After a commendable performance in the League Cup Final, there were signs of life from the Villa squad. Aston Villa were competitive against a squad they had no business beating and almost brought them to extra time. So, coming into Monday night against Leicester many expected a positive result for Villa. After all, Leicester had been on a slump, had been failing to score, and announced that they were missing Vardy from the starting lineup. Villa on the other hand were supposed to come together and fight for their place in the Premier League, show that they belonged, and let individual talents like Grealish and Mings carry them to safety.
When the lineups were announced there were some odd choices that shook up the squad from who played the cup final. Anwar El Ghazi’s benching was the one that stuck out the most, after having been a standout performer at Wembley and due to his offensive impact while he’s on the pitch. The winger was replaced by Ahmed Elmohamady at the right wing. Elmo’s inclusion into the squad signaled early that the gameplan against Leicester was defensive. Also interesting was the inclusion of Conor Hourihane to the side as his inclusion pushed Jack Grealish out to the wing. These inclusions meant that Dean Smith intended to play a 451 against Leicester with a defensive midfielder holding the shape.
During the opening ten minutes the Villa squad showed some fight and quite honestly looked to be a more confident side. The squad found success in establishing possession in the opening half. This was capped off with a couple of decent chances to score which weren’t converted. The first came in the 6th minute as Grealish and Targett were able to linkup down the left wing and open up a crossing opportunity. Targett sent a well-placed low cross in and found Conor Hourihane in the box but the midfielder couldn’t find his feet and failed to get a shot off. A few minutes later, Villa had a free kick opportunity roughly 30 yards from goal. Conor Hourihane put in a fantastic delivery which was aimed at the far post but a charging Mbwana Samatta couldn’t get to it in time.
After this ten minute period everything changed, it is almost like Aston Villa realized they were in 19th place and Leicester were in 3rd. Villa took off the pressure which had been successful to this point and attempted to play defense in a low block. They allowed Leicester the opportunity to possess the ball cleanly and the Foxes never looked back. Leicester pushed up the pitch quickly and camped out in the attacking third with little to no opposition from the Villa midfield in the first half. After testing the Villa backline and forcing Reina into a couple of saves, Leicester started being awarded corner after corner. During each of the four corners Leicester had during the first half, they should have scored. In each set piece, Aston Villa failed to mark the opposition’s defenders and strikers, usually the dangerous bits of every set piece.
There were four open headed opportunities for Leicester by the 35th minute for Leicester but against all odds, the game was still dead even. As the 40th minute began though it all went downhill. Pepe Reina came charging out of his box in an effort to stop a Leicester breakaway which looked salvageable until the Spaniard showed up. Reina came sprinting out of the box in an incredibly boneheaded way and this should be in Dean Smith’s mind come Saturday. Just before the half was to end, Villa found themselves down 1-0 and lacking the impetus to go forward. Reina’s mistake didn’t just cost the squad a goal but sucked out the motivation entirely. Villa were once again the masters of their own demise and went into the half with their tail between their legs down only a goal.
As the second half started, the Aston Villa looked like they were chasing shadows, if the players in question were actually chasing anything. The first five minutes saw some positives, like Grealish moving back into his preferred open playmaking position and Nakamba putting in a shift but otherwise there was nothing to cling to for the away fans. In the second half the midfield was utterly decimated as Luiz and Hourihane seemed content to watch Nakamba try to do the work of three men. Also, all semblance of offense disappeared as the main strategy of possession based football gave way to hoofing it up the pitch to Samatta. The fullbacks were also taken for a ride during this half as Harvey Barnes played Guilbert like a fiddle and Targett was MIA.
Somehow despite giving up numerous chances including a couple more open headers, Villa were able to hold on to the 1-0 score. It was long enough to force Brendan Rodger’s hand and in the 59th minute he brought Jamie Vardy on. Less then five minutes later Leicester were awarded a penalty which Vardy took and buried without a doubt. The penalty given was a farce as the VAR awarded Leicester a handball despite the ball clearly hitting Tyrone Mings in the shoulder, although the Villians couldn’t be too upset with the scoreline as it should have been much worse up to this point. Ten minutes later Conor Hourihane blatantly pushed down a Leicester player in the penalty area and it wasn’t called as a penalty, so it all evened out.
At this point the Villa squad, aside from Marvelous Nakamba, had pretty much given up. Even Jack Grealish wasn’t his usual self and struggled to get a foothold in the match. At this point, being two down, Dean Smith decided it was time to shake things up a bit and made substitutions which brought on El Ghazi for Elmohamady and Kienan Davis for Conor Hourihane. These substitutions were a bit more positive going forward and changed the formation to a 442 with El Ghazi and Grealish going wide. Unfortunately, the midfield advantage which Leicester had been enjoying until this point only got worse with one less body to deal with. During this last 20 minutes of the game, Leicester had the bulk of possession, pinned their ears back and scored two more goals. By the 80th minute the Villa players were waiting for the final whistle and through extra time the football was almost unwatchable. The game ended with a 4-0 decisive victory for Leicester and a host of questions that need answering from Aston Villa