There was an awful feeling of de ja vu at Villa Park on New Years Day.
This was a Villa team riddled with injuries and one which looked decidedly fatigued from festive fixture congestion.
However, given the 5 point gap to the playoffs, momentum of sides around and above us and only managing a draw at Preston, this was a game Villa really needed to win.
With Smith’s hand forced (in some respects) to pick fringe players, rotate and with it adjust Villa’s formation, it’s perhaps no surprise that performances have tailed off.
Despite taking the lead against QPR, with Tammy Abraham nodding home from a fine McGinn cross, this was a laboured, disjointed performance.
It was also a game which we could easily have lost.
Whilst QPR’s chronic time-wasting and gamesmanship certainly didn’t help, Villa were guilty of being far too open down the left whilst appearing worrying one-dimensional going forward.
Despite an abundance of midfielders in the squad, there is also alarming imbalance. We neither seem to be able to sufficiently protect the defence, nor adequately support the strikers.
This is something that has become glaring in the absence of Jack Grealish.
Whilst Grealish’s technical qualities obviously provided a fluidity to our movement, it’s worrying that no combination amongst the remaining squad players has delivered a satisfactory temporary fix.
Bjarnason looked lost and after a horror miss against Preston, also reminded us that his crossing, positional sense and passing aren’t to be relied upon either.
Hourihane, who remains a fan-divider, had arguably one of his poorest games in a Villa shirt. The game was begging for a composed, thoughtful midfielder to take control. The Irishman could only deliver a woefully sub-par showing, where literally nothing went right for him.
Whelan, a trier, talker and excellent disruptor, does though revert Villa’s style of play to that of the maligned Bruce era. His introduction with over 15 minutes remaining stands out as a big tactical error by Smith with Villa on the front foot having equalised. At a moment when we required to give QPR something to think about, especially with 10+ minutes of injury time remaining, we make completely the wrong decision.
Steers first meaningful contribution was, typically, picking the ball out of the net. The 26 year old couldn’t be faulted for the goal, especially after the QPR man was permitted license to run unopposed through the Villa midfield before unleashing a fierce strike into the net, levelling the game.
Elphick did the simple things well and is a welcome orthodox centre half partner for Chester. Chester though, still soldiers on with visible injury struggles owing to a problematic knee. One wonders if the imminent arrival of defensive cover will see the Welsh international the time in which to recuperate.
James Bree, finally utilised at right back, provided welcome moments of promise. The former Barnsley defender looked competent in his defensive duties and also linked well with El Ghazi when the Dutchman was introduced. Crucially, Bree provided all the evidence needed that he should be preferred over Ahmed Elmohamady for defensive duties.
Jonathan Kodjia, often ineffective when deployed to wider duties, rarely threatened. Indeed, he was fortunate not to receive more than a yellow card for leaving the boot in as the QPR ‘keeper, leaving him with a bloodied nose. It was poor from Kodjia and it opened the door up to another lengthy period of orchestrated time-wasting by Steve McLaren’s side.
Through a combination of Villa’s lack of cutting edge, absence of creative intent and QPR’s brute force anti-football, we then managed to lose control of the game midway through the second half.
A simple enough break saw QPR advance with ease beyond the poorly positioned Hutton, a route they were gifted repeatedly, before a square ball was planted beyond Steer. 2-1 to the visitors.
Villa introduced Bolasie and El Ghazi. It was perhaps another mistake that neither of the two started, with both offering immediate threat to the Villa side. El Ghazi naturally delivered a great ball, which Abraham planted into the net for his second of the game and 16th of the season.
With stoppage time, there was over 25 minutes of play remaining.
However, instead of kitchen sinking QPR, we simply allowed the game to pass us by.
The end result is another draw. There are simply too many of these at a time when we can least afford them.
Sides around above us haven’t stood still, they’ve consolidated their position. Whilst it would be misguided to level criticism at this stage, December must be looked back on as a missed opportunity. You only need reflect on the late goals, the mistakes and the points that it has cost.
With a cup game against Swansea to negotiate this weekend, we must prioritise beating 20th placed Wigan (12th January) or risk a five point gap to the playoffs growing larger – and with it – our realistic hopes of this being a promotion season.