Analysis: Toothless Aston Villa prove easy meat for ruthless Wolves
Strange as it seems now, when Wolves and Villa first locked horns back in November they were separated by only two points in the Premier League table.
Wolves’ 2-1 victory at Molineux was the point at which their league campaigns split off in two very different directions, one setting off toward the division’s higher reaches and the other sinking further into the lower.
Saturday’s second meeting of the rivals continued the trend, Wolves claiming a win which maintained their challenge for Champions League qualification while pushing Villa deeper into the relegation mire.
Leander Dendoncker’s 62nd minute strike was enough to determine a match which from the perspective of the visitors was reassuringly predictable and for the home side worryingly so.
Villa were well aware, as surely is everyone else by now, of Wolves’ tendency to start matches steadily before improving in the second half yet they became the latest team – and third in a week after West Ham and Bournemouth – powerless to do anything about it.
Once half-time had arrived with the game goal-less there was a sense of inevitability about what was to come and the only surprise, perhaps, was the identity of the man who eventually made the breakthrough.
A week previously it had been Dendoncker who made way for Adama Traore when Wolves went in search of a winner. This time Nuno Espirito Santo’s decision to keep the Belgium international on the pitch, instead removing the disappointing Diogo Jota, proved something of a masterstroke.
Traore still had a key role to play, this time as decoy, distracting the attention of four Villa players in the build-up. One of those was Marvelous Nakamba, who allowed Jonny Otto to race unchecked through the midfield and receive a cross from Raul Jimenez on the edge of the box.
The Spaniard slipped on receiving the ball but was still able to force it to Dendoncker, who took a touch before drilling a low, left-footed shot beyond Orjan Nyland and into the bottom corner.
It was Dendoncker’s fifth goal in his 51st appearance of the season and the Belgium international was a more than worthy match-winner, having worked tirelessly in midfield to effectively shackle Villa skipper Jack Grealish.
The win was Wolves’ fifth in six Premier League matches and the first time they have recorded three league victories on the spin this season.
Standard of opposition always needs taking into account and admittedly the first matches back after restart have pitted Nuno’s men against some of the Premier League’s poorest teams.
But the manner in which they have quietly gone about their business – particularly a defensive record which now stands at four consecutive clean sheets – augurs well for a run-in where they have everything to gain.
There have been moments, fine campaign thought it has been, where it felt fair to question whether Wolves could quite match the consistency of others challenging for a top-four finish. Chasing down Chelsea, who are two points ahead with a match in hand, will still be tough. Yet Saturday’s win at least put some scoreboard pressure on Manchester United while third-placed Leicester, three points in front but faltering, suddenly feel within reach.
The results of the past week have also seen Nuno’s men build a healthy cushion over several teams below. Right now the worst-case scenario would appear another season in the Europa League.
For Villa, still 19th in the table, there is no such consolation prize on offer and with all of their rivals in the relegation scrap playing in midweek, the only hope for their boss Dean Smith is that his team are not in a worse position by the time they kick-off at Liverpool on Sunday. With United set to visit after that, the outlook is becoming increasingly bleak.
Smith described Wolves’ achievements last season as an inspiration to promoted clubs and the dream for Villa was on emulating their rivals success this term.
Saturday was a stark reminder of how far short they have fallen. Whereas Nuno’s team work to a tried and tested plan, Smith is rapidly running out of time to find a formula which can get the best out of the players at his disposal.
For the first time this season Villa’s head coach opted to field two strikers but what appeared a bold, attacking plan on paper did not work that way in practice. While Keinan Davis’ physicality caused problems for both Conor Coady and Romain Saiss, a lack of understanding with strike partner Mbwana Samatta meant Villa were never able to capitalise on those moments.
Instead their build-up play was, not for the first time since the league’s restart, painfully ponderous. Scoring goals had generally not been a problem for Villa through the first three-quarters of the campaign yet they have now netted just twice in their previous six matches. There remains a suspicion that, in trying to fix his team’s defensive frailties, Smith has unintentionally hindered their attacking freedom. On Saturday, they managed just one effort on target in 90 minutes.
Just how much more solid Villa have become in defence is also open to question. In the first-half they were indebted to Diogo Jota’s lack of composure after the Wolves forward fired hurriedly over having been presented the ball by Nyland 20 yards out.
It was the second high-profile gaffe from the goalkeeper, who carried the ball over his own line against Sheffield United, since restart and though neither has been punished, there must surely be questions over his position heading toward the season’s final six matches.
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