West Ham 1 Aston Villa 1 – can Zaniolo kick on? Duran’s struggle, Rogers needs patience

Nicolo Zaniolo has not had an easy time at Aston Villa since arriving from Galatasaray. He was a high-profile summer signing but has struggled to earn Unai Emery’s trust, so could his second-half equaliser kickstart his career in England?

With Tottenham Hotspur having lost 3-0 to Fulham away on Saturday, this was a chance to open up a gap on Ange Postecoglou’s team in fifth.

Buoyed by the 4-0 thumping of Ajax in the Conference League, Emery switched to a 4-4-2 in the absence of his suspended captain John McGinn, to take the game to West Ham. It did not work in the first half as the Scotland midfielder was sorely missed — Michail Antonio’s first-half diving header put the home team in front.

But Emery made four changes once the first half ended, with Zaniolo, who came on in the 63rd minute, equalising 11 minutes from time.

Villa pushed for a winner but it almost came at the other end with Tomas Soucek denied a goal by VAR after a lengthy check in added time.

The Athletic’s Jacob Tanswell analyses all the action.

Was it right time to start Duran?

Thirteen months after his signing, it was a first Premier League start for Jhon Duran and, as a consequence, the first time Emery had played two archetypal strikers this season.

Emery explained following the Ajax game on Thursday that formations do not tend to change Villa’s build-up structure, but playing Duran and Ollie Watkins together meant a deviation away from the No 10s system that flanks the lone forward up front. Nonetheless, it was a selection certainly far more purposeful than the back five deployed in the 4-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last week.

Duran is a character who needs to feel valued, and his inclusion was a result of a starring display off the bench against Ajax, replacing Watkins in the first half and scoring in the second.

Watkins and Duran dovetailed as split strikers in the first half, with Morgan Rogers — the spare player in Villa’s build-up and when West Ham press — operating as the sole No 10 between them. The early signs were initially promising. Drifting from the left, Rogers would draw West Ham right-back Vladimir Coufal inside the pitch, causing visible confusion and shouts to closest midfielder Tomas Soucek in passing the midfielder on.

Duran struggled on a rare start (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Yet, Villa did not find any sense of rhythm in the first half, losing the ball carelessly in their defensive third and halting the supply line to the front two.

Tellingly, Duran (12) and Watkins (15) had the lowest number of touches of any player on the pitch, this was despite the visitors dominating possession with 65 per cent. Emery’s system change showed teething issues in the first half, exacerbated by his team’s poor quality in executing the fundamentals, and Duran was replaced at half-time by Moussa Diaby.

How long will Rogers need to adapt?

Morgan Rogers’s start to life at Villa has not been inconspicuous. He has shown a willingness to put himself about, aggressive defensively but often straying over the line, leading to bookings against Luton Town and Ajax in the Conference League, with Emery feeling the need to protect him by taking him off on both occasions.

Injuries and absentees in creative positions, such as Jacob Ramsey and McGinn, has meant Rogers has played more than he or those close to him initially expected, viewing the final part of the season — having signed from Middlesbrough in January — as a period of adaptation.

Here, Rogers made his first Premier League debut on the back of two starts against Ajax, operating as the lone No 10 in Emery’s rewired structure. In the first half, he drifted in from the left and behind Watkins and Duran, picking up pockets of space between the lines.


Rogers struggled on his first Premier League start (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Emery likes Rogers’ poise and balance when running with the ball and managed to find himself running at West Ham’s backline on several occasions, but struggled to produce the telling final action. In the first half, there was visible frustration after Rogers left the ball behind him when dribbling, soon after having a tame effort saved by Alphonse Areola.

The attacking onus on Rogers was eased in the second half when Diaby was introduced to play alongside him as another No 10. By the hour mark, when he was substituted for Zaniolo, Rogers had attempted the most dribbles of any player on the pitch, but despite continuing to show good movement and ability deeper, often picked the wrong pass when trying to match the runs of team-mates ahead.

His endeavour should only serve as a good sign going forward — his eagerness to defend is, in part, why he has earned Emery’s trust.


What does future hold for Zaniolo?

Zaniolo scored his second Premier League goal for Villa, both of which ended in 1-1 draws.

However, his equaliser against West Ham was his biggest moment in a Villa shirt, considering his diminishing stock. Zaniolo has struggled to impress of late, given fewer opportunities by Emery and reduced to sporadic minutes off the bench.

Emery’s belief in the Italian has subsequently seeped, having trusted Zaniolo to start as one of the two No 10s in the early part of the campaign. It was telling that without Ramsey and McGinn for the trip to the London Stadium, Emery still opted for Rogers ahead of Zaniolo, despite the latter’s greater pedigree. Zaniolo’s last start came on December 3 against Bournemouth, when he was taken off at half-time.

The 24-year-old is set to return to Galatasaray at the end of his loan in the summer and with time running out, his contribution here felt timely. He was brought on in the 63rd minute with Villa trailing and, as is character, soon involved himself in scrapes, clashing with Edson Alvarez.

Emery likes box-crashing No 10s and his goal was symptomatic, with Diaby running onto Youri Tielemans’ weighted pass and pulling the ball back for Zaniolo, who ran onto the ball and struck first time with ten minutes of normal time left.

Zaniolo could have added another shortly after, but the pass into him was just out of reach. His impact has been sparse for a player once valued so highly across Europe, but his role in ensuring Villa secured a point was what Emery hoped for when he pursued his signing in the summer, even if it has been a long time coming.

What did Emery say?

We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.

What next for Villa?

Saturday, March 30: Wolves (H), Premier League, 5.30pm GMT, 1.30pm ET

Without a win against their West Midlands neighbours in six meetings going back to December 2020, Villa try to correct a wobble in their previously excellent home form that has seen them lose three of the four league games played on their own pitch since the turn of the year.

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(Top image: Zaniolo celebrates his equaliser. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images))

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