West Bromwich Albion (0) vs Aston Villa (3) – Villa Get Back on Track

Aston Villa must have relished this fixture, at the Hawthorns, just a couple of miles from Villa Park, as the perfect opportunity to address their failure to score at home against Burnley just three days prior. The Albion were staggering at the bottom of the Premier League with only a single win and four draws out of thirteen games, and a new manager, Sam Allardyce, to boot.

Still, this is a Villa team that few have figured out, not even themselves. Who would have thought that with four wins under their belt out of the gate, including wins at home against Liverpool and away against Leicester, they would have laid an egg at home against Leeds in their fifth game? Most recently being held to a 0-0 draw in which they could only get seven of their 27 shots on-target after upsetting Wolves at Molyneux told Villa fans that nothing can be taken for granted.

Those fans would have been encouraged by a line-up enhanced with the return of Cash and Luiz from suspension and by manager Dean Smith otherwise keeping the same aggregation that dominated Burnley, albeit with only a point to show for it. That meant Grealish repeating in a central roll between two traditional wingers in Traoré and El Ghazi, behind Watkins, the roving striker, and ahead of Luiz and McGinn who have been solidifying an already robust defense. The Brazilian and the Scot are young and already capped, and that is not surprising seeing how they have shone against every opponent this year. Grealish, meanwhile, has been able to benefit from oodles of possession that he has put to good use. Moving him to the center from the left wing is just adding to his touches and effectiveness.

Any concern about the wingers’ profligacy against Burnley (El Ghazi alone took eight shots) was soon put to rest. In just the 4th minute McGinn, Watkins and Traoré combined for a goal of utter simplicity. Carrying the ball out from defense, McGinn lofted a pass to Watkins just outside the Albion penalty area on Villa’s right. Though well marked, the youngster was able to drop a delicate header to Traoré as he arrived on the scene. Fooling Gibbs into thinking he was going outside, he side-stepped inside where he could see that El Ghazi was bookending the defensive line at the opposite corner of the penalty area.

The left-footed cross was pin-point, with enough curve, that when it arrived at the six-yard box, all El Ghazi had to do was redirect with the outside of his right foot. Sam Johnstone, who spent a couple of years with Villa, managed to scramble over but could not prevent the volley from clearing his outstretched arm. El Ghazi’s marker, Furlong, was caught sadly napping. WBA 0, Aston Villa 1.

The Villans seemed relieved to have broken the scoring drought and motivated to add to their tally. They dominated possession and a second goal seemed imminent, while Albion seemed satisfied to keep the score close. Typical was a neat move on Villa’s right that led to an excellent cross from Matty Cash that only Watkins could reach. A little lower and it could have been another headed goal for the off-season acquisition. Instead, with Watkins stretching, it sailed over the bar.

Then, at 37 minutes, McGinn harassed WBA captain, Jake Livermore, out of possession near the team benches but was given a free kick for getting too much of the player. Grealish had just latched onto the loose ball when an aggrieved Livermore launched himself into a tackle that came down the Villa captain’s shin and onto his ankle, nowhere near the ball. The immediate yellow card was, after a VAR check, upgraded to a red card and Jake was on his way to the dressing room. Not a good example for his teammates.

Five minutes later, Villa’s Hause found himself with a similar infringement. He went into a tackle with raised studs and landed on an Albion player’s foot, painfully. What was apparent was that it was accidental with no malice, and none was taken. Of course, an Albion crowd would have bayed for another red card and the referee might have succumbed to the pressure. Martin Atkinson did ask for VAR confirmation and Hause looked relieved at the no-call. As for the free kick, Martinez easily handled Phillips’s long-range effort.

With the game still tied at halftime, the Villans could feel confident of the outcome. Most gratifying for the Villa faithful were the performances of Traoré and El Ghazi, both playing much more composed soccer and evidently enjoying the experience. All that was missing was intensity and that seemed to be the manager’s message as the second half unfolded. Villa started putting on the screws. First, Grealish created some space for himself in the left-hand side of the penalty area before unleashing a low drive to the near post. Credit to Johnstone for good positioning and speed in getting down to prevent a goal.

A couple of minutes, Grealish was involved again taking the ball around the outside of the defense and pulling the ball back with venom. McGinn met it at the near post, launching himself and flashing a header just the wrong side of the post with an Albion defender on his back.

At sixty minutes, Watkins finally received a pass at his feet in the penalty area, turned and got all of the ball with his left foot drawing an excellent reflex save from Johnstone. The ball rebounded to Grealish on the left who found Targett open, in a central position, on the edge of the area.

