Aston Villa provided the great thinkers of the world with a paradox born out of today’s football game in Nottingham. How can a team win a game when they barely seem to try?
That is no slight on the Villans, who pressed for every ball and strode forward with purpose - but they almost looked lazy when driving towards the Forest penalty area. Their build-up was slow, but their attacking showed every bit of bite needed to take all the points. Any eye test would perhaps favour Nottingham Forest, a team that lacked everything that Villa found with aplomb.
It didn’t exactly take long for Villa to make the most of a single chance. When Robert Snodgrass found an inch of space on his right-flank he was able to whip in a warping cross.
With only one man in the box from a deep ball, Villa had no right to score. However, the slithering Scott Hogan, up front for the Villa, tracked the ball from the moment it left the Scotsman’s foot and nodded it past the flailing Jordan Smith in goal. The keeper should have claimed it, the defenders should have headed it out - but it all fell perfectly for Hogan, who will no doubt be delighted to score once more for Villa.
GOAL HOGAN #AVFC pic.twitter.com/3z3wlvCVy3— James Rushton (@Jamorushton) January 13, 2018
Glenn Whelan found his feet in the first-half and was able to prove somewhat of a wall to Forest’s admittedly weak counter. Forest seemed to be able to construct chances, but failed to cap their routine off with a goal - Matty Cash and Zack Clough as well as Ben Brereton all found themselves shooting wide or into the hands of Sam Johnstone.
It is perhaps a perfect representation of Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa that they went into the second half lacking in all areas - yet with a one goal lead to savour. To simply look at the numbers would reveal a Villa side that had perhaps been played off the park, yet the viewing was a delight. Nottingham Forest were toothless on the counter - a footballing dynamic they enjoyed plenty of with no result. New Forest boss, Aitor Karanka clearly has a bit of work to do. Still, too many times this season have Villa been in Forest’s shoes - dominating the game, but with only empty hands to show for it come the end of the game.
Whelan was taken off when the final forty-five minutes arrived due to injury and made way for Birkir Bjarnason, who was able to show a few neat touches and tricky passes here and there. What Villa lost in Whelan’s might was made up for by Bjarnason’s ingenuity. It’d be a shame for the Icelandic international to leave Villa before he ever really got started, but such is the nature of football.
The second half of football at the City Ground emulated the first - Forest would cut with the counter but find nothing, while Villa looked downright scary progressing into the final third. With a bit more finesse, the Villans may have doubled their lead; either with a curling shot from Jack Grealish that lashed wide, and a rasping shot from Scott Hogan that was easily saved.
Forest proved to be somewhat of a threat as they stretched play wide and pressed into Bjarnason, but Villa seemed to be a step ahead when their turn to cut forward would come. Hogan cut an inspired figure up front, leading the team forward and pressing at all times, while Jack Grealish’s play must be admired - for the young forward would be far too happy to track back as well as push Villa forward.
Villa never truly looked uncomfortable when put under pressure. Even a hospital ball from James Chester that tumbled to Zach Clough was handled well by Villa. With Bjarnason, Snodgrass, Elmohamady and Grealish involving themselves with defensive play, the game started to slip into Villa’s hands.
With Forest frustrated, the accumulation of bookings started. Both of Karanka’s right-sided players, Matty Cash and former Villa man & current Forest cup hero Eric Lichaj were quickly introduced to a yellow card while Villa ran riot, with Robert Snodgrass seemingly picking up fouls and free-kicks at will.
Nerves started to show when Scott Hogan made way for Keinan Davis, with Forest’s Dowell testing Sam Johnstone from range while Villa’s defensive discipline - provided by the returning John Terry in spades - seemed to slightly erode with their energy levels. Nowhere near enough for Karanka’s men to get a look in, though.
Even with Nottingham throwing their last gasps at the away side, it was the latter who found the net - with Jack Grealish playing Albert Adomah through on goal, only for the offside flag to rise as the ball passed the line. Sam Johnstone showed his mettle by increasing his save percentage (now the highest between goalkeepers in the Championship) as tame shots approached his goal.
Tame seems a perfect word to finish on, as it was the Lions that ran rampant in Nottingham against a tame Forest side that seemed to fruitlessly swing for a knockout punch. Steve Bruce has every reason to celebrate - with Villa heading deeper into 2018 with three wins in a row behind him, three clean sheets and a hatful of goals.
After quoting mass hysteria, the only hysterics here are outbursts of praise for a Villa side - a Villa side that finally deserve it.