Aston Villa (0) vs Wolverhampton Wanderers (0) – Villa & Wolves Split the Points

Manager Dean Smith had to have been disappointed that El Ghazi had been added to his injury list and unavailable for this important derby game that could seal the local bragging rights.  The Dutchman’s ability to score key goals had made quite a difference throughout the season.  In fact, his penalty past Patricio in injury time of the first leg of this rivalry back in December was the dramatic game winner.

If there was a bright side, it was that El Ghazi would likely recover quickly since it was just a toe infection.  Furthermore, the prospects of having all the wounded Villans (Grealish, Cash and, even, Wesley) available in a matter of weeks suggested that a spurt to the season finish-line was a distinct possibility.

The manager’s post-game interview found Smith somewhat philosophical about the recent drop in form and the team’s European chances slipping away.  What he drew upon was the remarkable improvement over last year with 40 points in the bank already and the Premier League leading 14 shutouts (tied with Man City).  It is not surprising that all four of the Villa’s backline have been touted for the England team (with Mings already established).  Too bad for Gareth Southgate that Emi Martinez is Argentinian!

Obviously, the team has been missing Grealish’s ability to create goals, mostly by way of assists but the six he has put in the back of the net himself are also missed.  What Smith likes to note is that between Watkins, El Ghazi and Traoré, the team still has the potential to score against anyone.  With Sanson showing his skills in his sixty minutes in this match against Wolves, Smith knows the best is yet to come.

In this fixture, the best almost came early.  After their disappointing result against Sheffield United, they were determined to start fast.  With just four minutes on the clock, Sanson seized possession and laid a crisp pass to McGinn just inside the Wolves’ half.  The ever-alert Scot immediately slid the ball to Watkins who had gained some space by stepping ten yards away from the box where the Wolves backline patrolled.

Villa’s great signing from Brentford in the off-season gathered and turned to his left in one motion and, seeing that Coady had not closed him down, swung his right leg.  Like most things that Watkins does, it appeared easy for him, but the results are invariably profound.  Be it his acceleration to leave a defender standing, his standing leap above everyone else, or the perfect cross from the wing.

Patricio, in goal, was ready for anything and he immediately threw himself to his left while extending his right arm as high as it would stretch.  It was not enough, and the accomplished goalie could not reach the ball as it dipped on its way to the top corner.  Watkins, himself, admitted after the game that as soon as the ball left his foot, he was heading to the corner flag to celebrate, only to be shocked.

Was that foolish hubris?  Indeed not.  According to Villa insiders, Ollie regularly hits the target from well outside the box.  This shot, from 25 yards, hit the underside of the bar and came almost straight down, bouncing in the 6-yard box from where a Wolves’ defender cleared.  Such a goal at that point would have set the game on a trajectory reminiscent of the early season winning streak.

Instead, it was back to business.  To nobody’s surprise there was another McGinn-Watkins effort that came close in the 9th minute.  Moutinho, who had a generally poor performance, waited for a pass that McGinn jumped to and, despite being fouled by the Portuguese international, redirected to Watkins.  The striker still had lots to do but sped to Coady’s right.  The England center back was quick and skilled enough to cut off a left foot shot.  A sudden switch by Watkins to his right foot solved that problem, but Saiss was there to block that option.

No problem, the ultimate team-player eyed Traoré, open just a few yards to his right with all the goal to fire at.  What Watkins probably did not see was that Jonny had raced back from his left midfield position nor that Traoré had slowed.  The pass was a little ahead of the Burkinabe international giving the Wolves defender the chance to get a foot in and clear.  Credit to the Wolves defense for getting five gold shirts back around the two Villans.

When another opportunity presented itself shortly after, it felt like third-time lucky!  A freekick on the leftwing looked like a good opportunity for a high cross for Villa’s tall defensive backs to attack, but the team had another option up its sleeves.  Targett and Traoré stood over the placement, the question of who was taking, became a new script.  Targett passed the ball to Traoré who had plenty of space to race down the wing, beyond Wolves’ backline, before hitting a lateral cross aimed at the 6-yard line. 

Wolves’ normally well-organized defense was, for once, at sixes and sevens.  Dendoncker, who should have been blocking the cross, was caught on the other side of the penalty area waiting to compete for the anticipated high cross.   In fact, none of the Wolves backline was prepared to deal with this ad lib.

When Mings attacked the ball at the near post, it was too low to head and too high to get a foot on, and he managed to miss the ball.  This added to the confusion and the defender behind him got the slightest of touches that handcuffed everyone in its path except Konsa who was lined up with the right post.  Though the ball bounced in front of Villa’s surprise star of the season, he was able to block it with his lower midriff and strike with his right foot.

His motion was necessarily instantaneous, with Dendoncker lunging from a yard away and Patricio scrambling over.  Instead of the ball bulging the back of the net, it smacked against just about the same spot on the bar that Watkins’ shot had, with the same result, rebounding back into play.  Wolves cleared again.  Konsa looked stunned.    Villa fandom around the world took a deep sigh.  The game had another 75 minutes to go, but that was no salve for those three missed opportunities.

As Villa inevitably eased off on their intense pressure, Wolves began to get a handle on the game.  Neto made some dangerous runs down the right wing that put the Villans on notice, and he enticed Sanson into picking up a yellow card for tackling from behind. Then Wolves’ Adama Traoré looked like he was about to race past Elmohamady, but the experienced Egyptian international timed his tackle perfectly and came away with the ball.

It was Watkins again, who made something out of nothing in the 35th minute.  Starting on the leftwing, the striker nutmegged Dendoncker, left Coady standing and created enough space to shoot, only for Saiss to time his block perfectly.

