Aston Villa entered today’s match feeling vulnerable. After a 5-5 midweek draw with Nottingham Forest, Villa looked as much leaky at the back as they did ferocious up front. In clash with Tony Pulis’ conservative Middlesbrough, would Villa finally give in and succumb to a defeat?
The answer, in short, is no. Villa controlled the game from the first whistle, and despite some uncomfortable moments, stayed on top for almost the full 90 minutes.
So, how did it unfold?
Almost immediately Tammy Abraham had a strong shout for a penalty after George Friend came in late with a tackle on the box. The referee didn’t seem to see it at all, despite occupying a favourable position.
Thankfully, it wouldn’t matter for too long. A Jack Grealish corner was flapped at by Boro keeper Randolph, and Ahmed Elmohamady was able to hold off the defence long enough for James Chester to hook the ball in from close range. Villa’s captain needed that - and he clearly enjoyed the goal.
It had been a goal coming for some time. Anwar El-Ghazi and Tammy Abraham had spurned chances, and Villa were more than good value for a one-nil lead at this stage of the game.
Villa’s defence was found lacking as Stewart Downing found space in the box. He stretched the play wide and looked to find Jordan Hugill in the box. Downing had swallowed the attention, meaning that Hugill was completely unmarked in the face of the goal and any pass would have resulted in a Boro equaliser. Thankfully, Axel Tuanzebe was able to step up and block the would-be assist. He’s done that a lot for the Villans this season.
Worries continued for Villa as Ørjan Nyland and Tuanzebe were caught in the throes of miscommunication - bumping into each other as a cross came in. Conor Hourihane could only clear as far as George Friend, who whipped it in for Stewart Downing, who surely would have scored had he not fired it into his own player.
John McGinn had found himself in a scoring position, but his advancing run was ended, seemingly, by himself - and he was brought off balance for his shot. His failure to score, and the referee’s failure to afford a penalty earlier in the game meant that Villa entered the second-half with 63% of the ball possession, and by outshooting today’s rivals 13-4, but with just the single goal.
Ørjan Nyland continued his uncomfortable week by failing to claim a Downing cross, spilling the pressure onto Villa. The keeper was bailed out eventually, but this will have to come to a head at some point - either Villa’s defenders will have to drop deeper to cover him, or he’ll have to command the box with more stability and ferocity.
The first real off-the-ball incident of the second-half concerned a clash between Dale Fry and Yannick Bolasie. The Boro defender left the pitch dazed after leading into Bolasie for a second-ball. Bolasie quickly got to his feet, but it took a while for Fry to come to his senses, eventually being replaced by former Manchester United prospect Paddy McNair. Dean Smith fumed at the officials - as this substitute and their refusal to allow Yannick back onto the patch left Villa facing a set-piece from a Pulis team with a man down. A failure to score at this opportunity led to an aggressive change from Middlesbrough who brought on both Martin Braithwaite and Britt Assombalonga.
Despite the clear threat from a newly awakened Middlesbrough, Villa extended their lead through another set-piece. A short corner from Conor Hourihane to Jack Grealish unlocked Yannick Bolasie who split the box with a driven box to find Tammy Abraham. The Chelsea loanee converted his sixth goal of the week to make it 2-0 to Villa.
Aston Villa were reasonably lucky to avoid a Jordan Hugill goal, and it was mostly down to the work of one man. Nyland in goal had managed to tip a powerful shot from Hugill onto the bar and out away from goal. Anything less than that would have brought Boro back into the game.
Funnily enough, Hugill’s effort spurred Villa into action, and Glen Whelan bounced on a free ball outside the box and slammed it against Darren Randolph and into the frame. The Boro keeper will be gutted with himself having let a shot from Whelan spill into the net, but the Irishman didn’t make it easy for Randolph, with a lashing spinning shot that wormed it’s way from Randolph’s grasp. Whelan, a substitute for John McGinn, relished in his goal.
With the final whistle blowing, and Villa deservedly serenaded by their away following, the question remains - just where is the limit for this Villa team? Every single week they seem to raise the bar. It looks like we’ll find out how far Villa can push themselves this coming Friday, as West Bromwich Albion and a visit to the Hawthorns awaits.
For now, Villa will enjoy another win over Tony Pulis, and oh - how good does that feel? Villa have just torn the best defence in the EFL apart, and in no small way.
Oh my god. Dean Smith has created a monster.