Before their match against Leeds, Dean Smith sounded mildly irritated by the focus on the injured Jack Grealish and Aston Villa’s inability to win a Premier League game without their captain this season. “We are not a one-man team,” the Villa manager had insisted, before his annoyance was forgotten and his argument validated by an accomplished victory.
Anwar El Ghazi’s early strike was sufficient for a merited win at Elland Road, as Villa made light of their captain’s absence and stifled Leeds with a mature, composed away display. The visitors restricted Marcelo Bielsa’s expansive side to few sights of Emiliano Martínez’s goal, pressed to telling effect in the first half and countered strongly in the second. Leeds’ frustration was encapsulated by the sight of Bielsa furiously pacing up and down his technical area in the final stages, bellowing instructions that went ignored. For the first time in four matches this season, Villa delivered without Grealish as their conductor.
“It is nice to win without Jack,” Smith admitted. “A lot has been made of us not winning without Jack but that was against Liverpool who were top of the league, Leicester in second, and Wolves who were seventh. None of them were easy games, but I’m sure he’ll be cheering this win at home today. Few teams will restrict Leeds to as few chances as we did. We got our tactics spot-on and the players deserve enormous credit.”
Leeds were subdued by their standards and came nowhere near the potent level that brushed aside Southampton on Tuesday, but almost led after 26 seconds when Patrick Bamford’s miscued shot presented Raphinha with a difficult but decent chance at the far post. The unmarked Brazilian failed to connect. In the 89th minute, he met substitute Jack Harrison’s cross but headed down and wastefully wide of the Villa goal. Leeds had few opportunities inbetween and, though Bielsa raised eyebrows by claiming his team were superior, he was correct to state the hosts contributed to their own downfall with a lack of precision and imagination in the final third.
“We had many minutes of domination and very few when we were dominated,” he said. “The goal wasn’t intentional, it was a shot in which a player slipped and it became a pass for a player who wasn’t asking for the ball.”
But El Ghazi may have been seeking a little revenge. The Dutch international was sent off on his last visit here in 2019, when Bielsa ordered his players to let Villa equalise following a controversial Leeds goal as they both chased promotion.
El Ghazi carried the greatest threat throughout the first half. In keeping with his prominent performance, the winger took and ultimately converted from the corner that exposed a lapse in concentration in the Leeds’ defence. His set-piece sailed across the area to Ollie Watkins, who lost his footing as he shot but succeeded in finding El Ghazi, who had ghosted into the area. The winger -who played under Bielsa at Lille - beat Illan Meslier from close range but did not celebrate due to a suspected offside. VAR confirmed he had been played on by Liam Cooper.
Martínez denied Leeds a swift equaliser when he blocked a powerful shot from Tyler Roberts after Raphinha’s drive deflected into the forward’s path. Otherwise he was relatively untroubled, and it was not until the half-hour mark that Leeds began to find their rhythm and brought Raphinha into the game to a greater degree.
Villa were marshalled expertly by Tyrone Mings but their entire backline impressed, while Marvelous Nakamba and John McGinn worked tirelessly in central midfield. Leeds’ pressure was absorbed comfortably and the absence of Grealish, for once, was not felt.