Aston Villa and the hinges of history

Villa beat Arsenal and Dave Woodhall also looks back at turning points.

In his immortal book The First 100 Years*, noted football historian Peter Morris wrote about games in the thirties between the Villa, then-aristocrats of football, and the arrivistes of Arsenal. Villa finished runners-up in the league to the new boys twice in three seasons and Morris noted that both clubs went their separate ways after that. Since then the young upstarts have had periods of spectacular success whereas the only real dominance Villa have enjoyed has been in the field of under-achievement.

If that was one turning point, maybe another came on 21st July last year, when Villa’s win over Arsenal, following the earlier defeat that evening of Watford by Manchester City, took us out of the bottom three. Since then Villa’s progress has largely been a thing of beauty, meaning that we were favourites to beat Arsenal again on Saturday, for the first time in many a year.

Two changes is almost unheard-of for Dean Smith, yet there they were – Marvelous Nakamba and Bertrand Traore started and the latter took barely a minute to pounce on an Arsenal error for Ollie Watkins to get his fourth goal in the last five appearances. Villa had also scored early at the Emirates, although while that opener had been the start of a vintage Villa performance, this one scarcely hit those heights but, nevertheless, led to just as important a victory and showed that the bookies were right once again.

John McGinn and Jack Grealish also had chances well saved and while another goal would have eased the tension, it was at the other end that Villa showed that while the team might have been winning friends for their attacking style this season, they can also defend when they have to. Emiliano Martinez was back to his best, which is to say he was world-class, while Tyrone Mings showed that he can also be a match for any central defender either at the club or in the league, which is starting to become much the same thing.

If you really must take much notice of stats, you’ll see that Arsenal had most of the ball, but little of it was in the danger areas, which says a lot for Villa’s ability to close them down. It night have only been a one-goal win and that’s never easy to watch, particularly when the goal comes so early, but looking back the defending was assured rather than last-ditch and Villa always seemed to have something in hand. The players scarcely seemed affected by the heavy schedule of recent weeks and the lethargy seen against West Ham had vanished.

Another defeat might have been a bit of a confidence blow but we can now move on to a less-frantic period still in touch with the European places and with all fears of relegation surely banished (old habits die hard). There might be a bit of a dilemma now between aiming finish as high as possible and perhaps easing up by giving such promising names as Jacob Ramsey and Louie Barry more game time than they might have expected. And isn’t it nice to be able to say that?

*Which contains the greatest final paragraph of any book ever written. If you don’t own a copy, keep looking online until you get one.