Man City & Arsenal at Villa Park, December 2023
By Rob Carter
In a Word
‘Qualified to compete to win something.’
The Carter Report
It’s mid-December, and the bells are ringing for Claret & Blue. Despite the toughest of recent schedules, Aston Villa enter the festive period as a live dog in the race not only for the Top 4, but for the Premier League title. As Emi Martinez recently said, ‘I’m a believer, mate.’
Heading into two successive games at home against Premier League & European champions Man City, and recent league leaders Arsenal, many Villa fans would have potentially accepted two points. It’s reasonable to assert that this would have kept up the momentum and retained our chances of finishing in the top 4.
Instead, two 1-0 wins later, and Villa sit in 3rd place, the focus of national attention.
The manner of the City win, in particular, has given a fresh injection of belief into the fanbase, and also the players. The way in which the home side dominated the hosts exceeded all expectation; to a man, the players were absolutely magnificent, led by a virtuoso display from Leon Bailey, and a heroic shift from John McGinn.
Arsenal, although a vastly different type of game, showcased other qualities, mainly how to dig in and grind out a win, despite the petulance, arrogance and lack of class showed by the visitors. Whilst City were magnanimous in defeat, Arsenal were anything but, typified by their Lego-headed manager storming out of the directors box at full-time.
Looking back on the two performances, one word springs to mind – determination. The hunger from the players to prove themselves against elite level opposition was clearly evident. And when the players do this, the fans inevitably follow. The scenes around the ground after Bailey’s deflected strike against City will live long in the memory, as will the limbs on display at both final whistles.
Certain players have really come to the fore recently, none more so than Bailey, Lucas Digne and Diego Carlos.
Bailey, at times, is unplayable; his transformation from injury prone & mercurial to incisive and match-winning has been remarkable to witness.
Digne has taken on the challenge of new pretender Alex Moreno with gusto; solid at the back, and creative with his passing & crossing going forward.
Perhaps the most surprising has been the elevation of Carlos. There were doubts over his return from long-term injury, but his impressive passing range, presence and great positional sense, after a early teething issues, have undoubtedly improved Villa.
The new defensive system, which has seen Ezri Konsa move to right back in place of Matty Cash, seems to have brought an extra solidity to the team. With Pau Torres ethereal alongside Carlos, Konsa has seemingly relished his new position of late.
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And then there is Captain Fantastic. There are hardly any more superlatives to describe the meaty Scotsman’s recent performances; he simply dominates the midfield. Against Arsenal, he was up against a £100m player in Declan Rice; it was more like let’s Muller Rice. Meatball bossed him. He bosses everyone. The man is a swirling bundle of Scottish energy, and he cannot be defeated.
So, what does the future hold for this magnificent team? Under the sublime guidance of Unai Emery, the pendulum has swung from relegation candidates to title contenders. With the January transfer window in sight, attention now turns to potential reinforcements.
Perhaps a sensible move would be to add a new striker (as cover for Watkins should the unthinkable happen), maybe a new right-back and potentially a new back-up goalkeeper (although Robin Olsen has looked better of late).
With the right additions, could Unai achieve the impossible?
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Value rating: £82 (out of £82)