Alex Keble looks ahead to the key battle in Saturday's West Midlands derby...
When Alan Hutton's strike hit the back of the net last weekend, a ray of sunlight burst through the dark clouds hovering ominously over Villa Park (metaphorcially, at least...). It was the first goal in front of the Holte End since April, and as the match-winner, catapulted Villa into 11th.
More significantly, Villa showed tentative signs of developing into a decent passing unit. The key battle this weekend, therefore, will be against themselves. Do they have the courage to try to dominate possession at The Hawthorns?
With 65% possession and 477 passes against Leicester, Villa's fluidity and overall attacking intent was as comforting as it was remarkable for their fans. After a mixed start to the season, the introduction of Tom Cleverley's movement and incisive play was a significant improvement from Villa's usually direct style. The former Manchester United man worked well alongside Ashley Westwood's calm distribution from the base of midfield.
Villa moved the ball into attacking positions far more quickly and incisively than usual, buoyed by their victory at Crystal Palace. Cleverley in particular showed glimmers of the dynamism that made him such a promising young talent at Old Trafford.
However, the real difference for Villa was the return of centre-back Jores Okore who, after a 14-month layoff, made his fifth league appearance for the club. His composure in possession (87.7% pass accuracy), set the standard for the team's ball retention.
Okore is more composed in possession than Ron Vlaar, often making clever passes, where Villa's captain would hoof clear.
This weekend's opponents West Brom are dispossessed 13.9 times per match (the second-highest average in division), and bemoan a 78% pass-completion rate. If Villa show more courage than they have done previously, they could easily dominate the game.
Of the last 10 goals West Brom have conceded, meanwhile, 7 have been from high crosses. Villa may be tempted to launch the ball to Christian Benteke, but if they show belief in their own ability they will find a much better strategy for winning this match.