Aston Villa pulled off an apparent surprise Premier League victory over Manchester City at Villa Park on Wednesday, courtesy of a solitary strike by Leon Bailey.
While the defending champions, last season’s treble winners, entered the clash as favourites for most, the home side thoroughly deserved the triumph, and may even consider themselves unlucky that it came down to one goal.
As usual, City had the ball at their feet more than their opponents (54%), attempted more passes (436-520) and completed them at a higher percentage (85%-87%), but the numbers in other areas tell a story which could not be more different.
Pep Guardiola’s men took aim at Emiliano Martinez’s goal just twice in the whole match, both on target, both the work of Erling Haaland in quick succession, and both saved brilliantly by the Argentinian goalkeeper. On the other hand, Villa took a total of 22, hitting the target seven times, including Bailey’s deflected effort which left Ederson Moraes rooted as it looped into the net in the 74th minute. Also, you don’t see Manchester City fail to take a single corner in a game very often, but that was the case against Villa, who took six.
But the three most shocking pieces of stats from this contest were that the ball spent more time in the away third of the pitch (36%) than in the home third (25%), that Villa consequently took 36 touches inside the box while City took just 13 in theirs, and that Villa players attempted and completed far more dribbles, 16/21 (76%), while their opponents had 2/12 (17%).
Sometimes the numbers don’t really paint a realistic picture, but in this case, they absolutely do. It can be said that Villa boss Unai Emery totally outsmarted Pep Guardiola, and deservedly registered his first triumph over the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach.
City a different prospect without Rodri
To his defence, Guardiola was forced to make do without several very important players in this game. And while the thoughts on this matter will have gone straight to Kevin De Bruyne, it was more down to having no Rodri in the team.
Guardiola’s style of play is well-known for holding the ball long in the opposition half for long spells and extracting the best from players with creativity, pace, smart running and quality finishing. The way they usually deal with defences set deep is truly a joy to watch.
However, to make such an approach so successful, Guardiola has had to mould his defensive midfielders into proper specialists for what he wants them to do – initiate press, force opposition players to commit fouls, or even commit fouls if need be, but usually slow the opponent with the ball down sufficiently for others to come in and help, creating a piranha effect where they mercilessly crowd the opponent out and take the ball. In other words, read the game well and do whatever it takes to win back possession as quickly as possible.
At Barcelona, it was Sergio Busquets whose superb intelligence did the job brilliantly. Upon Guardiola’s arrival at the Etihad, he had a ready-made man by the name of Fernandinho. These days, his team relies on Rodri to deliver in the role. But unfortunately for City, the Spain international picked up his fifth yellow card of the season in the thrilling 3-3 draw against Tottenham Hotspur and was consequently unavailable for this game, as was, by the way, Jack Grealish.
It’s not easy to have a proper backup option for a player like Rodri. Last season, Ilkay Gundogan was there to provide some cover there, and the German’s versatility, not to mention class, was obviously a great asset, but Gundogan is now a Barcelona player. Guardiola may have tried to shape Kalvin Phillips that way, but the former Leeds midfielder hasn’t lived up to expectations following his arrival at City, and Guardiola himself recently admitted failing to get the best out of him. So much so, that the Catalan tactician actually prefers to put two centre-backs, Manuel Akanji and John Stones, at the base of his midfield, which also raises questions about summer signings Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes.
This game showed very clearly that City have great problems carrying the ball far up the pitch or winning possession high up without Rodri, something their game depends on very much, and Villa were simply brilliant at exploiting the situation by putting pressure on Manuel Akanji and John Stones.
The Aftermath: Can Aston Villa fight for the title?
This victory and the three points it brought to Aston Villa have gotten Emery’s team to actually move above City in the Premier League table into third place, two points behind Liverpool and just four behind leaders Arsenal. With the title race appearing set to be much tighter than in a number of previous seasons, the question of Villa potentially getting involved has been asked.
Speaking to the press after the game, Emery didn’t spoke on the subject with great caution.
“We are not contenders,” he said.
“There are seven teams who are contenders more than us. Now we are on game 15. We are going to play game 16 on Saturday against Arsenal and we are going to focus on it. We are happy to be third but to keep it is going to be very, very difficult.
“While we are there we are going to try to keep it. If we keep progressing during the season, playing matches and winning like we are doing maybe we can be a contender but I think we need more time.
“We can believe but we are not contenders. There are another seven teams and that didn’t change. It is game 15. Maybe by game 30 or 32, but not yet.”
Having beaten Manchester City, Villa will have taken heart ahead of their showdown with Emery’s former club and the man who replaced him in the Arsenal dugout. Once Guardiola’s assistant, Mikel Arteta has turned the Gunners into to a proper top-class team, but even for them, the matter that Villa just beat the reigning champions to extend their impressive home win streak to 14 Premier League triumphs will be something to consider. On the other hand, the last team Aston Villa failed to beat at Villa park was none other than Arsenal, back in February.
Looking at the situation from the outside and as much as possible without prejudice in favour of the so-called “big clubs” – why not? Why shouldn’t Aston Villa be considered as genuine title contenders? Emery is right, there is a long way to go, many games still to be played, and consistency will be the key, but at this point, rule his team out at your peril. Not too long ago, in 2015/16, most people repeatedly ruled out Leicester City.
On the other hand, it’s obviously even more foolish to rule out Manchester City. Having won the title in five of the last six seasons, and especially after Guardiola’s somewhat bullish statement that they’d do it again, they certainly won’t give up. Rodri will be back for the game against Luton Town on Sunday, as will Grealish. Jeremy Doku, absent from this game through a minor fitness issue, should be back as well. The return of De Bruyne is ticking closer, and having the Belgian playmaker back for the second half of the season will surely boost the team beyond measure.
It’s more than likely that City will go on a winning rampage again at some point, and only those teams who prove able to match their pace at their best will stand a chance against them.
Will Villa be one of them? Let’s wait and see.
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