did have a role in Leicester scoring, Ezri Konsa showed many of the qualities that Villa fans will be used to seeing from the 22-year-old. His pass to a clearly pressured Douglas Luiz was poor, but his ball into Trezeguet that eventually led to the Villans only goal was brilliant.
He wasn’t as defensively active as the other two centre-halves, and on one or two occasions he got caught ball watching and found it tricky to track Jamie Vardy, but then again who wouldn’t?
His header from Grealish’s free kick really should have made it two before half-time.
Tyrone Mings – 8.5 MOTM
What a goliath at the back Tyrone Mings was. At times it felt like he was a one-man blocking machine, with shots pinging off the England international on several instances. His passing was the most accurate of any of the defenders as expected, and his presence in the midst of the back three cannot be underestimated.
Both Hause and Konsa seem more confident with Mings next to them, and his barking of orders and organisational skills meant the defence rarely became disjointed or stretched.
Kortney Hause – 8
Every week Kortney Hause dominates the opposition in the air, and surprise, surprise he did it again. Six aerial duels won and twelve clearances, the numbers speak for themselves. Hause may not be the most gifted of the centre-back trio with the ball at his feet (although he’s normally better than he was against the Foxes), but he can defend in a no-nonsense fashion incredibly effectively.
The current back three has the best blend of different qualities, Hause has a physicality to even match Mings.
Neil Taylor – 7
Many of the fans inside the King Power would have been surprised that Neil Taylor didn’t get a nose bleed as he passed the ball to Anwar El Ghazi, to help set up the Villa goal. Though his attacking ability is limited at best, his pushing up the field was key to Villa’s success. On top of this, his defensive work was very respectable. Once or twice, Ayoze Perez got the run on him, as he ventured onward up the pitch, but the back three covered him well.
Douglas Luiz – 5.5
The mistake Douglas Luiz made sums up everything that has been said to criticize him so far this season. Once again, the Brazilian took way too much time releasing the ball, and had little awareness of who was around him. You can’t afford to have the ball robbed off you against any team, let alone a side that are as sharp up front as Leicester.
Other than the mistake, he was dragged out of position when pressing a few too many times in the second half, once Youri Tielemans moved higher up the pitch for the home side.
His passing was also relatively casual at key times, and he really should have made more of the shooting position he found himself in, early in the second half.
Marvellous Nakamba – 5.5
Much like his midfield partner, Marvellous Nakamba’s passing was inaccurate, especially when Villa looked to hit on the break. The Zimbabwean seemed to give the ball away as much as he wins it back, which is an unfortunate recurring theme. Plus, Nakamba nearly got the fixture off to a very poor start, as his unnecessary header backwards found itself at the feet of Jamie Vardy. Luckily for the Villans, Vardy couldn’t profit from the mistake.
Trezeguet – 6.5
Trezeguet played a big role in the Villa goal, with his little flick to Jack Grealish and his winning of the ball outside the box. Apart from this however, the Egyptian did very little, at least offensively that is. He ran around a lot as per usual and provided good defensive support, however he wasn’t as effective as El Ghazi or Grealish.
Anwar El Ghazi – 7
In a weird way, playing as a striker suited Anwar El Ghazi. His hold up play was relatively poor as expected, but he drifted out wide and down the channels quite well. He showed great quality to gain a step on Calgar Soyuncu and whip the ball to the back post for Guilbert to score. His work rate tracking back, or lack there of wasn’t as much of a problem with the Dutchman down the centre.
Jack Grealish © – 7.5
Jack Grealish looked sharp and dangerous when he got on the ball. Villa’s only issue was he perhaps didn’t see as much as the ball, as they’d like. His ability to win fouls was invaluable late on as it released the pressure put on the defence time after time. The one real time where Super Jack got on the ball and drove at the defence, eventually resulted in a goal.
Off the Bench
Conor Hourihane (66) – 6
Bringing on Conor Hourihane provided an extra body in midfield for Leicester to play through, in theory this seems a sensible idea. However, the Irishman failed to provide the out ball that Trezeguet had, and that meant added pressure on the Villans late on. He did his job in tracking runners relatively well though and didn’t really do much wrong.
Indiana Vassilev (73) – 6
Young American Indiana Vassilev’s second appearance showed he is certainly a more willing runner than Jonathan Kodjia has been in the past. He pressured the Leicester defence reasonably, but any ball up to the youngster just came straight back.
Henri Lansbury (85) – n/a
Henri Lansbury made yet another appearance as a timewasting substitution. He only touched the ball five times in his eight minutes on the pitch.
Dean Smith – 8
Dean Smith has shown in this match and the Burnley match that he is willing to adapt, and that’s good to see. Whether this adaptation is due to necessity or choice is yet to be seen, but the performance shown with a back three have been much more like the standard Villa fans expect.
Many of the complaints around Christmas were talking of the ‘lack of grit’ and how the players were ‘too soft’. There’s still some work to do on the latter, but this performance had a great deal more grit than most this season.
A 1-1 draw is a very good score to take to Villa Park for the second leg.
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