Stumbling into the goal in front of the Holte End, Aston Villa’s Premier League survival flashed before the eyes of Ørjan Nyland. A whipped Oliver Norwood freekick caused problems for the Norwegian goalkeeper, looping above his head and across the line. The look of guilt on Nyland’s face was evident to see. A certain goal. Nyland knew it, the players knew it, the coaches knew it, the only people who didn’t know it were the officials. A quick look to the watch for Michael Oliver. No goal.
In the first match back after a 100-day hiatus, Villa resumed play two points adrift in the relegation zone. By contrast, Sheffield United were flying in their first season back in the top-flight and were within touching distance of European football. Despite scoring a perfectly legitimate goal, the match finished 0-0. A crucial point in Villa’s pursuit of Premier League survival.
Should Sheffield United be ahead here!? 🤯
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) June 17, 2020
One month and nine matches later, Dean Smith’s men secured their safety on the final day, finishing one point and one goal ahead of Bournemouth. Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, Nyland’s blunder would’ve cost Aston Villa the draw, sacrificing their status in the division. But with help from a controversial goal-line technology error, the Villains had been saved.
After being spared of the drop, Smith and Villa set about consolidating their chances of survival for the 2020/21 season: record signing Ollie Watkins was one of five first-team arrivals at Villa Park.
It was a summer of shrewd business for Smith and his team. One time Everton prodigy Ross Barkley was signed on loan, with the view to the midfielder resurrecting his career. Matty Cash was brought in from Championship side Nottingham Forest and ex-Chelsea academy graduate Bertrand Traore swapped Lyon for the West Midlands. But it was the acquisition of a Premier League back-up goalkeeper that has proved to be their most coveted signing.
Since arriving in September, Emiliano Martinez has already made more Premier League appearances with Villa than in his eight years at Arsenal. Largely playing a reserve role for the Gunners, the Argentine was never able to make a breakthrough at the Emirates and spent a large chunk of his career out on loan. Over half of Martinez’s matches in an Arsenal shirt came at the back of the 2019/20 season, whilst first choice keeper, Bernd Leno was sidelined through injury.
Undoubtedly the high point of the 28-year-old’s time in North London came in the 19/20 FA Cup final against Chelsea. A teary eyed Martinez slumped against the Wembley Stadium advertising boards, whilst facetiming his family back in Argentina after securing his first ever major trophy.
Having starred in both the semi-final and the final, Martinez had made a name for himself and questions surrounding the goalkeeper’s future began to surface. A final appearance in the 2020 Charity Shield victory against Liverpool, proved to be his last match for the club he’d joined as a youngster in 2012.
After it became clear the returning Bernd Leno would keep the number one jersey at the Emirates – despite Martinez’s end-of-season heroics – a tug of war ensued for the Argentine’s signature. Aware of his qualities, a number of low to mid level Premier League clubs were linked with signing him. A late attempt by Brighton & Hove Albion couldn’t pry the goalkeeper away, with the South American putting pen to paper on a four year deal at Villa Park.
The impact of Martinez was immediate. A debut clean sheet against Sheffield United shone stark contrast on the stability of Villa’s defence – there were no shaky goalkeeping errors or blundering mistakes, instead, the claret and blues looked comfortable and assured at the back. Their form continued deep into the winter and by the time Martinez returned to his old stomping ground in November 2020, Villa were well and truly in the fight for European football.
Emi Martinez asked Villa’s forwards for additional time on the training pitch this week because he wasn’t happy with his performance in the 3-1 defeat against West Ham. [The Athletic]
Today, he got his 11th PL clean-sheet of the season! 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/PRtquv4P17
— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) February 6, 2021
A resounding 3-0 victory against a struggling Arsenal lifted Smith’s resurgent side up to sixth, with the result made even sweeter by yet another Emi Martinez clean sheet. After his last two matches for the Gunner secured two winners medals, his first two appearances against them returned two clean sheets – yesterday’s victory the first time Aston Villa had completed the double over Arsenal since the inaugural Premier League season in 1992/93.
Villa’s goalkeeper was influential at both ends of the pitch during the win, with his saves helping guide the side to their eleventh clean sheet of the season, whilst Martinez’s diagonal cross-field ball started the attack for Ollie Watkin’s opening goal. Only Ederson of Manchester City has kept more blanks after 21 matches this campaign.
Shot stopping is his forte, but it isn’t the only string in the Argentine’s bow. An exceptional ability to find Villa’s attacking players with his varied passing range, is complemented by natural leadership qualities that have helped transform a dysfunctional defence. Only bottom placed Norwich City conceded more goals in the previous campaign, yet Villa are 12 goals and 14 points better off at the same stage this time out.
It’s undeniable they’ve rode their luck at points. Villa’s 1-0 defeat of Southampton in late January highlighted all of VAR’s flaws, but the form of Watkins, Grealish, Martinez and co. has been sensational – especially when remembering they were only a functioning referee’s watch away from relegation.
Aston Villa are well set to challenge and qualify for Europe for the first time in a decade, when the experienced hands of Brad Friedel helped steer the club to their highest ever Premier League finish.
Emiliano Martinez probably won’t be part of a Villa side that brings the European Cup back to the Midlands, but with the confidence flowing once more at one of England’s biggest clubs, their 2021 prospects remain promising whilst the Argentine is between the sticks.