Rather like the spirited 10-man victory over Rotherham in April of 2019, Villa found themselves down a man against Crystal Palace and took the game by the scruff of the neck to sweep aside the Eagles 3-0 with two second-half goals. Hard to believe we were playing Rotherham just 20 months ago.
You never know which results end up being defining moments in a season, but this match might turn out to be one. Heading into a more difficult stretch against Chelsea, United, Everton and Spurs, Villa needed to convert and they did. More important, the side showed a strength of mind, character, and body that says something about this squad. They’re not just here to hang on. Last season, we’d have conceded two or three and been under the cosh the entire half.
Instead, regrouping at the half, Villa came out aggressively, closing down and winning the ball, stopping Palace from gaining any momentum or cohesion. The approach seemed to fire up the players, who launched attack after attack with Palace looking for the equalizer. But Villa did it much more smartly than we saw last year. The counters weren’t sprung from panicked clearances. Players didn’t overcommit up the pitch, and Luiz and McGinn were there to support, and also slow, hold the middle, get it back, and shield the back line.
Palace looked the side a man down, and by the end, they were dispirited and well beaten. A little shell-shocked, even. They couldn’t find it in themselves to match Villa’s intensity.
No one switched off, no one stopped running. Cash and Targett were outstanding against a lot of speed and size, Hause and Konsa assured and mobile. Luiz was everywhere, McGinn was the terrier of old, and Grealish, Watkins and El Ghazi were both terrorizing the Palace back line and also getting back and defending. Emi’s biggest contribution was his early save, but his command and distribution were excellent throughout.
What we’ve ended up seeing consistently now is that Villa are very dangerous in space. When you have a player of Grealish’s quality on the ball, never mind his speed, you don’t need to lump it long. When you’ve got a strong, clever, and quick striker like Ollie in the middle, he’s going to get chances and pull defenders. He’s also opening up space by presenting a long ball threat. When the forward opposite Jack is playing well, he’s going to get a lot of chances given the attention Grealish and Watkins occupy. When you’ve got two midfielders like Luiz and McGinn, you’ve got tenacity and more quality on the ball. It’s a lot when everyone’s on song and the fullbacks are doing such a nice job defending and picking their moments to join in.
Now of course, it doesn’t hurt that right now, Jack is just about unplayable. He’s dominating game after game and wrecking defensive shapes and assignments. He’s an almost foolproof outlet, and he’s carrying the ball unbelievably well. The understandings are coming together. But everyone’s being much more clever and playing within themselves. Players have outlets and know where to look for them. The patterns, expectations, and resulting anticipation are settling in.
Now it’s Chelsea, and the 48-hour turn. Lampard’s men looked sluggish and devoid of ideas against Arsenal, which, unfortunately, means Frank will be demanding a response. With the deeper squad, Chelsea might well handle the short interval better. I’ll expect Chelsea to line up in roughly the same formation as Villa. I’ll also expect Tammy to try and break our hearts. I’m guessing Werner might be on the bench. Frank’s got more options than Smith to freshen things up.
At the same time, Smith’s said he’s got a squad where no one’s going to want to rest. They’re enjoying their football, believing in the system, coming together, and a couple are fighting for their places. Smith’s getting performances from everyone, and for players like Ghazi and Hause, we can see that not getting starts hasn’t meant they’re not improving. There’s some excellent work going on on the training ground. It’s also a young side, and they’re all used to working hard for 90 minutes.
So, an intriguing match-up, and one that I think Villa can look forward to after learning so much about themselves Saturday. Having taken 10 of the last 12 points on offer, they’re not under any pressure, and it looks like they’re starting to believe they’re worth their place in the top half. Given the scalps Villa have taken already and the different ways we’ve gotten results, we won’t expect them to be cowed. We might have to be a bit cagey in this one. But I say that knowing this side doesn’t really want to sit back.
Whatever happens, I like thinking we’re in with a shout against anyone.