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Analysis: Stoppage time agony puts focus back on Aston Villa's defensive frailties

By Matt Maher | Aston Villa | Published:

Having experienced the ecstasy of scoring stoppage-time winners in their previous two home matches, Villa were subjected to the crushing despair of conceding one against Tottenham.

Just as one swing of Ezri Konsa’s right leg and Trezeguet’s volley had prompted jubilation against Watford and Leicester respectively, so Bjorn Engels’ miskick delivered a stunned silence around most of Villa Park once Son Heung-min had pounced on the loose ball and raced clear before finishing past Pepe Reina, to settle a thrilling encounter 3-2 in favour of the visitors.

The immediate reaction of the home players bordered on disbelief. Quite what this defeat will mean for their season in the long-term, only time will tell.

For now, Villa remain just where they were at the start of the weekend, sitting one place and one point above the Premier League relegation zone, only with the sense another big chance to put some distance between themselves and the bottom three had gone begging.

Son’s late-winner overshadowed a performance which ranked among the bravest and best from Dean Smith’s team this season, another decent showing against one of the so-called big six.

Yet, not for the first time this season, Villa came away empty-handed due to their failings in defence. Son’s winner was the 50th goal they have conceded this season and their backline is now statistically the worst in the division. If you want to know why they still find themselves in the thick of a relegation dogfight, then look no further.

Though the timing of the winner was cruel, in other respects Villa got what they deserved, with Engels’ error – allowing the ball to run under his foot as he tried to bring it under control – simply one mistake too many.

Prior to then, the home defence was already indebted to Reina, who made a series of second-half saves – including three from Son – to keep the score level at two apiece. Most of the visitors’ chances came from entirely avoidable defensive mishaps, with Villa too often content to play their way into trouble.

Neither did Tottenham have to work too hard for their goals. After Villa had dominated the opening 27 minutes and gone ahead through Toby Alderweireld’s own goal, the Spurs defender smashed in an equaliser after the hosts failed to clear a corner.

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Engels then brought down Steven Bergwijn for a penalty, awarded by VAR, which Son converted on the rebound after Reina saved his initial spot-kick.

Villa drew level when Engels headed his first goal for the club nine minutes into the second half, but while the home side were always in the game, they never looked comfortable at the back.

It was hard not to view the absence of Tyrone Mings as significant. The England international, unquestionably the team’s defensive leader, missed the match due to a bout of tonsillitis, with Smith handing Engels his first start in nearly two months.

The three goals conceded here mean Villa have now let in 14 during the five-and-three-quarter matches Mings has been off the field through injury or illness. Though their defence has not exactly been watertight at any stage of the campaign, the 26-year-old is a big miss and it was encouraging for Smith to confirm he is expected back for Saturday’s trip to Southampton. There Villa must look to bounce back and try to claim one of the five wins likely required to secure survival.

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The encouraging aspect for Smith is that, if his team can find a way to tighten up at the back, there was enough about their attacking performance on Sunday to suggest they can claim the results needed.

At times in the opening 25 minutes, Villa were threatening to run riot. The manner of their opener was slightly fortunate, yet thoroughly deserved, and the forward three of Jack Grealish, Anwar El Ghazi and Mbwana Samatta were causing havoc every time they got on the ball. No amount of flailing arms from Jose Mourinho on the touchline could seem to stem the flow.

The pivotal moment of the afternoon, in hindsight, arrived just past the 20-minute mark. Grealish escaped from Alderweireld and raced into the box before picking out Douglas Luiz eight yards out. Though the Brazilian appeared to slip just as he was about to make contact, his shot was still heading toward goal and likely beating Hugo Lloris before hitting the knee of Ben Davies and flying over the bar.

Had Villa gone further ahead, the likelihood is they would have gone on to win the match. Instead, it was Tottenham who struck next through Alderweireld and the visitors, erratic up to that point, rediscovered some composure.

Smith railed later at what he viewed a ‘farcical’ decision from VAR Jon Moss in awarding the visitors their penalty on the stroke of half-time. But in reality he could have few complaints on that score and though the standard of officiating left plenty to be desired, it was not the reason Villa lost the game.

Defeat continued their rotten record against teams in the top half of the table, eight of whom they must play over the remaining 12 matches.

If they are able to reproduce this kind of attacking performance then Villa are capable of beating anybody. Conversely, should they fail to fix their failings at the back, winning the points required to stay up will be a tall order.

Matt Maher

By Matt Maher
@mjmarr_star

Chief sports writer for the Express & Star.

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