Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Tottenham and Aston Villa’s chaotic clash of high lines reveals a new top-four contender

Tottenham 1-2 Aston Villa: Injury-hit Spurs wasted chances and were punished by Unai Emery’s side, who moved above the hosts and into fourth

Jamie Braidwood
at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Sunday 26 November 2023 23:13 GMT
'Fine margins': Postecoglou despondent after Tottenham's 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa

As the certainty of Tottenham’s top-four hopes slip from view, Aston Villa’s have never appeared stronger as Unai Emery’s side leapfrogged their hosts in north London. That was the result of a wonderfully open and often chaotic encounter at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as Villa rode their luck and just about managed to cling on to their high-wire tightrope to emerge with this statement win, yet one that looked beyond them in the opening stages.

Tottenham will struggle to come to terms with this defeat, which leaves Ange Postecoglou’s side with a third Premier League loss in a row and looking very much like a team in the midst of a major injury crisis. But while the makeshift centre-back partnership of Emerson Royal and Ben Davies was exposed by Ollie Watkins, who fired Villa to a ninth win of the season and to within two points of leaders Arsenal, it was Tottenham’s forwards and a host of missed chances that proved just as decisive to the outcome.

Because, despite this win and their impressive standing in the table, Villa really should have been buried. Tottenham led and should have been out of sight. Emery’s daring high line will look to have paid off handsomely – but it could have easily been made to appear reckless. Yet it was always going to be this way, in a clash of two teams and two managers who are committed to playing the high-stakes game, even if it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

And this was, for the most part, utterly mad, the greatest puzzle perhaps that there were only three goals.  Son Heung-min’s usually clinical touch was missing yet he was also unfortunate – the Tottenham captain had three goals disallowed for offside. Spurs could have also scored five or six inside the opening 20 minutes, all from the same route. They only needed one run from deep and one timed pass and they were through Villa’s trap. With Emery lining up with a back three for the first time this season, Ezri Konsa, Diego Carlos and Pau Torres were positioned as Villa’s terrifyingly wobbly, thrillingly advanced defence.

Villa are now level on points with Liverpool in the top four (Getty)

Tottenham, though, were wasteful.  Destiny Udogie, the left-back who drifted to join Son as Tottenham’s second striker, was the first to slip through but lifted his finish over the bar. Dejan Kulusevski was next, wriggling around the ambling Torres with ease, only to place his curling effort onto the post. Kulusevski then found Bryan Gil with a lovely flick, bringing a save out of Emiliano Martinez. Son lurked as the six-yard poacher, coming alive after the initial run was found. The Spurs captain missed what was the best of Tottenham’s first-half chances when he failed to connect with Gil’s cross and there would be more to come.

Improbably, Tottenham’s opener did not come from the expected source. Given Villa’s approach, it was a surprise that Giovani Lo Celso’s first-half goal came following a corner, with the Argentine’s crisp strike taking a deflection off Carlos and past Martinez after Villa had cleared to the edge of the box. And yet, for all of Villa’s susceptibility, Emery’s high line also managed to catch Tottenham out. Son thought he had doubled the lead after racing through on goal from 40 yards and curling past Martinez but was denied by the offside flag. There would be more of that, as well.

Tottenham have now lost three in a row after their unbeaten start (Getty)

Tottenham, however, were offered a reprieve of their own. Emery’s wing-back ploy at least threatened Tottenham down the flanks and Postecoglou’s own cavalier approach struggled to contain it. Watkins looked to have levelled moments after Lo Celso’s strike, heading past Guglielmo Vicario from Lucas Digne’s excellent cross, but his equaliser did not survive VAR’s offside lines. What the review did reveal, however, was how open Tottenham were: Watkins and Moussa Diaby were left to the makeshift back two of Emerson and Davies, but neither was close to a Villa forward.

And while Tottenham continued to waste opportunities, Villa started to show signs that they would make the hosts pay for it. Besides leaving Royal and Davies exposed to the speed of Watkins and Diaby, Tottenham’s own glaring vulnerability was their excessively high defensive line from set-pieces. Torres missed one early chance when he headed past the post but made no mistake in additional time. For the second time, the Spain defender was left unmarked and in the 52nd minute of a chaotic half, Tottenham gave Douglas Luiz at least 25 yards of space to aim for from his deep free-kick.

Postecoglou was without nine first-team players for the visit of Villa (Getty)

Those extra seven minutes had been created by the loss of Rodrigo Bentancur, injured less than half an hour into his first Tottenham start in nine months following a reckless challenge by Matty Cash. The Villa right-back was sensibly removed by Emery at the break, having picked up a booking and being hounded by the home fans for adding to their increasingly dire injury crisis. Already without nine first-team players, Tottenham were left with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Eric Dier and Oliver Skipp as their only senior options on the bench. Villa, with Leon Bailey and Youri Tielemans, had what Tottenham did not and carried an ability to change the game.

It was Tielemans who slipped Watkins through to put Villa ahead and turn the game around, although the Belgium international hardly required the most intricate ball to split Emerson and Davies apart. Watkins glided through unopposed and flashed his finish past Vicario. It was, remarkably, enough to secure all three points. Martinez produced an excellent double stop to deny Johnson after a smart touch from Son and then Hojbjerg’s shot from distance. Johnson was close to meeting Kulusevski’s cross after a counter, then Tottenham had two more disallowed after Son was caught offside in the box, first from Johnson’s cutback and then from a rebound. Villa remained committed to the entertainment until the end.

Emery’s side could also have crowned their victory, though. Watkins didn’t do enough with a point-blank glancing header and Vicario produced a fine stop to deny Digne’s free kick. And, given Tottenham’s absences, with James Maddison, Micky van de Ven and Pape Matar Sarr all sidelined, Cristian Romero and Yves Bissouma suspended, and their starting midfield three and centre-back pairing unavailable, perhaps Villa came away with the result they were expected to. It remained on a fine line, however, and in the chaos Emery’s side left behind, the coming weeks will reveal how serious this new top-four challenge will be. Tottenham’s, in the meantime, is in need of a revival.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in