Aston Villa vs West Brom
By Dean Gregory
After a flying start, Villa eventually succumbed to the superior strength of Man City and find themselves in 11th place going into the next match against relegation threatened West Brom. Villa will be hoping they can regain some semblance of form to end the season on a positive footing in the top half.
The odds don’t look good for a top half Premier League finish though for Villa, due to a loss of form and a tough run of fixtures to finish the season with. The WBA clash arguably offers Villa their best chance of three points before the end of the season.
West Brom are currently nine points from safety at the time of writing with 18 still up for grabs. A dismal start to Sam Allardyce’s time in charge has left them with a mountain to climb, but they have managed some surprising results in recent games, beating Chelsea 5-2 and Southampton 3-0. For them, this is a must-win, do-or-die game.
Aston Villa – D L W L L
West Brom – D L W W L
Dean Smith on Wesley’s return
“It’s been really tough. It’s as significant an injury as I’ve seen on a player, and it shows the strength of character for him to come back from it.
“During a pandemic, it’s been really tough as we haven’t been able to arrange the amount of games that we would normally get for someone recovering from an injury.
“We’ve had to improvise a little bit, but he’s certainly a willing lad and everyone will be pleased to see him getting back.”
On West Brom
“Games are running out and they need to win them, so we know they’ll be coming to Aston Villa looking for a win that can help them survive.
“I thought they started the game quite well [against Leicester on Thursday night], but once the first goal went in, Leicester were very good and scored some good goals.
“They’re fighting for every point they can get, but so are we. We know it’s a derby. We’re looking forward to the game and we want to get back to winning ways ourselves.”
Sam Allardyce on facing Aston Villa
“It’s Aston Villa versus West Brom. It’s a West Midlands derby – everybody will be up for it.
“I’ve certainly got to get my players up for it and get them to bounce back. We have to put Leicester behind us and go and win it, but we won’t win it if we don’t defend properly.
“We defended properly at Leicester in the second half. We have got to defend like that for the whole of the game and also create more chances. It won’t be anything but a ferocious football match with two Midlands clubs clashing together.”
West Brom have favoured a 4-1-4-1 for much of the season, with Mbaye Diagne leading the line, Matheus Pereira, Conor Gallagher, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Grady Diangana behind him, Okay Yokulsu as DM and a back four of Darnell Furlong, Semi Ajayi, Kyle Bartley and Conor Townsend.
41.1% possession and 72.7% pass accuracy across the season shows a team that is easily and often overwhelmed in games. Despite Allardyce’s historic insistence otherwise, long balls bypassing the midfield are a key tactic in his team’s games, a trend that has continued here with 18% of all passes played long. Of the 62.5 long balls they attempt each game, only 24.1 are accurate.
They are not a team that tries to play straight through an opponents defence – they have not managed a single through ball all season. They spend 25% of their time on the pitch in the opposition third, and average just 8.4 shots per game, painting a picture of a team that is shot of confidence.
Allardyce is a pragmatic manager, so these numbers are hardly surprising. Pragmatism pays off sometimes, as their last two wins showed; both Chelsea and Southampton were drawn forward in their attempts to break down West Brom’s low block, and in doing so left themselves exposed. It’s a simple tactic which relies as much on a team’s own players working as a unit as it does on the opposition capitulating. Against Leiecester, a much more wily and resolute team, this tactic was efficiently undone.
They have scored 28 goals from 28.02 xG. There is nothing in particular wrong with their ability to actually take chances; their problem lies in carving them out in the first place. They struggle to break down defences and are often reluctant to take their chance at a long shot from outside the box. High scoring teams are unafraid of taking risks.
Defensively, they have conceded 62 goals from 65.12 xGA. The downside of pragmatism is the amount of chances gifted to the opponent. It is not necessarily a problem with the defence itself, which seems to handle the pressure relatively well; the problem is with the team’s structure as a whole, or lack thereof. When opponents are allowed so many chances to score, that is a failing of the whole team not working as a unit.
West Brom will be fighting tooth and nail to survive now; as unlikely as it seems they are not dead and buried just yet. Villa will have to be mindful of this, and not take them lightly because of their position alone.
One to Watch
In a season of hardship, Matheus Pereira has emerged as the team’s talisman, contributing eight goals and five assists across the season, the teams’ high in both areas. A 79.1% passing accuracy is good for a player who is tasked with the bulk of the team’s attacking intent, contributing 1.7 key passes per game. He also helps to defend from the front, with 0.8 tackles and 0.9 interceptions per game.
Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom – 03-03-2015
Gabby Agbonlahor’s first half strike and Christian Benteke’s last minute penalty claimed all three points the last time Villa beat West Brom at home in the league. They would go on to beat them at home again in the same week in the FA Cup.
Sam Allardyce’s first game in charge of his new team was a trial by fire. An early goal from Anwar El Ghazi put them on the back foot right from the start and they never got back into it, registering just 0.04 xG all game. Villa were in cruise control, not wrapping up the game until right at the end. Despite this, the win simply never looked in doubt.
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How it could play out
This is perhaps the fixture that will most clearly paint a picture of where Villa are as a team at this moment in time. Looking at league position alone, this should be an easy win for them; they have superior squad overall and even in losses, have often shown they are capable of holding their own and scoring against the run of play.
However, until results are more consistent there is a monkey on Villa’s back that will not go away. The shadow of Jack Grealish continues to loom large over the club, with their undesirable reputation as a one-man team not being helped by their patchy form in his absence. There have been periods where Villa have shown themselves to be a capable Premier League team in this time, but they often struggle to keep it up for entire games and without a talisman who can keep the opposition guessing at all times, they have a habit of succumbing to pressure eventually.
In this sense, it is games such as this where they will be expected to win regardless that will demonstrate where they are as a team and what exactly needs to improve going forward. Over time, West Brom have learned how to be more solid as a unit than they were in the reverse fixture. Without their primary creative force, Villa will find breaking them down a more demanding task than before.
On a lighter note, Villa are now mathematically guaranteed to be competing in the Premier League again next season no matter what happens. With the European pipedream all but crushed over the last few months, mid table mediocrity is almost certain. Some of the more promising youth players from the academy have been training with the first team recently – is there a chance one or more might make their league debut in this game?
With Matty Cash suspended for this one, there is a chance – albeit remote – that highly rated youngster Kaine Kesler-Hayden will start in his place. With Ahmed Elmohamady’s contract running out this summer and there being no plans to renew it, Kesler-Hayden may find himself as Cash’s understudy next season if Frederic Guilbert is allowed to move on. If this is the plan, perhaps giving him a run out now would help him out a lot.
This is an important game for both teams in very different ways – and that is not to even mention the added factor of it being a local derby.
Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom
Villa should be able to win this. It won’t be as easy as last time, but there are solid Premier League quality players throughout the team. They should have it in them to see this through.