In the run up to today’s match Steve Bruce suggested that there would be changes to the match day lineup and when the starting XI came out we learned that Josh Onomah would be taking the place of Keinan Davis.
Removing a striker showed Bruce’s intent to control the middle of the field and indeed, even in the September run of form that Villa were on an inability to string together passes, control possession and break down the defenses was seen as a problem. Onomah has shown an ability to control, create and finish in this 2017 campaign with his time at Villa Park as well as his time with the Young Lions, so his inclusion was greeted warmly.
However why was it that Keinan Davis took the manager’s ire? Davis, along with Albert Adomah, was the brightest of bright spots for this Villa team, and preceded Jon Kodjia’s return to the pitch. After last weekend where Kodjia at times seemed disinterested, it may have even been welcome to see him as the substitute.
Yet, Davis has been injured and if Bruce saw something in their training that gave him pause that he could make a full shift, that’s understandable.
The First Half
The early going showed it seemed to be a good tactic. After nearly seeing a dribbler roll right past Sam Johnstone and thereafter conceding a free kick just outside the box in the early-going, Villa showed a good ability to create opportunities in the box with possession and some space. After that first run, Fulham gave away possession often, was broken down through the defensive left side, and were forced to eat a few cards against a Kodjia break and attempting to run Robert Snodgrass off of a possession.
The Villa forwards also put a large amount of defensive pressure along the Fulham back line keeping the ball entrenched in Cottager territory, however that came back to bite them in the 20th minute when Aboubakar Kamara was sprung behind Villa back line and had a good run and centering pass to the front of the goal. With no support, however, an open goal was left unfilled and Villa repopulated the box to clear the attack.
In short order though, Fulham found themselves behind the defense and an Alan Hutton challenge at the end line, though appealed, was not granted by referee Mike Jones (no relation).
After moving into the attack, Villa opened the scoring. Conor Hourihane, expertly in charge of the free kick put a perfect ball right in front of the goal where it was met by Captain, Leader, Legend (trademark) John Terry for his first Villa goal.
The attacking performance from Villa was still maddening, to fans and very clearly to Snodgrass. Jon Kodjia patently refused on multiple occasions to lay the ball off right opting instead to try to beat his man to get in front of goal. At times it earned fouls, at times it lost possession, all times it looked to frustrate the right winger who was eager to get the ball forward into the corner.
John Terry, in addition to his goal, had a great poking dispossession on a spirited Fulham run and both he and Chester continued to look comfortable and capable.
Josh Onomah and Kodjia had some nifty movement in front of goal that would have made it to the board if not for a wonderful save from Cottager Keeper David Button whose patience earned his wage and kept the Villa lead to a mere goal in spite of the outstanding play from Onomah.
Shortly before halftime, Fulham came to life, pushing the lines of the field back on the Villa goal. Repeatedly they created space and chances, but without follow up, no attempts were able to be made on net.
That changed in the 46th minute when Glenn Whelan clumsily ran into the back of the Fulham attacker and conceded a free kick from just outside the 18 yard box. Midfielder Stefan Johansen’s kick found the bottom of the far post and brought Fulham equal on the scoresheet after poor play for the majority of the half.
Phil Vogel in our match preview presaged Fulham’s ability to score late, citing their 37.5% clip of goals scored in the final 15 minutes of matches and privately cited their 25% clip between minutes 30-45.
That looked like a poor equation for Villa in the second half. A match they should have been leading, a goal they shouldn’t have conceded, against an opponent who had played poorly and showed up late. Villa needed to regain the lead and hold off a likely late fury to survive. That...that doesn’t sound like us.
The Second Half
Well the second half started off with some fun. An early pretty ball by Onomah to put Kodjia on net was ruled offside, but within just a few minutes he was at it again blowing down the right side of the attack, his centering pass made it’s way through Kodjia’s whiffing assault, but found a charging Adomah who made no mistake, popped the back of the net, then popped...some other things.
Fulham were quick to try to counter and Sam Johnstone, atoning for letting one through in the first half made a great play far off his line to clear a free attack on goal and supplement a beaten defense, as well as a few minutes later when he had a great save on a point blank shot to keep the single goal difference.
Fulham were able to gain deep possession and push the attack through a number of balls over the defense believing their speed could overwhelm the back four, however, even if initially beaten, Villa did a good job of manning the defense and not allowing opportunities up close for the most part.
As Fulham pushed the pitch opened up in front of Onomah, Kodjia and Adomah and a third goal seemed just seconds away. A lovely NFL-style form tackle on Kodjia in the box would normally qualify for a penalty, however Mike Jones’ refereeing preferred stern talking to rather than cards and spot kicks. Adomah sprinting straight down the left and pushing his ball too far forward, Hourihane passing up a shot to try to leave a ball off for Kodjia, the missed opportunities to go two goals up began to accumulate when Steve Bruce made his first change in the 73nd minute taking off Kodjia for Davis.
Steve Bruce at the 80th minute seemingly conceded attempt at the third goal by bringing in Ritchie de Laet for Snodgrass as a fifth defender to bolster the lines but de Laet impressively found himself on a deep counter-attacking run. Albert Adomah loped down the left side, identified de Laet’s surprising alacrity and put a perfect ball right on de Laed’s head before it was deflected out for a Villa corner.
A depleted Adomah was then subbed off for Birkir Bjarnason and after the corner came to naught, the Cottagers began their final push to earn an away point.
A hectic, halted breath stoppage time saw actually, no real chances on net for Fulham, though with their late-match heroics recently it certainly was tense all the same. Ritchie de Laet cleared a number of balls, John Terry limpingly did the same and the three blasts secured the three points for the Claret and Blue.
As of press time, the win put Villa in 5th place and in line for the promotion playoffs and only five points off of the top of the league in the run up to the Second City Derby.