Aston Villa 0 Tottenham 4 – Stirring Sarr and McGinn's ugly red as ...

10 Mar 2024

Tottenham Hotspur unceremoniously yanked Aston Villa back within touching distance in the race for a top-four finish in the Premier League.

Tottenham - Figure 1
Photo The Athletic

Spurs are now two points off fourth-placed Villa with a game in hand and a better goal difference after taking all three points at Villa Park, with James Maddison and Brennan Johnson scoring within three early second-half minutes. Son Heung-min and Timo Werner then both struck late on to wrap things up, long after the hosts’ captain John McGinn had been sent off for booting Destiny Udogie.

Fifth place in the Premier League may yet prove enough to qualify for next season’s Champions League if England finish high enough in UEFA’s coefficients ranking but Tottenham made a statement today and potentially now hold the advantage in terms of making it into European football’s premier competition the old-fashioned way.

Jack Pitt-Brooke and Jacob Tanswell break down the main talking points from their emphatic win.

Dynamic Sarr gets Spurs motoring

Tottenham have higher-profile midfielders than Pape Sarr but nobody who can offer the side exactly what he does. Sarr proved his worth again this afternoon with a brilliant assist for Maddison’s opening goal.

Sarr’s movement off the ball and his ability to run in behind the opposition defence is extraordinary. None of Maddison, Yves Bissouma and Rodrigo Bentancur can do that like he does.

Sarr, right, shone at Villa Park (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

He showed that with his goal against Brighton last month, making that kind of dart in behind, receiving the pass, and finishing after his first attempt to cross was blocked onto the post. Here, he made a similar run, received a pass from Dejan Kulusevski, burst down the right and then whipped over a perfect cross for Maddison to convert.

It was a reminder of why Sarr is so special, why Tottenham rate him so highly, and why they have just given him a new contract. At 21 years old, he is one of the most promising young midfielders in world football.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Villa went for solidity – but a back five backfired

One of the tactical takeaways from the first meeting between Ange Postecoglou and Unai Emery in November was the change at half-time when the latter took off Matty Cash and replaced him with Leon Bailey.

Tottenham - Figure 2
Photo The Athletic

Up until that stage, Villa had struggled down the right, with Ezri Konsa and Cash unsure of who should track Udogie into inverted positions. Emery’s change shifted momentum and was influential in his team eventually winning 2-1.

That decision seemed to form part of the Villa head coach’s thinking for this reverse fixture, with Cash and Konsa both deployed on the right but the former operating as a wing-back instead of a winger. This meant Villa operated from a 3-5-2 system — for the first time this season — designed to counter quickly and to stop the same threat they faced in that November meeting.

Unai Emery changed his system but Aston Villa were bested (Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

Crucially, however, it was also deployed to stop Tottenham’s build-up in central areas, with the inverted full-backs coming inside. It contributed to Villa having just 30 per cent possession in a stalemate first half, relying on transitions, with Bailey and Ollie Watkins the outlets. They were more pragmatic, using fewer passes to attack quickly and go more direct.

But the ploy also stumped Villa’s rhythm when they were in possession, with Konsa particularly struggling to play out from the back. Yet, it was not until early in the second half, when Spurs scored two goals inside a few minutes — Konsa gave the ball away cheaply for the second, failing to heed the warning signs — that Villa’s set-up needed to become more purposeful. 

Jacob Tanswell

Van de Ven injury a major concern 

Tottenham will hope that the news on Micky van de Ven’s injury is not too serious because until he went off on 49 minutes here, the Dutch defender provided a perfect reminder of why he has been one of the Premier League’s best signings this season.

Villa’s counter-attacking game plan meant they focused their attention on hitting the ball long to Watkins in the first half and while Cristian Romero did not always look himself, often letting the ball bounce or being uncharacteristically hesitant in the tackle, his defensive partner Van de Ven was immaculate.

Tottenham - Figure 3
Photo The Athletic

At the very start of the game, he had to bail out Romero, who had let Watkins skip past him. Van de Ven was able to use his recovery pace to get Tottenham out of trouble, and was always assured in possession too.

