Superb Aston Villa took the fight to Man City – and utterly dominated

Aston Villa celebrate their winner - Superb Aston Villa took the fight to Man City – and utterly dominated
Villa have moved to third in the Premier League table - PA/David Davies

So much for Pep Guardiola’s insistence at the start of the season that Manchester City are heading to their fourth successive title. After a comprehensive defeat by a magnificent Aston Villa, his side have slumped to fourth place in the table, six points behind the leaders Arsenal. Here’s how much they are drifting off the pace: Manchester United – a side who have spent much of the season serving up fodder for comedy writers – are now only three points behind them.

And, as he contemplated the unexpected position of being outplayed, Guardiola did not shy away from the issues afflicting his side.

For the world’s wealthiest sporting brand words like “struggling” will always be relative. Yet, the architect of so much sky-blue success has a point. For the first time since 2017 his side have failed to win four Premier League matches in succession. There can be no question that, for a bunch used to dominating everyone and everywhere, City are in the midst of what passes in their elevated circumstance for a slump.

And what made this all the more telling was the nature of the defeat. Villa had 22 shots; City registered just two. Meanwhile; Villa won the ball back 13 times in City’s half, a record haul in the Premier League. Never in their Emirati-endowed run of success have they been so totally out played. This was not a simple case of complacency or taking their opponents lightly. They were frankly second best in everything.

And there was a reason for that: superbly organised by Unai Emery, Villa spent the entire match playing as if they were convinced they belonged in this company. Everything they did was charged with the belief that they are contenders.

With Emery constantly semaphoring instruction from the touchline, there was no sitting back, no ceding of possession, no letting the opposition attack. Instead they drove forward at every opportunity, charging at City every time they had possession, not allowing their elevated visitors any time on the ball. It was a joy to watch.

The epitome of their approach was when Bernardo Silva tried to ease through the gears in midfield. He was harried and chased and shut down by a combination of John McGinn and Douglas Luiz. They snapped at him until they won the ball, then they charged forward once again. Here’s how uncomfortable they were making City’s principal creative force: Silva was seen panicking in his own area when attempting to chest the ball back to Ederson.

City looked befuddled and confounded, Erling Haaland’s principal contribution – apart from gifting Emi Martinez the time to get back in position to scramble away his weak far post header – was snarling at the referee. And a check on statistics suggest there was a reason for their lack of cohesion. The simple fact is when Rodri doesn’t play, City lose. This was the fifth time they had gone down in succession in matches when he was missing. Paraphrasing Guardiola’s contemptuous put down of Harry Kane-era Tottenham, it is not hard to suggest City are now the Rodri Team.

As is inevitable, how the suspended Spaniard was missed here, his presence so valuable against sides who deliver hurly burly like Villa. His calm, his positioning, his ability to pick out the unexpected pass: they are qualities not easily replaced. Guardiola had covered for his midfield holder with John Stones and Rico Lewis, two defenders, albeit ones schooled in his approach to positional hybridisation. But they found it impossible to find a grip against Villa’s non-stop harassment, Lewis in particular finding himself constantly overrun and dispossessed. His attempt at a Cruyff turn on the halfway line, that was snaffled immediately by McGinn, did not go down well with his manager.

For Villa this was a victory characterised by the goal that won it. Leon Bailey, who had been eye-catching all evening, demonstrated how to outwit City. He picked up the ball on the halfway line from Youri Tielemans and just kept running. None of the City defenders could get close to him as he turned on the edge of the penalty area. His shot may have taken a big deflection off Ruben Dias, but nobody in the Holte End minded. They roared as if this was 1982 all over again.

Finally this was a return on all that perspiration, a proper reward for the lung-busting effort. And for Emery it was the first time in 15 years, across 13 matches that he has beaten Guardiola.

“For 30 years ago since I started as a coach I like to prepare matches against the best teams and coaches,” he said. “Beating him is not something special, it is part of the process.”

The Villa fans would disagree. How they celebrated their team’s ascendancy over the serial champions, bellowing out Sweet Caroline even as the forlorn visitors trudged wearily from the pitch. This was proper recognition that Emery, for all his attempts to underplay it, has forged a genuine title challenge.

As for Guardiola, he did his best to be philosophical about being outmanoeuvred but looking back at this game, however, he might reach an alarming conclusion: without Rodri his side are there for the taking.