Football 2 – 1 Baggies
It’s the morning after the day before, and what a day it was. There is a lot to digest from Villa’s 2-1 win over WBA, including (with the risk of sounding like Brendan Rodgers), the character we showed to come from a goal behind to win the game. During the game, and even more so since, a lot of varying opinions have floated about; from atmosphere to performance, here is my take:
Hoofball meets football.
It is quite frankly incredible what a year has done to this Villa side. Last year in the playoffs, we did exactly what West Brom tried to do today. We went away to Middlesborough and snatched an early goal from a set piece, then defended for 170 minutes of football to get through to the final. West Brom attempted similar today, starting a bank of five defenders behind a bank of four midfielders and sitting deep from the offset. Infuriatingly, the Baggies’ number 6, Johansen, played the exact same role he did in the final last year for Fulham and followed Grealish around the pitch, lumping him at every possible opportunity.
Whelan’s mistake only made this worse as, after Gayle finished excellently to give West Brom the lead, they sat even deeper and started wasting time as early as the 20th minute… It is worth noting that Whelan has been incredible of late and was unlucky to be punished for his one off mistake. Whilst personally I feel Hourihane was more suited to that match given how deep the Albion sat, it was fantastic to see the Holte sing Whelan’s name after the mistake and Mings offer him a shoulder of support. This embodied the atmosphere we see on and off the pitch at the moment and I will get back onto the fantastic support later in this article.
Unfortunately, a team sitting deep inevitably results in a lot of passing along the defensive line in an effort to wait for the moment to attack and create a chance. Gaps between the lines are always going to be few and far between when an entire team is parked in their own half and this made the job of McGinn and Grealish incredibly difficult. I heard a few people around me bemoaning the lack of urgency as early as the 40th minute and calling for us to play long from goal kicks… Whilst this was a minority, I would like to address this by reminding fans how well that worked last year, when we were 1-0 down in the playoff final under Bruce. Answer: it doesn’t.
Albion were sat deep for one reason; respect. We have better players than them and we play far superior football. Under Bruce, we were the team sitting deep and hoping to get a goal through a set piece, mistake or some individual genius. Fulham were the closest thing to what we are now and played their way into the Premier League. As well as being far, far more entertaining, I would argue this approach is also more effective.
The substitutions were timed impeccably by Smith, Hourihane’s introduction created another threat for the Baggies to try to contend with and Green was much needed given how Adomah was playing. Adomah seems to either play exceptionally or, like yesterday, fails to make any real runs on or off the ball and simply plays the ball back to Elmo whenever he receives it. When he is having one of the performances befitting the latter, Green is a fantastic option. These subs and our patient build up play paid dividends in the 74th minute:
This goal perfectly displays what Hourihane can offer as an alternative to Whelan. The technique required to slice the ball with that level of power so that it swerves outwards should not be overstated and given the moment, this is a sensational piece of skill. Villa Park erupted in a frenzied celebration, which soon became delirium when Greene and Jack combined to win a penalty, and Abraham dispatched with an admirable level of composure.
Being far and away the best player in this division, Grealish has riled up more than a few fanbases this year. One thing they all have in common is an inability to understand what constitutes a foul and what constitutes a dive. If a player is clipped and goes down, that is a foul. Grealish is the most fouled player in the league and has not once been booked for diving. If opposing fans do not like seeing Grealish roll about, perhaps they should take issue with their manager and the midfielder, yesterday this was Johanson, who is invariably given the job of fouling him all game. Bemusingly, these fans are claiming that Grealish dived yesterday, an opinion that even Gibbs did not share…
In addition to this tweet from the always reliable and financial guru Dave, I would like to remind people what a slow motion camera does. IT SLOWS THE GAME DOWN. This was a stone wall penalty and Jack was perfectly within his rights to go down as he did.
In addition, there is an argument that West Brom should have had a penalty for Tammy’s nudge when jumping for a header; if that is a penalty then I’m afraid football has become five-a-side and the ball can no longer go above head height. His eyes are on the ball and the Baggies players are fixated on the referee whilst he makes no attempt to win it.
And finally, I come onto Dwight Gayle. Nothing pleased me more than seeing the timewasting cheat leave the field; mostly because he is a fantastic striker. He is the first striker I’ve seen pose a real challenge to Mings and he always plays well against Villa; I vividly remember his screamer for Palace on Boxing day back in the Lambert era. Gayle will be a huge loss for Albion in the second leg as he was their biggest threat by a margin. His first yellow was entirely justified as he took a century to take a throw-in, there simply can’t be any complaints with that. However, his second could be considered harsh as he has a right to go for the ball and did withdraw his studs before clattering Steer. Despite this, I would like to remind fans that only a couple of minutes before his second yellow, Gayle went in with a similarly committed tackle on Grealish and showed descent at the referee after he gave a foul. This, if we are operating within the rules, could have been a second yellow and put him on a knife-edge. Gayle got what he deserved.
Villa almost pressed home a bigger advantage through Green but unfortunately we could not quite press home our advantage. We will go into Tuesday with a single goal lead, but, if West Brom play like they did today, I am confident we will get to Wembley again. The stats are very, very telling:
In terms of our performance, we certainly did not play at our best yesterday, however it is very difficult to be at your best when the opposition is parked behind the ball. Nobody plays their most exciting and freeflowing football against a setup like the one West Brom deployed yesterday. The good news is, they can’t do the same at The Hawthorns due to our lead. The more they attack, the more space we will have and this will play into our hands. Yesterday’s game did not suit McGinn at all and I expect him to thrive on tuesday, as he did at Forest.
Overall, I want to once agin reaffirm how delighted I am that we are now the team who want the ball and dictate the game by playing it around patiently; not the team who do what West Brom did yesterday.
Very rarely have I witnessed an atmosphere as electric as the one at Villa Park pre-match yesterday. As the flag draped down across the Holte end and fire erupted out of the boxes, it was the Villa fans that stole the show. With timeless classic ranging from ‘Fuck the Albion’ to ‘Yippy aye eyyy’, Villa park was engulfed in a cocophony of noise. Admittedly, the ground did go a bit quiet in the 10 minutes either side of half time, but I would put this down to the infuriating timewasting and anti-football tactics of our opposition. The final 30 minutes of the game were once again sensational, with chants bellowing out onto the pitch and as the goals flew in, depressed little men in Small Heath must have been woken up by the noise and realised that the football season had not finished for everyone. For those who weren’t there, or even those wishing to remember the cauldron of noise, we’ve got you covered:
Now, onto Tuesday!
Thanks for reading and UTV!
By Callum Richardson