Aston Villa signed Tom Heaton for a big reason, and that is to ensure that they have a goalkeeper who is capable of the ridiculous and the mind-blowing to ensure that his team are able to stay competitive in the matches where they should really get blown away.
The first proof of Heaton’s abilities came yesterday in London as Villa fell to Spurs. The scoreline in the end was 3-1 to Tottenham, but Heaton made it extremely difficult for Spurs to equalise, and then take the lead. Without Tom, you might get the feeling that Tottenham would’ve had a lot more success in the face of goal. They were able to create plenty of scoring chances (racking up almost 3 xG according to Understat) but thanks to a structured Villa defence, AVFC were able to give a good account of themselves at the back. New signings Björn Engels and Tyrone Mings were a big part of this - but the last line of defence, Tom Heaton, managed to steal the show on a number of occasions.
We should also examine Heaton’s touches. He enjoyed a lot more of the ball than his opposite number, Hugo Lloris (for obvious reasons - Villa were under fire), but of interest is his positioning and the placement of his touches. Thanks to WhoScored, we can map these to a heatmap and you can see Heaton on the right:
As Villa’s new sweeper-keeper, Heaton wasn’t afraid to stray to the edge of his box and beyond to involve himself in Villa’s possession. Heaton didn’t look out of place with the ball at his feet or under pressure - which was a slight concern of Villa fans. Hopefully those concerns are eased a fraction now. He wasn’t afraid to take time outside of the box to pass:
The highlight/lowlight (depending on your own interpretation) of Heaton’s sweeper play was when he came out to claim a loose ball - about 20-30 yards away from goal - and heave it away from Spurs with his head. The call to rush off his line and deal with the ball was a sound judgement. The execution of the clearance? Not so much. Heaton did the right thing, it just failed. When under a pressure, a goalkeeper outside of his box should clear wide - but if Heaton did so, it’d also contradict another rule of goalkeeping: don’t kick across the face of goal.
Using his head to clear - is Heaton able to find enough power to clear the ball for a throw-in? Not really. To hit it wide leaves the goalmouth exposed to the flank, to hit it forwards runs the risk of the ball finding a Spurs player. He either hits the balls forwards towards midfield, or he doesn’t hit it at all. Heaton made his choice and stuck to his guns on this. That’s admirable. Second-guessing yourself at the last minute is the death of confidence and if Heaton doesn’t do anything at all - Spurs score. The decision could have been better, but the actual process of the decision-making was sound enough. The only real issue is whom the ball fell to - Erik Lamela - but Villa’s defense was able to tidy up and spare any blushes.
That’s the only real negative of any note. The rest of Heaton’s match was superb. His positioning at all times was exceptional - and at no time did it succeed more than when Moussa Sissoko found himself with room to shoot:
Half 2 in the morning and I’m still tryna work out how Sissoko managed this... absolutely mental ♂️ pic.twitter.com/fD6MAdjazs— Black Forbes #eleven24podcast (@KiingDellz) August 11, 2019
This shot is being laughed off as a massive miss - and it is - but it’s worth noting Heaton’s actions. Before Sissoko has control of the ball, Heaton is closing him down and it is perhaps this pressure that causes Sissoko to take an extra split second in setting himself up for a shot. A first time strike probably beats Heaton here, but his rush out probably factors into Sissoko’s miss. The pressure is on, even before the French midfielder receives the ball - and a large part of that is Heaton. He really should be testing the Villa keeper more from there though!
That’s not to say Heaton’s handling and reflexes were not tested - the goalkeeper was under fire during the entire match and especially so when Christian Eriksen entered the fray. His save from the Dane’s freekick was remarkably impressive and it was unfortunate that a world-class stop to deny Tottenham came only moments before the Ndombele equaliser.
The leadership qualities of Heaton cannot be ignored - he wanted to waste time when Villa were in the lead (naturally, it’d have been a massive win!), he sprinted towards the half-way line when Villa conceded to gee up the team. He’s a natural captain and leader and he is never overawed: this was evidence after his save from Eriksen, when the entire team rushed to congratulate him and Heaton simply watched for the incoming corner and advised his defence to get into position.
Yesterday was Tom Heaton’s first competitive match for Aston Villa and he already seems worth every penny. He’ll win games for Aston Villa, and he’ll save points if this debut is anything to go by.