Former loanee Robert Snodgrass condemned Steve Bruce’s men to the first defeat of their pre-season schedule when they lost 3-1 to West Ham. After much speculation, Bruce stood in the dugout following a meeting with new owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens prior to travelling to the Bescot, with the two vouching to provide their full support to the 57-year-old.
An emphatic effort from Andre Green was a mere consolation after Marco Arnautovic added a second to an early Michail Antonio goal, all before Snodgrass’ third. The Scot – who netted 7 times and provided 14 in Villa’s push for promotion last campaign – took selfies and signed autographs for fans who gave him a warm welcome before hugging assistant Colin Calderwood too. What’s more, with West Ham adding £38m rated Felipe Anderson and Ukrainian international Andriy Yarmolenko to an already impressive Hammers front line, the out of favour Scot may be surplus to requirements by new boss Manuel Pelligrini. Could this open the door to a second stint at B6?
Whilst we all know the trepidation of reading too much into pre-season results and performances, what must be addressed is a clear identity and strategy to win football matches, and in the penultimate fixture, before Villa start the new campaign, we lacked exactly this. Shoehorning players into unfamiliar positions and not playing with a natural centre-half for over half of the second period is worrying. Bruce – promoted with Hull City using the 3-5-2 system – clearly trusts the process but can he trust the players?
With Jed Steer retaining his place in the sticks, James Chester and Alan Hutton started either side of Tommy Elphick, whilst Jake Doyle-Hayes, Conor Hourihane and Glenn Whelan made up a midfield three. Interestingly, Jack Grealish partnered an in-form Jonathan Kodjia with Albert Adomah and James Bree providing width in the full back areas.
The early exchanges were dominated by the championship side, with good movement and rotation from the midfield trio, all of the Irish descent. Villa used the right-hand side to good prevail as Grealish drifted into an unorthodox position to help link with Kodjia on numerous occasions. Yet the Ivorian must be more ruthless in these situations as he dithered on the ball, allowing the West Ham defence to recover and regroup. Since the forward was ushered wide of Adrian’s goal by Hammers defender Arthur Masuaku, it was a chance for the Londoners to break.
If Villa dominated the proceedings on the right flank, West Ham certainly did on the left. With only ten minutes on the clock, powerful and athletic winger Michail Antonio was allowed to break into the Villa box after a succession of 50/50 duels were lost by Adomah and Hutton respectively. Bearing down on Elphick, the former Forest attacker used his pace on the outside of Villa’s defender to gain a half yard and strike fiercely beyond Steer.
In front of 1,300 or so travelling Hammers, the Premier League outfit found their rhythm, not giving Villa an inch which isn’t hard to believe with the quality West Ham have in their ranks. Since adding Jack Wilshere from Arsenal – a savvy coup by Chilean boss Pellegrini – the Hammers have an abundance of depth in most areas of the pitch. It would take Villa 25 minutes to register a meaningful attack when Kodjia again broke away from marker Angelo Ogbonna. A sweeping ball from maestro Glen Whelan found the run of Villa’s marksman who then beat the former Juventus man on the by-line, but was again indecisive in front of goal. Lacking his clinical nature, the forward was forced to use wing-back Bree who inaccurately crossed, to the disappointment of the Villa faithful.
In a first half lacking any real quality in the final third, Villa were punished as West Ham doubled their advantage moments later. Bree was drawn out from his position by Masuaku’s intelligent one-two with Brazilian international Felipe Anderson who then demonstrated his class with a reversed through pass into the stride of the French fullback. Marauding down the left flank, Masuaku found an unmarked Arnautovic in the box who stabbed past Steer for a second.
The difference in quality was for all to see as Hutton and Adomah attempted to recreate West Ham’s slick play. With Adomah successfully managing to beat the experienced Pablo Zabaleta, his cross did not meet a claret and blue shirt- a wasteful and uncreative first 45 for Villa, which former Villain and Scotsman Barry Bannan watched from the stands.
With Bruce keeping to tradition, no changes of personnel were made until the hour mark. A host of alterations were then made including the first appearance of World Cup stars Mile Jedinak, Birkir Bjarnason and Ahmed Elmohammady. Neither made an impact on the flow of the game, then again who did? With Grealish roaming around the illusive Kodjia for most of the game, he struggled to get on the ball and create. What’s evident from Wednesdays friendly was that if Bruce wants to use his tried and trusted formation Grealish must be used deeper, so he can express his talent on the ball and unlock weaker defences in the championship.
Since Villa allowed West Ham to dominate possession in the second period it took until the 80th minute for substitute Green to make a difference. The young winger – eager to make an impression – struck over after using his head to guide the ball around £25m rated, new West Ham signing Issa Diop. Green, making more happen in ten minutes than many others had been for the last hour would go one better but only after Snodgrass added another.
A questionable clearance from Steer’s weaker right foot allowed Sead Haksabanovic to feed Arnautovic who cleverly linked with Snodgrass before collecting the ball in a position to round Steer. Amongst many under 23 players who achieved much success last campaign, Harvey Knibbs in all respects is lesser known than Keenan Davis or Rushian Hepburn-Murphy for instance but is clearly in Bruce’s plans as he continues to impress. Another assist for the youngster means that Villa’s forward line has the depth, but does it have the quality? Such quality needed to gain promotion this term will need to be regularly exemplified by Andre Green who slammed beyond Adrian to add a second to his pre-season tally.
Understandably, Bruce opted not to talk to the press after the game but did describe he was “absolutely delighted” to be given reassurances about his future by new majority investors Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens. Villa will now travel to Dresden for their final warm-up game before starting the new championship campaign as they did last year, against Nigel Adkins’ Hull City on Monday 6th August.