Two aspirant clubs, a pair of transformative managers, both aiming to crash the elite. Each admires the other, but it was Roberto De Zerbi who received a lesson from the greater wiles of Unai Emery, as a masterclass in centre-forward play from Ollie Watkins took a wrecking ball to Brighton.
Emery is a manager of meticulous research, often knowing his opponents perhaps even better than they do themselves. Time and again, his Aston Villa team picked at the weakness at the point of transition that is the soft underbelly of Brighton’s counterpressing machine. Gareth Southgate, watching the club he once captained, cannot have failed to be impressed by Watkins, with three goals and an assist.
“I just try to perform and I want to score every game,” said Watkins, a model in modesty for someone who had become the first Villa player to score two hat-tricks in a season since Andy Gray in 1976-77. “There have been a few games this season when I should have scored and I came off disappointed.”
Both managers retained permanent presences on the sidelines, Emery in constant motion, urging, clapping, forever tweaking. De Zerbi kept his hands in pocket, pacing like a Ryder Cup captain watching another vital putt slide by as his team repeatedly lost their key battles.
“We can’t lose every tackle, every duel, every second ball,” said De Zerbi. “Otherwise, we lose this game, but I believe in my players.”
Villa, clad in their infamous, wet-look, heavy-wearing home kits, pressed hard and aggressively from the get-go. Brighton’s was a collective collapse, but their defence suffered a harrowing lunchtime. Their two Premier League defeats have seen Watkins and West Ham’s Michail Antonio – powerful, canny, speedy strikers – roast Adam Webster in particular.
“We did fantastic with Watkins fighting, Moussa Diaby and John McGinn,” said Emery after his third win in a row over De Zerbi. “We had to build with ball possession which we did as well. We needed a different tactical gameplan and we followed it.”
Even as Brighton dominated early possession, it was Villa breaking more dangerously. A major chance saw Watkins enraged when Diaby over-deliberated. He was smiling soon enough once McGinn’s pass sent Matty Cash clear down the right. A finish from a yard out was his only requirement.
The second was all Watkins’ own work in chasing down Joël Veltman before checking back to slot past Jason Steele. Brighton claimed Nicolò Zaniolo’s dummy run had unsighted the goalkeeper but VAR offered them no reprieve. Nor did Villa, the wind in their sails. Douglas Luiz clattered into Solly March, another possible infringement waved away by those at Stockley Park, and Watkins set up Diaby whose second attempt on goal was turned into his own net by Pervis Estupiñán.
De Zerbi, never afraid to trust youth, had selected the debutant Jack Hinshelwood, who completed 87 minutes when other, more celebrated teammates, were unceremoniously removed. The experience gained by the 18-year-old numbered among few positives. “There was no battle today, this was not the true Brighton,” his manager complained.
When Danny Welbeck is committing vicious fouls, it spells panic in the ranks. Evan Ferguson was a spectator to Watkins’ object lesson in leading the line and did not feature beyond the break. “Everything,” replied De Zerbi when asked what had gone wrong, before emphasising the increased workload of Europa League football. “Playing Saturday and Saturday is one type of sport, playing every three days is another sport.”
Half-time saw the introduction of Ansu Fati amid a triple substitution and he soon scored his first Brighton goal following a quickly taken free-kick. It was a foothold soon enough plunged from.
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Risk and reward is central to De Zerbi’s approach. Emery is more risk-averse. On came Jacob Ramsey to lock down midfield and the echoes of the first half rang out as Villa sprang the trap three times more.
Watkins was again the self-starter, intercepting and interchanging with McGinn to reaching his hat-trick via the prostrate form of the hapless Webster. Worse would follow for beleaguered Brighton. Goals from Ramsey, the local hero, and Douglas Luiz, his fifth in five home matches, were both the result of the visitors being unable to cope with a still rampaging Watkins. It completed a dream day for Villa, their manager and his striker, each underestimated at their opponent’s peril.