The Villans end a three game winless streak after a superb first-half strike from Matty Cash and a well-worked Ollie Watkins goal on the 68 minute mark earns Aston Villa all three points away, as they do the league double over Graham Potter’s Seagulls.
Here are the main talking points from a much-needed win on the road...
The attacking duo of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings has been one of, if not the most, significant talking point of Aston Villa’s 2021/2022 campaign, with the two English forwards struggling to find any sort of rhythm and form a working, successful partnership.
Watkins and Ings have been deployed in various formations as a two or as an attacking three, with Watkins typically sent out wide, and simply put: it hasn’t worked.
The pair have started together in different systems under both Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard, and there has yet to be any signs of an effective, goal-scoring relationship between the two, leading to restlessness from the Villa fans who feel the duo cannot be on the field at the same time.
So when the team news was announced an hour and a half before kick-off, revealing both Watkins and Ings on the team sheet, there was quite the reaction from the Aston Villa fanbase across social media platforms, expressing their hesitance with Steven Gerrard’s decision and the idea that it may well be judgment day for the two.
On an attacking front, the two failed to combine regularly, which will once again be a concern for both Steven Gerrard and the Aston Villa fans, but the defensive and spatial awareness of the two, and the work rate demonstrated off the ball was remarkable and must be commended.
Of course, the attacking play will be on the mind of head coach, but as discussed in his post-match conference, Gerrard was quick to appraise the performance of his team off the ball:
Steven Gerrard: "What pleased me most today was how we controlled the game out of possession today. The players all bought into it. That gave us the base to win a tough match away from home." #avfc— Ashley Preece (@PreeceObserver) February 26, 2022
This statement would have been aimed at both Watkins and Ings who worked tirelessly to press and unease the Brighton defenders, as well as the other players who each put in 100%.
The offensive output between the pair wasn’t completely unapparent, however, and it was Ollie Watkins, who bagged his sixth of the Premier League season, in what was a well-taken goal following a long ball forward from captain, Tyrone Mings.
Villa’s number eleven controlled the ball excellently after Mings’ lofted ball evaded the Brighton defender’s head, leaving the club’s top scorer one-on-one with the Brighton shot-stopper, and the English international made no mistake, slotting the ball home comfortably with his weaker foot.
This goal was quite the relief for both Aston Villa, who needed the additional goal to pull away from their opposition and to put an end to their torrid run of form, and for Ollie Watkins on an individual level, who had failed to score in his last seven games — his last coming against Norwich in the 2-0 away victory at Carrow Road in December.
The former Brentford man will be hoping he can build from this crucial goal as Villa host Ralph Hassenhüttl’s in-form Southampton side next Saturday, but it appears as if the Ings-Watkins attacking partnership has run its course.
Matty Cash made a fantastic start to the 2021/2022 campaign for Aston Villa, and was arguably one of the team’s most consistent performers, but like many members of the squad recently, the Polish international has been relatively substandard and disappointing.
This Brighton and Hove Albion fixture presented itself as an opportunity for the whole team to re-find form, and after some of Gerrard’s recent comments where the boss revealed that he has “already identified areas of his team which need strengthening”, each player needed to prove themselves and cement their place within the starting eleven.
Cash, known for his determination and passion, was the noteworthy performer from the first half for the away side, having scored his second of the season, executing a fine driven strike from a loose ball on the edge of the box, which beat Brighton ‘keeper Robert Sánchez after nestling in off the far post.
Cash’s effort was worthy of opening any football match, but despite the heartfelt celebration that saw the full-back send his sentiments to Polish teammate, Tomasz Kędziora, who is currently enduring the horrific events in Ukraine, he was subsequently booked for the removal of his shirt.
Alongside his fine offensive play, the flying right-back was strong defensively throughout the 90 minutes, keeping the overlapping Solly March and the tricky Leandro Trossard quiet at every opportunity. Him and fellow full-back, Lucas Digne, were excellent on either of the Aston Villa flanks, and Gerrard was quick to praise the dynamic wing-backs, highlighting his side’s “joy down the sides”.
The former Nottingham Forest man has recently been linked with a move away to Spain to Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid, and if Matty Cash set out to impress Steven Gerrard and other top clubs around Europe, then he certainly succeeded after an impressive all-round display.
Spirit and fight
Whilst criticising his players for their recent performances in successive losses against the struggling Newcastle United and Watford, Steven Gerrard has never questioned the belief he has in his players, and the fight, character and ‘all-in’ approach they possess.
This attitude was apparent throughout the course of the game, with players such as John McGinn and Ollie Watkins running tirelessly for their team from start to finish, to secure the three points.
Aston Villa’s back-four has been picked apart over the past couple of weeks, after leaking too many goals and chances against teams that are deemed ‘weaker’, and looking fragile and frail when pressure is applied upon them.
In this fixture, however, all defensively-minded players were solid and contributed to their team’s success. Welcomed by the return of partner in crime, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings looked back to his best and cleared any immediate danger at each given opportunity. The captain also had a hand in the team’s attacking play, after assisting the second goal of the game, lofting the ball to goal scorer, Ollie Watkins.
Lucas Digne and Matty Cash’s average positions were far deeper than in previous fixtures, after being condemned for being out of position too often and leaving gaps in the side’s defensive unit as a result.
Steven Gerrard and his coaching staff resonated with the Villa fan’s frustration in the week, and worked on the issues that were raised from recent games in training, particularly that of the full-backs spatial awareness, hence the offensive resistance we saw in this game.
The victory wasn’t at all pretty, and Steven Gerrard’s side had to demonstrate the dark arts of the game at times to outwit and get the better of their opponents. The claret and blues’ final card count was five, after making a total of eleven fouls. Brighton were additionally awarded four yellow cards of their own after committing seventeen fouls, proving it was a feisty affair all the way through.
Many liken this recent result to that of the Crystal Palace victory at Selhurst Park back in November, due to the relentless hard-work and desire showed from each and every player. Steven Gerrard will drill the criticality of this game into his team in preparation for next week’s match at Villa Park, and will look to use this Brighton win as a turning point in the season.