Both teams cruised into the halftime break, one frustrated at missed opportunities and one relieved that they were not a couple of goals down.  Wolves manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, likely did not rant and rave as this Wolves side have proven, in their three years back in the Premier League, to be a strong second-half team. 

Sure enough, with no line-up changes, Wolves jumped out of the gate at the whistle.  Adama Traoré appeared much more determined and, but for an excellent play by Konsa, would have been bearing down on the Villa goal.  Then, they turned a Villa corner into an excellent shot that Martinez did well to handle.  That occurred when Neto picked up a headed clearance and raced down the right channel with only Targett back.  The Villa fullback could not match the quicksilver winger, but he was able to keep him from cutting inside and shooting with his stronger left foot.  Arriving at the penalty area with no other options, Neto attempted to over-power Martinez at the near post.

It was a good enough shot that would have beaten many goalies, but Martinez is at an elite level and he confidently jumped and parried the shot away for a corner.  Credit goes to Targett for restricting Neto’s options and Luiz and Konsa backing up the play.  Of course, knowing that your goalie is likely to save anything that is not a tap-in is a great incentive to backtrack.

In between, Watkins again tested Wolves’ backline, running at Coady and then gliding to the right of the England center back before hitting a shot that was going to test Patricio.  We will never know how difficult a test that would have been because Saiss, the Moroccan national team’s captain, slid over just in time to deflect it for a corner.  While Coady was having a difficult time holding Watkins at bay, he started to have more of an attacking influence on the game starting with that headed clearance to Neto that led to Wolves’ first shot on target at the 50th minute mark.

The Neto-Coady combination was instrumental in crafting the best opportunity to score for either side just five minutes later.  A well-worked corner allowed Neto to advance the ball enough from the flag to whip an inswinger with his left foot to the far post.  The cross had enough height that Martinez had no opportunity to grab it out of the air before it came down for Coady to run onto at the back of the line.  Martinez raced across to reach the post, ready to block the anticipated header.  Coady directed his header down, and it was powerful enough, from only a couple of yards away, to get past the goalie and catch the inside of the post, rebounding behind him and across the face of the goal.  Mings and Konsa could only stare as it went by, but Saiss had a great opportunity to poke it home.

Saiss’ effort may go down as the miss of the season which is a little unfair.  Like Konsa in the first half, he was at full stretch to reach a bouncing ball.  Unlike Konsa, he was only a yard or so away.  Again, the shot went more vertical than horizontal and hit just about the same spot on the bar and rebounding back into play.

With the Villa having difficulty getting back into the game, Smith brought on Barkley for Sanson who, in his first start, had opened well but had lost steam.  An in-form Barkley was exactly what they needed, but that was not what they got.  They did get a well-taken corner that Elmohamady ran towards at the near post and fashioned a decent glanced header, off the mark.

On the field for fifteen minutes with little else to show for it, Barkley got his chance in the 76th minute.  A freekick for Wolves from the left wing was headed clear by Luiz to where Barkley was patrolling on the edge of the area.  It was a situation that Grealish often found himself in and, from which, he took off down the left channel.

The first problem for Barkley was that he was not quick enough to settle under the ball, forcing him into an awkward trap with his right foot facing his own goal.  Thus, when he was a little off on his timing, the ball scooted to a Wolves player who was wide open. Two one-touch passes later and Coady received the ball (possibly a miss-hit shot) on the edge of the 6-yard box that he turned with and, instinctively, pushed towards the corner of the net. 

Against all odds, Martinez saved the shot.  He was already off his line as Coady turned and the goalie was able to extend his left arm and leg to deflect the shot almost as soon as it was taken.  Coady looked aghast.

Smith brought on two fresh subs, Ramsey for Traoré and Davis for Trézéguet.  That contributed to another great opportunity for Villa to score deep in stoppage time.  From a corner taken on the left, Davis competed with Coady and Saiss enough that the attempted clearance went straight to Watkins at the right corner of the 6-yard box.  The spinning ball was instantly under the control of the striker’s left foot that he then used to drive a shot wide of the goalie, but Patricio got over to block, only for the rebound to go straight to Konsa who chested it down and hit it on the volley from ten yards.  The slightest slice took the ball just wide of the right post and that was, effectively, the game.  Aston Villa 0, Wolves 0.

While getting the double over Wolves would have cemented the West Midlands bragging rights, Smith took comfort in getting four points to their one.  As for the stats, they suggested that 0-0 was a fair result, especially given that the teams only tallied three shots on goal between them.  Arguably, the crossbar could claim an honorable mention.

How will this influence both sides going forward?  It appears that Villa may get more of a lift from the continued excellence of their defense and Watkins, the performance of Sanson and the availability of El Ghazi and/or Cash.  Wolves, on the other hand, failed to generate any attacking threat of note other than one set play.

With Villa traveling to Newcastle while Wolves host Liverpool, chances are that the gap between the teams (Villa are now five points to the good) will increase.

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Ahmed Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings (captain), Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Morgan Sanson, Trézéguet, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré

SUBS: Heaton, Taylor, Barkley (s 61’), Davis (s 78′), Ramsey (s 83’), Engels, Nakamba, Jaden Philogene-Bidace, Kaine Kesler.

Wolverhampton Wanderers. (3-4-3): Rui Patricio, Leander Dendoncker, Conor Coady, Romain Saiss, Nelson Semedo, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Jonny, Pedro Neto, Adama Traoré, Willian Jose

SUBS: Bolly, Gibbs-White, Nouri, Kilman, Hoever, Ruddy, Silva, Vitinha.

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