Faced with a sixth match in 18 days and the tightest turnaround of their campaign after Wednesday’s dispiriting defeat to West Ham, Dean Smith’s team produced a performance against Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime which suggested their challenge for European football won’t be wilting anytime soon.
Barely 60 hours on from looking lethargic against the Hammers, Villa were quickly back up to speed and ahead within 74 seconds against the Gunners.
Ollie Watkins’ 10th Premier League goal of the season would eventually prove enough to earn his team their 11th win, thanks to Villa keeping their 11th clean sheet and again proving themselves among the division’s best front runners. Only once this season have they taken the lead and failed to see out the victory.
By the final whistle Arsenal could make the case they were deserving of a point, having hogged nearly two-thirds of possession and applied sustained pressure to the Villa goal during the final half-hour.
Yet while Emiliano Martinez saved impressively from Granit Xhaka and Nicolas Pepe on route to a second clean sheet of the season against his former club, it was actually visiting keeper Mat Ryan who was the busier man on his debut for the Gunners, denying Bertrand Traore before the break and Jack Grealish and Watkins twice in the second half.
Were it not for the Australian’s reflexes, Villa’s winning margin might have been greater and though their defensive effort bore some familiarity to the 1-0 win at Southampton a week previously, it was nowhere near so frantic, nor the result so fortunate.
The victory was, however, similarly valuable to the one achieved at St Mary’s, strengthening Villa’s top six challenge while directly damaging that of a rival contender.
Arsenal now sit four points behind Villa in the table but having played two matches more. Smith’s men, meanwhile, have destiny still very much in their own control.
The race for European football still has a long way left to run but Villa’s ability to respond positively and swiftly to setbacks augurs well for the week's ahead.
As Smith was quick to point out post-match, the next step in his team’s progression must be to eradicate those setbacks in the first place, though some context is required when assessing recent performances and results.
The six matches played since Villa returned to action on January 20, following the coronavirus outbreak which closed Bodymoor Heath, equates to more than a quarter of their league fixtures so far. While Smith will feel his team should have more to show for their performances, considering their general superiority in the 3-2 defeat at Burnley (the one time this term Villa have gone ahead and failed to see the job through), a haul of nine points from those games should be considered adequate. At the very least, concerns the outbreak might have a long-lasting effect on the campaign appear to have been unfounded.
Villa’s players had to train on their own when Bodymoor was closed, meaning this week offers Smith the longest period to prepare for a match with his first-team squad since the near two-week gap which preceded the trip to Wolves in early December.
Saturday’s performance will have given the head coach food for thought as he looks toward this weekend’s match at Brighton, particularly when it comes to the make-up of his midfield and whether to hand Douglas Luiz an instant recall or keep faith with Marvelous Nakamba.
With Luiz rested, the latter was handed just his third Premier League start of the season against the Gunners. In all three matches Villa have kept a clean sheet and once again the Zimbabwe international played an integral role, breaking up play and offering an extra layer of protection to the back four.
Impressive as Luiz has generally been, Nakamba could hardly be doing much more to stake a claim whenever he gets a chance.
The two changes to the starting XI from the West Ham defeat were the most Smith had made for several matches and the other man recalled, Bertrand Traore, quickly rewarded his manager’s faith.
It was the Burkina Faso international who pounced on Cedric Soares’ loose pass and set up Watkins for Villa’s early strike. Traore should probably have scored himself but attempted to dink the ball over Ryan when a less cheeky finish might have been better. Regardless, the winger’s natural flair and unpredictability adds an exciting dimension to Villa’s attack. He is simply a joy to watch.
Watkins, meanwhile, is firmly establishing himself as a Premier League forward of some talent. The 25-year-old has now netted four times in his last five matches and the initial £28million Villa paid to Brentford last September for his services already looks money well spent.
Though there was a big element of fortune with his finish on Saturday, which took a big deflection of Rob Holding to leave Ryan helpless, his subsequent contribution to the team effort meant it was deserved and put him in the frame to be man-of-the-match award.
In truth that prize should probably go to Tyrone Mings, who marshalled Villa’s controlled rearguard effort.
The England international has not had a perfect season and there have been times when he has been overshadowed by the excellence of his central defensive partner, Ezri Konsa. Yet Saturday’s performance was a reminder of what a major player Mings has been and remains for Villa. Loud in his instruction and encouragement, he barely put a foot wrong.
At the age of 27, Mings was again the oldest outfield player for Villa and the youth of Smith’s team is a fact too easily overlooked.
Inexperience may well get the better of them at some point over the final 17 matches. Perhaps tiredness will eventually be a factor too. Few have a busier schedule than Villa.
Then again, Villa might also improve. Right now, they have the look of a team in it for the long haul.
Saturday’s victory also saw Villa equal their points tally from last season, with barely half of this campaign played. The fact that statistic was a footnote, on a day when the completion of their first league double over the Gunners since 1993 did not register as anything close to a shock, says plenty about the progress so far.