There was a single moment that defined this match. In the 25th minute, Gabby Abgonlahor finally turned his man down the left and accelerated away. Looking up, he cut it back where Carles Gil, surely the classiest player on the field, was steaming in for the same kind of stunning curler he scored against Leicester last week. Then Claudio Yacob, the Argentinian midfield anchor of the West Brom defence threw himself in front of it, receiving the ball smack in the goolies and risking the future of the Yacob family. But Yacob’s sacrifice of his future generations kept the Villans at bay and they would barely get close to the Baggies goal again.
The ball smacking into the fleshy wall of Yacob´s groin was a microcosm of the 90 minutes as Tony Pulis set up a human wall in front of the West Brom goal which Villa and Tim Sherwood were powerless to penetrate.
On paper it was an attacking unit of tricky, creative attackers who could slide their way through the massed ranks, poisoned darts finding the chinks in clunky armour. In reality it was more of a blunt spoon. Gabby Abgonlahor surely now holds the record for “most games played as an ineffective lone striker” in the Premier League. This was no reflection on his workrate, just his suitability for winning headers against Jonny Evans (6 ft 2) and Gareth McAuley (6ft 3) who were playing so deep they could feel the molten heat of the Earth’s core.
Gil and Jack Grealish buzzed around ineffectively. Scott Sinclair couldn’t even muster that, managing a grand total of 4 passes and one free-kick won in 45 minutes. Ashley Westwood looked like he’d been attending the Aleksandr Tonev School of Shooting. Alan Hutton and Carlos Sanchez at least were defensively energetic but were unlikely to provide the key to a win.
There were early warning signs and it felt inevitable when Jordan Amavi went in far too weakly down the left, the ball squeezed loose and the resulting shot (driven low and hard, which Westwood should be forced to view on repeat until he gets the idea) was deflected in off Saido Berahino, all money-grabbing tweets of hate at his own team forgotten instantly as he raced to celebrate with the away fans. Villa fans might not be missing Aly Cissokho just yet but Amavi’s defensive errors have rapidly gone from acceptable for a new boy to “oh God not again”.
The second-half could have been replaced with footage of a schoolboy kicking a ball against a brick wall and would have lost little in entertainment value. Rudy Gestede was introduced but then Sherwood decided to play four central midfielders knocking the ball around the middle while the West Brom defence shuffled from side to side, a dance played out in eerie silence in front of over 36,000 people.
There was a brief moment of excitement when Joleon Lescott clipped an improbably gorgeous ball in for Micah Richards – and what an odd scoring combination that would have been – but Martin Atkinson suffered a specific bout of amnesia that temporarily wiped out the concept of ‘playing the advantage’ and slumber reigned once again.
At the final whistle, Villa fans were left sharing the dull ache that surely pounded through Claudio Yacob’s lower body but at least Yacob knew the pain was temporary – Villa fans have no idea when the club will stop kicking them in the metaphorical testicles.