On Tuesday night, the weight of the world was lifted off the shoulders of the Villa faithful. Supporters leapt from their seats, unsure when their ascent would end. Time stood still, yet the celebrations were endless.
As the immediate adrenaline subsides, Ezri Konsa’s goal – yes, I’m sticking to it – has seemingly mapped out a fresh course for Aston Villa’s season. The destination remains the same and there will be choppy waters ahead, but the looming fear of Dean Smith’s ship capsizing has dissipated. Overnight, those dark clouds seem to have passed.
Throughout the festive period, the unrelenting injuries to Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Matt Targett, Wesley and Tom Heaton left Villa swimming against the tide. Despite the team’s best efforts, damning defeats to Southampton and Watford saw nerves begin to tremble. The system wasn’t working; relegation rivals were rejuvenated. Villa were in danger of being cut adrift.
The team rotated, and rotated again, until the magic 3-4-3 formula emerged against Burnley on New Year’s Day. Mings marshalled a back three; Trézéguet and Grealish, able to offer closer support as wide forwards, flanked Villa’s number nine. But Dean Smith’s eureka moment was to last just 71 minutes before Wesley and, later, Heaton’s campaigns were cut painfully short.
Without a recognised striker, Villa’s began to apply tactics akin to Homer Simpson’s short-lived boxing career: absorb as much damage as possible, in the hope that the opposition tires.
It worked in the League Cup semi-final against Leicester and required a world-class goal against Brighton. Although we won’t talk about what happened against Manchester City...
In midweek, Villa shape-shifted once more. Troy Deeney struck a devastating blow right at the heart of the Holte End, leaving Villa down on the canvas and out for the count at half-time. But football often hinges on single moments.
On 56 minutes, Douglas Luiz was introduced when his team-mates needed him most. The box-office Brazilian doesn’t merely play football, he performs it. Luiz, an entertainer, from whom confidence pours, levelled the scoring 12 minutes later. A heavy-duty tap in that thundered into the roof of the net. He jumped into the crowd to greet his adoring public, who ascended to meet him. Villa were weightless, walking on air. Just like that, the game was theirs to win.
Luiz personified the momentum shift by re-enacting Conor McGregor’s Billionaire Strut, stolen from WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Revived when on the edge of defeat and feeding off of the Villa Park crowd, the team Smore closely resembled McMahon’s long-time superstar, Hulk Hogan. Galvanised by the goal and fuelled by the cheers from the Holte End, Villa began their stride towards victory.
Playing the villainous heel role, Watford succeeded in wasting time, with chief architect Ben Foster among them. Never-ending goal kicks became Watford’s signature move. That Villa found their winner in the final seconds was the perfect ending to this pantomime script.
With a week’s break comes a fresh perspective. The arrival of Mbwawa Samatta from Genk should help Villa finally deliver those much-needed knock out blows, bringing with him the confidence of an assured power-puncher. Pepe Reina has filled the leadership void left in Tom Heaton’s absence, already making himself a cult hero. Mings appears back to his commanding, marauding best as the central figure in a back three. As wingbacks, Targett adn Frédéric Guilbert will revel in their attacking freedom. The rest of the side will breathe a collective sigh of relief that they, finally, finally have a focal point in attack. When the Premier League resumes, Dean Smith’s side will no longer be backed into a corner.
Yes, the team does still have their limits. The centre of midfield has yet to find a comfortable groove in McGinn’s absence, and Villa’s board are close to betting all of their chips on ‘Samagoal’ living up to his name. This almost certainly isn’t the start of another ten-game winning run. But Villa are showing signs they’re not far away from a return to their early-season peak.
Could Douglas Luiz’s celebration be a sign of what’s to come, the confident swagger of a team unnerved by their opponents? Villa may not cruise to safety, but they are certainly up for the fight.