A near miss at one end could have been a breakaway and, even, a goal the other end. Not trusting a shot with his right foot, Targett tried to switch to his left only for Albion’s Matt Phillips to dispossess him and leave him stumbling. With daylight ahead of him and Conor Gallagher racing down on his right, Phillips had a two-on-one with only Cash barring their way to the Villa goal. That was until Luiz showed a great turn of speed that let him close-in on the former Scottish international. A move to his right might have shaken his opponent off, but Phillips responded to a couple of slight tugs on his shirt by moving to the left and, finally, attempting to turn and dribble past Luiz. The effect was to allow other defenders to join the fray and an opportunity lost. This also represented a breakthrough for Luiz, his normal response being to grab the shirt and concede a yellow card. This time it was Albion’s Grant who received the yellow card as McGinn was set to counterattack.

Ten minutes later, it looked as if the Villans had finally broken through. McGinn and Traoré combined well on the right to create space for Cash to skim a pass behind the Albion backline. Watkins slid between the two center backs for a redirect and Johnston had no chance to save. Villa had their second goal. The only problem was that the VAR could see the fraction of an inch difference between the Villa player and the Albion defender that put him offside. Poor Ollie.

Not to worry, the Villa just kept up the pressure. Targett zipped a pass to Watkins on the left, received the return and zipped the ball next to El Ghazi, in the centre-forward position, with a defender between him and the goal. No problem, adeptly spinning to his left, he curved a strong low shot around O’Shea towards the corner of the net. Johnstone somehow saw the shot and dove in time to push it around the post for a corner.

The new manager decided, at 77 minutes, to make a double change for West Brom, Charlie Austin coming on for Phillips and Chelsea legend, Branislav Ivanović, replacing Diangana. That had no appreciable effect on the game with Villa continuing to press. Traoré, who was having a quieter second half, managed to swing a cross to the back post where Targett headed back across to a patient Watkins, only for Johnstone to dive in front to snatch the ball inches away from his head.

Then Allardyce sent on Villa academy product, Callum Robinson, for Karlan Grant, rolling the dice with another goal scoring threat. That worked, but not in Albion’s favor. In the 83rd minute, Grealish picked up the ball in his own half and carried it thirty yards down the middle of the field drawing two defenders to him. Traoré found space to Grealish’s right and the ball was delivered on a platter for the Burkinabe international to head towards the two center backs scurrying backwards, very aware of Watkins angling to the right and El Ghazi to their left.

Watkins was open on the overlap and a slight lean by Traoré in his direction had both defenders, and goalie Robertson, leaning that way too. Just as quickly, he swayed inside and stroked a splendid slow roller into Johnstone’s right corner. With no backswing, the goalie was completely frozen as he watched the ball roll by. It was exquisite. Albion 0, Aston Villa 2

It had taken only six minutes for the substitutes to pay-off, for Villa, except they weren’t done. As 90 minutes arrived, Grealish decided to have one more wander into Albion’s penalty area. This time he zigged across the exhausted Ajayi who could not help but clatter the cheekiest Villan of all. Who else to take the kick when El Ghazi had proven himself so able in beating Wolves? The happy camper strode to the ball and hesitated for the goalie to move to his left then blasted it into the middle of the net. Game, set, and match! Albion 0, Aston Villa 3.

While a win under these circumstances was to be expected, there were some significant positives. Ten shots on target out of 19 attempts was a great improvement on their profligacy against Burnley. Holding the opposition to one shot and adding another shut-out to raise the total to seven from twelve games puts Villa at the pinnacle of that category.

Meanwhile, they have developed some depth in the squad with El Ghazi and Traoré proving they can play, and score at this level giving them a total of six quality goal scorers (with Watkins, Grealish, Barkley and McGinn, and possibly seven with Wesley).

The Christmas stretch will tell a lot. A home game against Crystal Palace will be followed by a juggernaut of visits to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, then visits from Spurs and Everton. That this team is capable of winning, or losing, any of those games, makes for as much excitement as any Villa fan can take. Game on.

West Bromwich Albion (4-1-4-1): Johnstone, Furlong, Ajayi, O’Shea, Gibbs, Sawyers, Phillips, Livermore, Gallagher, Diangana, Grant

Subs: Button, Robinson (s, 83’), Grosicki, Austin (s, 77’), Krovinovic, Ivanovic (s, 77’), Edwards, Peltier, Kipre

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Kortney Hause, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Jed Steer, Elmohamady, Taylor, Conor Hourihane, Jacob Ramsey, Keinan Davis, Bjorn Engels

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