Aston Villa left standing after Jack Grealish’s late goal
Immediate and cruelly deflected West Ham equaliser did little but test their arteries
Jack Grealish celebrates after scoring the opening goal for Aston Villa in the Premier League against West Ham at London Stadium. Photograph: Matt Dunham/Pool via Getty Images
West Ham 1 Aston Villa 1
The full-time whistle blew. One or two of the Aston Villa players let out a roar of celebration, only to be swiftly hushed by manager Dean Smith, warning them the job was still contingent on results elsewhere. For two agonising minutes, Villa’s entire playing squad and staff huddled together, awaiting news from the Emirates Stadium. Suddenly, the huddle exploded.
Yes: when the smoke had finally cleared from the longest Premier League season of them all, it was Villa who were still standing. They have clung to the precipice with fraying fingernails and fraying nerves, with reserves of patience and grit perhaps even they were not quite sure they possessed. They looked doomed for much of the season. But they were not.
Jack Grealish’s late goal, coupled with Watford’s 3-2 defeat at Arsenal, was ultimately good enough. Even an immediate and cruelly deflected West Ham equaliser did little but test their arteries. And this has ultimately been the key to Villa’s survival mission: a recognition not just of their strengths but of their weaknesses, and Smith’s success in remodelling a team that a month ago possessed the worst defence in the top division.
Aware that his team lacked a reliable goalscorer, Smith used the lockdown months to rebuild his side from first principles, from a tight defence and the dominant midfield play of Douglas Luiz and the set-piece delivery of Conor Hourihane. He showed his team tapes of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio in an attempt to explain how great defences function. Goals have been thin on the ground. But crucially, they have been scarce at both ends.
Naturally, it was ugly as hell: football on the precipice, with the utmost caution and the minimum of risk. Villa sat tight and deep, as if trying to keep a precious secret. News of Watford’s first-half collapse seemed to strengthen their resolve, with the knowledge that a point would almost certainly be good enough. At one point, Mbwana Samatta picked up a cleared cross 35 yards from his own goal, looked up, and realised he was the furthest player forward.
With West Ham also keen to play on the counter, there was little fluency and even less in the way of clear openings. Michail Antonio squandered a good early chance for West Ham; Samatta and Grealish did likewise in the first half. As the second half progressed and nerves began to tighten, Villa defended their goal with almost fanatical resolve: flying tackles, desperate blocks, grappling with every last ounce of strength.
And yet when Grealish found himself with the ball 18 yards out, he still had the presence of mind to pick his spot and smash the ball cathartically, emphatically, into the net. In a way there was a certain romantic symmetry to it: the local player and boyhood Villa fan who had done so much to win Villa promotion in the first place, now scoring the goal that secured their Premier League status.
It took less than two minutes, however, for the dark clouds to return. Andriy Yarmolenko cut in from the right, shot speculatively and as the ball looped up off the boot of Grealish, Pepe Reina realised to his horror that he could not back-pedal in time. Framed on the touchline against a backdrop of floating bubbles, Smith realised that there would be no relief just yet.
But true to themselves, Villa played the denouement immaculately: seeking territory, clearing to the corners and using the backside of John McGinn to shield the ball if nothing else worked. Full-time brought only more tension, more awful waiting. And then, finally, release.
Plenty of obstacles lie ahead. A total of 35 points is less a cause for celebration than an urgent warning sign. Smith needs to retool Villa’s entire attacking strategy. Recruitment in the summer will be a priority, especially if the talismanic Grealish is snapped up by a rival. But on a damp and jubilant afternoon in east London, as Villa’s players screamed in relief and embraced each other like brothers, none of that seemed to matter for now. - Guardian