Express & Star

Analysis: Aston Villa stalemate on the road Hammers home the point

An undoubted sense of an opportunity missed after Sunday's draw at West Ham was indicative of both Villa’s progress and how much further they have to go.

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Taking a point from a match where your opponents have largely carved out the clearer chances can never be described as a poor result, yet still there was a nagging feeling of two points having gotten away.

Five points adrift of seventh place after results 24 hours previously had gone their way, Villa were unable to deliver the victory which would have seen them leap definitively into the race for European football.

There is a definite theme, in recent times, of them being unable to pounce when the chance to take a big stride up the Premier League standings is there.

On the other hand, this also felt like the kind of match in which until recently they would have slid to defeat. Losing has been far too common over the past two years, with Villa averaging a loss in pretty much every other match prior to Unai Emery’s arrival.

Under the Spaniard, that is changing. This draw made it just four defeats in 13 league matches under his watch, including just one away from home. A second was avoided here when substitute Ashley Young threw himself in the way of Said Benrahma’s goal-bound shot. That summed up the grit which has underpinned Villa’s recent revival, on an afternoon where they couldn’t quite find the quality required to claim the win.

Perhaps, after all, the result epitomised perfectly where they are as a team: Fast improving but maybe not quite fast enough to trouble the European places this season. This was exactly the kind of match they would have lost not so long ago, yet now the type you feel they maybe should have won.

Disappointment at the result stemmed mainly from the fact they have been such excellent frontrunners on the road. When Benrahma smashed home from the penalty spot to cancel out Ollie Watkins’ opener, it was the first time they had conceded an equaliser on the road. That the spot-kick was highly contentious, Leon Bailey adamant he had not laid a glove on Lucas Paqueta after the Brazilian had gone tumbling to the ground, made it no easier to digest.

From there, the Hammers carved out enough decent chances to have deserved a goal but Villa’s defence held firm while, in attack, they were unable to capitalise on big moments. Watkins was maybe unlucky not to have his second of the afternoon when a first-time, close-range effort hit goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and then rather fortuitously stuck in the goalkeeper’s gloves. Watkins remained one of Villa’s brightest spots on the afternoon even with his tally remaining at one. It is now six goals in the last seven matches for the 27-year-old, who has surely done enough to convince Gareth Southgate he is worthy of an England recall? The goal here saw him become the first Villa player since Dwight Yorke, a quarter of a century ago, to score in four consecutive Premier League away matches.

The question from Villa’s perspective is whether they are doing enough to support him in attack? Emi Buendia and the injured Philippe Coutinho remain the only other Villa players to score during that seven match sequence. Jhon Duran, sent on as a late substitute, had two late chances to open his account and snatch the win but was unable to capitalise. The continued poor form of Leon Bailey, meanwhile, is a growing concern with the Jamaica international currently looking a player second guessing himself at every opportunity.

Duran was Villa’s only attacking recruit of the January window and while the club’s decision to keep their powder dry till the summer was understandable, it could still carry a tinge of regret should they end up just short of the top seven.

At least their other arrival of the window, Alex Moreno, made the goal here with a pinpoint cross which perfectly dissected the West Ham centre-backs and arrived perfectly on to the head of Watkins, six yards out. The disappointment was Moreno did not make more of several other good positions in which he found himself before being removed just past the hour mark for Lucas Digne.

Then again, he was hardly the only one.

Villa’s most dominant spell arguably came immediately after their goal but they lacked composure against struggling opponents, who were clearly rattled by going behind. Benrahma’s penalty emboldened the Hammers and they never looked so fragile again.

The draw at least ended a run of five straight defeats for Villa against opponents who of late have become something of a bogey team. It is now just one win in the last 14 meetings with the Hammers and just two wins in the last 20 away. More evidence to file under the point gained column.

So too is the difference in these teams, compared to a year ago. This match took place just a day short of 12 months since Villa last visited the London Stadium. Then it was West Ham chasing Europe, the 2-1 win extending their advantage over Villa in the table to 12 points. The gap at the final whistle yesterday was 11 points, yet now it is Villa who are in the higher position.

Granted, the Hammers have regressed and struggled with the added workload of European football, yet the speed in which Emery has elevated performances and expectations at Villa remains impressive, nonetheless.