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Analysis: Small step forward but opportunity missed for Aston Villa

For Villa this was both a small step forward and a big opportunity missed.


              
Aston Villa's Philippe Coutinho (centre) in action during the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture date: Sunday October 2, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Leeds. Photo credit should read: Tim Goode/PA Wire.


RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, 
video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
Aston Villa's Philippe Coutinho (centre) in action during the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture date: Sunday October 2, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Leeds. Photo credit should read: Tim Goode/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

Having failed to pick up a point in their first three away Premier League fixtures of the season, a draw at Leeds could in some regards be argued progress.

Yet it certainly didn’t feel that way at the final whistle, as Steven Gerrard and his team reflected on a hugely frustrating second half.

When Luis Sinisterra brainlessly stuck out a leg to block Douglas Luiz’s free-kick and earn his second yellow card of the afternoon three minutes into the second half, the match and three points appeared to be there for Villa’s taking.

They were unable to accept the offer, as an attack which has too often floundered during the opening months of the season endured arguably its worst 45 minutes to date.

Only once was Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier forced into serious exertion, racing out to block from Ollie Watkins in the 89th minute. Watkins had earlier missed Villa’s best chance, stabbing wide from inside the six-yard box after Philippe Coutinho had sent an acrobatic volley against the post.

This was a nightmare afternoon in front of goal for the man who has finished Villa’s top scorer in each of the last two seasons. Though there was much to admire about his work-rate and hold-up play, he is ultimately paid to put the ball in the back of the net and with just one goal in eight appearances, he knows he must do better.

It was not hard to guess the identity of one of the players Gerrard, during his post-match briefing, suggested might have struggled to sleep last night. Coutinho was probably the other. Brilliant volley aside, the Brazilian otherwise looked shot-shy when presented with good opportunities.

Yet while this was a rough day for those two in particular, Villa’s problems in attack over the course of the campaign feel more collective than individual. Whatever combination Gerrard chooses in the final third, something always seems to be lacking.

Through eight matches so far, Villa have netted just six times and failed to score in three.

What is perhaps most problematic, aside from the raw statistics, is they frequently do not pass the eye test. A team which can call on the talents of Coutinho and Emi Buendia and has spent around £100million on Watkins, Danny Ings and Leon Bailey should look better on the front foot than it did during yesterday’s second half.

Good teams, certainly those with aspirations of finishing in the top half of the table, do not pass up golden chances of the like offered by Sinisterra’s dismissal yesterday. Gerrard believes his team are heading in the right direction and compared to the situation a month ago, it is hard to argue with the assessment.

After failing to keep a clean sheet through six matches, this was their second in succession and they have coped admirably with the loss of some key players in defence, the latest of those being Ludwig Augustinsson yesterday, the Sweden international forced off less than 45 minutes into his Premier League debut with a hamstring injury.

On the flip side, a squad assembled at a cost of more than £400million needs to deliver performances which are more than merely solid. These are baby steps in the right direction when big strides were expected. The reality is this was a huge chance missed to begin a key month with a victory and push closer to the top half of the table. Instead, they sit in a far from comfortable 14th ahead of next Monday’s trip to newly-promoted Nottingham Forest.

A win yesterday would have eased the pressure but now that feels like another big, mood-defining occasion.

The atmosphere at Elland Road was one of anger, home supporters left less than impressed by the performance of referee Stuart Attwell, though it was hard to see how there could be any complaints about Sinisterra’s dismissal.

Still, this was a match heavily punctuated by the referee’s whistle and with Attwell having dished out four yellow cards in the first half, it already felt inevitable someone would get their marching orders, even if the circumstances of the second yellow were somewhat tame.

Villa edged the scrappy opening period, Watkins testing Meslier with a powerful shot after a strong turn and run, the sliding Coutinho unable to make the contact to send the rebound beyond the keeper.

Leeds went close when Rodrigo found space and curled a foot or so wide from distance but it was the visitors asking more questions, though the finish eluded them. Ashley Young picked out the run of Watkins but Meslier was quick to come out and save with his legs.

That felt a question of good goalkeeping more than poor finishing, though there was no doubt about who was culpable seconds after Sinisterra’s exit when Bailey crossed, Coutinho adjusted in midair to send the ball against the post and Watkins somehow stabbed wide with the goal gaping.

Gerrard turned to Buendia with 26 minutes to go and he sent an effort from distance narrowly wide but Villa looked ponderous anytime they got the ball in and around the box, Coutinho shooting meekly after being picked out by Young at the end of one the visitors’ best moves of the match.

When Watkins was again denied by Meslier, John McGinn had the final word with a long-range drive which briefly had the keeper worried before drifting wide. Like too much of Villa’s work, it was hit in hope rather than expectation.

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