Spurs’ results this season largely correlate with whether Van de Ven has been playing or not, so they will hope any fresh absence does not last too long.

Van de Ven was forced off early in the second half (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Did Villa look tired after their European exploits?

Emery made three changes from the Europa League Conference last-16 first leg against Ajax in Amsterdam on Thursday night, believing his side were ready to return to the three-game-a-week grind. Yet Villa were oddly passive throughout, not in keeping with what their captain McGinn described as “the most important game in the club’s recent history” beforehand.

Emery’s approach invited caution from the outset, with his players seeming unable to lift themselves to go through the gears. Villa chances were fleeting even before McGinn’s red card midway through the second half, a careless, frustration-filled swipe at Udogie that rendered any hope of a comeback from 2-0 down futile.

McGinn, tellingly, was one of the few who had played at the intensity a game of this stature required, given the battle for Champions League qualification the two clubs are involved in, but his efforts ultimately spilled over, leading to the sending-off.

Tottenham’s players confront McGinn after his challenge on Udogie (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Jacob Tanswell

Where does this result leave Villa and Spurs?

Tottenham closed the gap in the Champions League race to just two points, with a game in hand on Villa, who remain fourth.

Villa have recovered well from defeats previously this season, having not lost successive games in the league, but have begun to show vulnerability when playing against those around them, losing to Newcastle, Manchester United and now Spurs, all at Villa Park, this year.

Tottenham - Figure 4
Photo The Athletic

From a Spurs perspective, this victory was key in increasing their advantage over sixth-placed Manchester United (now six points behind them, having played a game more). Within the wider context, winning on a rival’s turf will provide a psychological lift towards qualifying for the Champions League in fourth, inflicting damage on Villa’s hopes and swinging momentum in their favour.

Jacob Tanswell

What did Emery and Postecoglou say?

Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou to BBC Match of the Day: “We were outstanding in all facets. It was a big game with plenty of significance, so for us to perform like that was a big credit to everyone.

“I thought today, if we could impose our intensity and tempo on the game for 100 minutes we’d be hard to stop.

“It’s not easy, especially away from home, but I thought we handled ourselves really well.

“It means we’re one game closer, just 11 games to go. Everyone was billing this as a do-or-die for us. I assume we’re not dead yet.”

Postecoglou on Micky van de Ven’s injury: “He doesn’t think it’s anything too significant. So disappointing for him because he was outstanding again up until that point. Great for Radu (Radu Dragusin) to come in, his first significant game-time in a big game, and I thought he handled it really well.”

Aston Villa manager Unai Emery to Sky Sports: “We compete very well in the first half. There weren’t very many chances from them.

“We weren’t clinical because they were defending very well and we didn’t control the game. The match was controlled more or less in the plan we prepared.

“In the second half, the first two goals were crazy. After the red card, it was more difficult to get a result. We have to control our emotions, even when we are losing 2-0. We have a responsibility to be mature. We are still fourth in the table but of course, we have to accept to lose.

“Today we weren’t clinical and we weren’t better than the opponent. Then we lost control of our emotions and the red card was disappointing for me.”

What next for Villa?

Thursday, March 14: Ajax (H), Europa Conference League, 8pm GMT, 4pm ET

A place in Friday’s Europa Conference League quarter-final draw is still very much up for grabs after the goalless stalemate in the first leg in the Netherlands on Thursday, where both teams had as many shots on target as players sent off (one). Villa won 13 of their first 15 home matches this season, losing only in the Carabao Cup to Everton, but it’s now four defeats in five on their own pitch since the turn of the year.

What next for Tottenham?

Saturday, March 16: Fulham (A), Premier League, 5.30pm GMT, 1.30pm ET

A second trip of the season across London to Craven Cottage, where Spurs were beaten on penalties in a late-August Carabao Cup tie that was Postecoglou’s fourth official game in charge. Fulham lost 2-0 in the reverse league fixture in October and if you view that cup shootout as a draw, they haven’t won against Tottenham in 11 meetings going back to March 2013.

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(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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