Almost a month ago to the day, Aston Villa were handed a footballing lesson by Leicester City at Villa Park in a Premier League meeting. As a result, many Villa fans were worried heading into this Carabao Cup semi-final fixture against the Foxes at the King Power Stadium. To make matters worse, key players Tom Heaton and Wesley picked up season-ending injuries.
Dean Smith had to think outside the box to stop Leicester and that is exactly what he did. The manager stuck with the same 3-4-3 formation that worked well at Burnley on New Year’s Day but sprung a huge surprise by not selecting a striker, most notably Jonathan Kodjia, in the starting line-up.
This resulted in the front three of Jack Grealish, Anwar El Ghazi and Trezeguet constantly rotating their positions in a bid to make it harder for Leicester to mark them. El Ghazi occupied the central role relatively well but made a major impact as Villa mounted their first attack of the game. He collected the ball on the edge on the left-hand side of the box and delivered a beautiful ball to an onrushing Frederic Guilbert, who slammed home emphatically.
Guilbert’s run in the box is exactly what Villa needed to add an element of unpredictability to their play. The finish itself was even harder than it looked as well.
Before this, the defence had soaked up several Leicester attacks which amounted to nothing. Consequently, frustration began to mount for the hosts. If only Ezri Konsa was able to keep his powerful header lower and it would have totally stunned the Foxes, who were still reeling from the first goal they conceded. The free-kick was beautifully executed by Grealish, who himself had another great game, and it deserved to be converted.
The only negative in the game came when Leicester did eventually score through substitute Kelechi Iheanacho after Douglas Luiz carelessly gave the ball away (as evidenced in the highlights below). It was such a poor goal to concede and it undid all the great work until that point in time. However, the Brazilian was not alone. Marvelous Nakamba was also shaky throughout, especially in the opening proceedings as he was sloppy in possession.
There was a moment in the last 10 minutes that summed up his performance as he received the ball deep in his half and panicked as he was dispossessed by a Leicester side, who began to press more aggressively in search of a winning goal. Villa were lucky that James Maddison failed to keep his long-range shot on target.
However, overall it was a great performance by Villa and Smith deserves credit for getting the team selection and tactics correct. Many, including myself, have criticised Smith in recent weeks for being too ‘stubborn’ and ‘lacking a Plan B’, but his reply has been brilliant.
Tyrone Mings, my man of the match, was a rock at the back for Villa and cleared virtually everything that came his way. He was even prepared to stick his head in front of a Maddison shot in the first half. His leadership qualities will go a long way as Villa attempt to move higher up the ladder in the Premier League. He could be seen barking instructions and organising the back line.
The defensive shape and strong organisation was pivotal in Villa earning a 1-1 draw in the away leg. Leicester’s main goal scoring threat, Jamie Vardy, was kept relatively quiet and cut a frustrated figure. Having three centre backs makes the team more secure and it helps that the trio are all comfortable with the ball at their feet.
The hard work on display was another reason for optimism. Led by Grealish, the whole team worked hard and fought for every ball. This is an ‘identity’ that most Villa fans would not mind having! Smith echoed these thoughts in his post-match press conference when he stated he was “really proud of the players”.
Grealish also played a leading role in the closing exchanges as he constantly won fouls by playing to his strengths, which in turn enabled the visitors to keep possession and allow the back line to rest. A different performance from the captain, but an equally impressive one.
Another player deserving of immense praise is Orjan Nyland. The Norwegian international deserves to be given an opportunity as Villa’s first choice goalkeeper for now since Heaton and Jed Steer are injured. I feel the money would be better well-spent elsewhere. At 192cm, Nyland can pull off big saves and has rapidly grown in confidence. This means he is not afraid to organise his defence and bark out orders. His form had improved prior to the nasty injury he picked up last season, but he really looks like a different player now.
Nyland has taken this opportunity with open arms so far, and also made heroic saves when coming on against Wolverhampton in a Premier League fixture, and Liverpool in the Carabao Cup quarter final. He was among the standouts at the King Power Stadium as he continually thwarted Leicester.
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Personally, the first leg was always about keeping the tie close and ensuring it was still alive ahead of the second leg. Villa did just that, as frustrating as the goal was to concede. If you had offered me a draw before the game, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.
Anything can happen in the second leg in front of what will be a packed Villa Park under the lights. Hopefully by then, there will be some further new additions to the squad (Danny Drinkwater will be ineligible for the second leg as he featured in a Carabao Cup match for Burnley).