Luton Town 2-3 Aston Villa: A perfect start, a terrible second half but three vital points

With Tottenham beating Crystal Palace earlier in the afternoon, it was important that Aston Villa reacted at Luton in the Premier League on Saturday evening.

The first half saw Unai Emery’s side settle quickly and saw a dividend in the form of two more goals from Ollie Watkins — the second after a VAR check for offside.

But Luton know how to catalyse the support they get from the Kenilworth Road fans into momentum and duly staged an impressive fightback in the second half, although Emery will have been disappointed in how his team were pegged back territorially.

But, just as it looked like two precious points had been thrown away, Lucas Digne popped up with a headed winner in front of Villa’s travelling fans in the 89th minute. A successful excursion to Bedfordshire… just about.

Here, Jacob Tanswell answers the key questions from today’s game.

How did Villa get away with that second half?

Villa were the makers of their own downfall after the break, inviting pressure and conceding fouls that led to a loss of control.

First half dominance and composure was in short supply in the second. Villa conceded unnecessary fouls, in turn riling up a crowd that had fallen flat. Momentum had shifted and Emery, in retrospect, sensed what was coming. Before Luton equalised, the Spaniard barked at his defenders, gesturing to return to playing short and in tight pockets, as opposed to kicking long and ceding possession. As it turned out, the momentum had shifted.

Until Luton drew level, Villa had conceded six fouls — most in their defensive half) and four corners. Before the game, Emery spoke openly about guarding against Luton’s aerial threat and directness. Yet his players, seemingly lulled in a false sense of security, encouraged Luton’s strengths to the fore and exposed Villa’s ongoing weaknesses against dead-ball situations.

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Carlton Morris celebrates his equaliser (David Rogers/Getty Images)

The first was from a corner and the second, a deep free-kick after Ezri Konsa conceded the initial foul. Five goals have now come through defensive set plays in the previous six league games, despite Martinez’s best efforts to alleviate the strain by his continual ability to catch most corners. Emery says he wants to build a “structure” that does not wobble away from home but playing to the opponent’s strengths and the naivety towards preventing and defending set pieces does not help.

In the end Villa were rescued by Lucas Digne’s late winner, somewhat masking those deficiencies, but it will be an area Emery will need to address in the coming weeks.

Why Villa should still get credit for their first half display 

The structure of Kenilworth Road means it is a naturally intimidating stadium if the opposing team lets it become one. The home crowd did their best to make it so — early on anyway — jeering any nearby Villa player and attempting to create a sense of panic on the ball.

Yet it was clear, for all the abuse and whistles Villa’s players received, especially Emiliano Martinez in goal and the backline, it would not threaten how Unai Emery intended Villa to to build in possession.

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Captain John McGinn set the tone within the first 75 seconds, receiving from Martinez with his back facing play. He intelligently shimmied past direct midfield counterpart Jordan Clark — Rob Edwards had stuck with his man-for-man pressing system — and played out of danger. It was illustrative of Villa’s first-half display, calm in possession and sticking to the plan.

The corner that resulted in Villa and Watkins’ first came following a sweeping move from back to front. The midfield box combined and broke Luton’s press, before finding the stretching run of Watkins, who fired hard at the near post.

The goal was met with a few murmurs but mostly silence from the home support, putting a pin in attempts to intimidate and give Villa further control.

Luton could not regain the ball in high areas, largely due to the same patterns of play, built on the training ground, being executed precisely. The central defenders would play into either Douglas Luiz or McGinn, who then passed out wide for the full-backs to progress the ball. The result was Luton not registering any shots until first half injury time, after Villa had restricted them to zero in the reverse fixture at Villa Park.

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(David Rogers/Getty Images)

Just how impressive a season is Ollie Watkins having?

Watkins surpassed his best Premier League goalscoring season with two goals that took his tally to 16 and 26 goal involvements. No player has contributed to more goals in the league and underlines the transformation under Emery into a player, a forward and a goalscorer that no one could have ever anticipated.

Even for a home crowd that was rather unforgiving towards Villa, there was an unspoken accepted praise for Watkins’ performance, with Luton’s backline pulled back to front by the England international in the opening 45 minutes.

Emery has always talked about how what Wakins does for the team far outweighs goalscoring numbers, but here he had both. His movement and timing of runs relentlessly pulled Teden Mengi out of position, backing into the defender before spinning behind. Following a similar blueprint to the 5-0 demolition at Bramall Lane, Villa looked to combine with short passes in deep areas before playing into Watkins, once had managed to isolate his defender.

It was shown in the build-up for the move that resulted in his goal from a corner, with Villa eventually finding the run of Watkins after he had pulled off Mengi’s left shoulder. It spoke volumes of the all-round finisher he has become that Watkins’ header came against the best aerial side in the league while his second — a touch and whipped finish into the far corner — completely outfoxed Luton’s defence after Douglas Luiz’s quick free kick. It was so sharp and clinical that it took VAR’s intervention to realise the entire passage was lawful.

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What did Unai Emery say?

Post-match quotes from the Villa manager will be here soon.

What next for Aston Villa?

Thursday, March 7: Ajax (A), Europa Conference League, 5.45pm GMT, 12.45pm ET

Sunday, March 10: Tottenham Hotspur (H), Premier League, 1pm GMT, 8am ET

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(Top photo: Getty Images)

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