Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away by the scoreboard. This was a pulsating battle between two clubs, boosted by shrewd management appointments, and the temptation is to argue that the turning point came when Aston Villa somehow leveled at half-time, allowing Unai Emery to could take control of the match with a double. A substitution that left the previously unbridled Tottenham Hotspur with more questions in the second half.
It was proactive management from Emery, who was too cute to be fooled by Pau Torres, that got Villa level in the seventh minute of extra time. Doing nothing would have been complacent. Tottenham had dominated, Giovani Lo Celso put them ahead, and they could have been out of sight at the end of the first half.
“Any other day we’ll probably win comfortably,” said Ange Postecoglou. “These are fine margins in football.”
Postecoglou and Emery both reflected on the missed opportunities. Given the chance to regroup, the Villa manager responded appropriately, Youri Tielemans and Leon Bailey replacing Moussa Diaby and Matty Cash, and the decisiveness was most evident when the winner arrived in the 61st minute. After all, it was Tielemans who played the pass as Ollie Watkins, eager to put a disappointing performance for England behind him, scored the goal to take Villa fourth from Spurs and move to within two points of the top of the table.
But while Watkins’ 12th goal of the season meant Villa set a club record of 22 Premier League wins in a calendar year, Emery refused to get carried away. There was no mention of a title challenge. Instead, there was realism from Emery, who said seven clubs have a better chance than Villa of finishing in the top four.
Perhaps that was why Postecoglou remained positive after his side’s third consecutive defeat. The Australian would have been more concerned if Spurs, who are sure to improve once key players return from injury, had played within themselves on a day when they remembered their former midfielder and manager, Terry Venables, after he passed away at the age of 80 died.
The action was hectic from the start. Destiny Udogie and Dejan Kulusevski threatened for Spurs, with the latter hitting the woodwork as Villa looked dangerous from crossing positions. Torres, all alone after John McGinn’s free-kick, was stunned as he fired a free header wide.
Spurs respected their attacking heritage. Before kick-off they remembered Venables, who won the FA Cup as a Spurs player in 1967 and as their manager in 1991, while the remembrance of history continued as the team sheets arrived: Postecoglou had channeled his inner Ossie Ardiles through a back four to select from wing-backs, appointed defensive midfielder and gave Bryan Gil and Lo Celso their first starts in the league this season.
It was great fun. Spurs pushed, Gil tested Emiliano Martínez and continued to try to break Villa’s risky high line. Ezri Konsa struggled at right-back and Villa conceded. Pedro Porro’s corner from the right bounced through a mass of bodies and the ball reached Lo Celso, who stood alone on the edge of the area and was free to score with a shot that went in to Diego Carlos.
Kulusevski almost made it 2-0 and Son Heung-min’s goal was disallowed. Spurs overwhelmed Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara in midfield and Emery’s use of Cash in an advanced position didn’t work. The right-back’s only significant contribution was a yellow card for the foul that forced Rodrigo Bentancur off in the 32nd minute of the Spurs midfielder’s first start since February.
Yet Villa rallied. Spurs were vulnerable as Eric Dier could not start and Ben Davies and Emerson Royal replaced Cristian Romero and Micky van de Ven in central defense. There were no leaders at the back and Villa thought they had leveled moments after Lo Celso’s goal, only for a lengthy VAR check to show Watkins had strayed offside when he headed Lucas Digne’s cross past Guglielmo Vicario.