Football Features

Grealish (and Hawkeye) save Aston Villa: Five things learned from the Premier League relegation battle’s climax

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:42, 26 July 2020

There was no shortage of drama on the final day of this season’s Premier League with two clubs set to join Norwich in next season’s Championship.

As far as the relegation battle goes, all eyes were on three matches; Arsenal v Watford, Everton v Bournemouth and West Ham v Aston Villa. All three away sides had a shot at survival, but ultimately it could only be one.

1. Five and out for Watford

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out Watford’s major weakness heading into the final day. Since inflicting a 3-0 defeat on runaway Premier League leaders (and would-be champions) Liverpool they seemingly forgot how to defend. A run of 18 goals conceded followed. It wasn’t all bad, but they’d ship in more than one goal on four separate occasions, two of which came when it mattered most: across their most recent outings.

Things couldn’t have started out any worse in north London today when Craig Dawson clumsily brought Alexandre Lacazette down with the match less than five minutes.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang chasing an unlikely Golden Boot (and he came mighty close by the close of play) wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass. Ben Foster, who denied Raheem Sterling from the spot last time out, couldn’t make it back-to-back saves from the spot and has now seen his side concede at least once in each of their last nine league outings. To put that in some perspective, no side was on a longer run without a clean sheet in the competition.

This newfound inability to shut out games only accelerated the Hornets’ return to Championship football. You have to go back to the 1980s for the last time Watford enjoyed a longer stay in England’s top division. Between 1982 and 1988, they’d finish runners-up once as well as famously reaching the 1984 FA Cup final. During this current run, which sadly ended today, one of those achievements was matched (though no one in yellow-and-black is keen to remember their date with Manchester City last year).

Despite a resilient fightback after going 3-0 down before 35 minutes was on the board, Hayden Mullins’ charges ultimately fell to a 3-2 defeat. In all honesty, these past few seasons haven’t been a walk in the park. Managerial changes aside, of which there have been three this season, their average position was 14.8 and 11th their highest placing. Much like former overachievers Wigan, the Hertfordshire-based club had long been flirting with danger. They were going to get burnt sooner or later

2. Grealish (and Hawkeye) saved Aston Villa

In the end, a draw was enough. Aston Villa, who last won their final league match of a Premier League season in 2011 against Liverpool, maintained their Premier League status by taking a point off West Ham. Elsewhere, Arsenal did them a favour by beating Watford.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t need to be. In fact, the Hammers seldom threatened Pepe Reina’s goal before Andriy Yarmolenko cancelled out Jack Grealish’s opening goal moments after he put Villa ahead in the closing stages.

Besides today’s result, Villa’s survival was due largely in part to the Hawkeye system not functioning in their goalless draw with Sheffield United, a game that saw them snatch a point from the jaws of defeat.

Their latest success, which manager Dean Smith considers a bigger highlight than last year’s Play-off win, should not only serve as a fillip but also a warning on account of how close things got. Villa looked to be goners after suffering eight defeats across 10 outings, but such was the closeness of things at the bottom, it was always going to go down to the wire.

3. Spare a thought for Bournemouth

On days like this, with so much to play for, there is often a team who does their bit only to be dealt a crushing blow. Step up, Bournemouth, who for so many were already seen to be a lost cause. A win at Goodison Park against Everton, however, coupled with West Ham bagging a third victory in four Premier League games would have seen them stay up at Villa’s expense.

Their fairytale story, unfortunately, dies in blaze of glory. After five seasons of top-flight football, Eddie Howe must now go back to the drawing board.

It remains to be seen what the make-up of his squad will be after the summer break. Josh King, who registered his sixth goal and fourth assists this season in their 3-1 win, could seek pastures new especially as he’s proven to be effective in the division and was linked to Manchester United just last January. The same goes for a handful of their other stars.

On today’s showing, you would be forgiven for thinking Everton were the ones in a relegation fight. Another poor defensive performance only shines the burning spotlight on England’s number one Jordan Pickford; only four ‘keepers — Tim Krul (68), Ben Foster (64), Aaron Ramsdale (62) and Martin Dubravka (58) — have shipped in more this season than him (56). And three of those have gone down.

4. The perfect farewell?

The last time Villa were demoted from the Premier League, all eyes were on Jack Grealish, with many observers tipping him to remain in England’s top-flight with another team.

But the Birmingham native opted to remain at his boyhood club in pursuit of returning, which they ultimately did. Now further along in his development, the forward has constantly been linked with a plethora of clubs — such as Tottenham and Man Utd — and though he more than anyone has kept them up, scoring a ninth league goal today, chances of Villa retaining his services looks to be in the balance.

Playing in Europe, particularly the Champions League, would surely interest him but whether a club able to offer that approaches him is another question. Fierce loyalty to Villa has been repaid with an insurmountable support from the terraces. Grealish’s present deal expires in June 2023, so if he is to depart after making 188 appearances, Villa will undoubtedly earn top dollar for his signature. If this is to be his final game, then what a way to say goodbye.

5. Tierney arrives

There was low-key excitement when Arsenal secured the services of Scottish left-back Kieran Tierney last summer. The former Celtic man was undisputedly the most outstanding full-back north of the border and before joining the Gunners was reportedly closely followed by Manchester United, who at one point looked to have doubts regarding Luke Shaw’s long-term future.

A place in Unai Emery’s starting lineup was not immediately forthcoming, though, as Tierney needed to recover from a hip injury.

His opening five league appearances totalled 296 minutes with no goal involvement. A shoulder injury further hid the 23-year-old from supporters, but since the restart Mikel Arteta has been able to count on him with today’s performance arguably being his coming out moment. Not only did he break his Arsenal duck, but Tierney grabbed a first Premier League assist. For national team boss Steve Clarke, it must be encouraging to see two defenders (the other being Andy Robertson of Liverpool) playing and excelling at this level.