By Kris Woodward
In his pre-play-off final press conference Dean Smith declared a clean bill of health for the Aston Villa squad (bar Orlan Nyland), as he readied himself for his toughest managerial challenge yet Wembley showpiece.
Smith, essentially doesn’t have many selection headaches when it comes to his first XI to start the final, but the decisions he does make could determine how effective Villa will be against Derby County from the off.
Smith’s previous selection conundrum was choosing between Conor Hourihane and Glen Whelan at the base of midfield. Whilst it’s not certain, it’s more than likely that Hourihane has done enough to claim that spot going into the final.
Hourihane started in both games against Derby this season, scoring on each occasion. The so-called wide pitch would suit Hourihane much more than an ageing Glen Whelan.
Villa fans will be hoping that the attacking style we had become accustomed to will return in the final, with Derby less likely to retreat back behind fortified sandbagged trenches like West Brom did in both semi-final legs.
If there is going to be a more open game, then Smith is perhaps left with only one selection headache ahead of the final. With the rejuvenation of Neil Taylor, arguably Villa’s weakest position now is right wing, so who is going to play there?
Smith himself seems to be undecided on this spot with Albert Adomah starting the home leg of the play-off semi-final and Andre Green starting the game at the Hawthorns.
Uncle-Albert was a fan favourite last season and instrumental in Villa’s previous run to Wembley. His form has been less than impressive this year, initially battling with an un-fit Yannick Bolasie for a starting position, before rotating with Andre Green during the second half. At times this season, Elmohamady has been preferred on the right-wing, especially during Bruce’s rein.
Despite this, Adomah has started 23 games, as well as making 15 appearances from the bench. His return however, has been an underwhelming four goals and two assists. A significant decrease from his 14 goals and five assists the previous season.
At 31, it’s no surprise that the winger’s pace has decreased. This season, Adomah hasn’t had the legs to take defenders on and burst past them with a yard of pace. This maybe a disadvantage to Aston Villa if they want to exploit the space of the Wembley pitch.
Villa fans will have not yet forgotten either the penalty miss in the shootout or the chance late on, which admittedly produced a stunning save from ex-Villan Sam Johnstone.
This season looked to be Green’s breakthrough season before a timely loan move to League 1’s Portsmouth. Aside from a late winner in the FA Cup against champions Norwich City, Green struggled to get game time in an impressive Pompey team, managing just six appearances in the league, four of which were from the bench.
Since being recalled from his loan spell, the majority of Green’s appearances have been either from the bench or being substituted around the 60 minute mark. Green has only completed 90 minutes twice, the 3-1 win against Nottingham Forest and the final game of the season against Norwich.
Green’s return is similar to Albert, only scoring and assisting once. Albeit the goal being an impressive header in the dramatic 3-3 fightback against Sheffield United.
Whilst Green seemingly offers little in front of goal, he is more mobile and offers a pace threat that Albert doesn’t. However, he looked off the mark against West Brom at the Hawthorns, and despite Smith throwing on every attacker at his disposal in the latter stages against West Brom, Green was replaced after 75 minutes.
Ashley Cole EffectEmbed from Getty Images
Smith will also need to take into consideration the likely opponent at left-back that Derby will play. With Scott Malone receiving a red card in the game against Leeds, he will be suspended for the clash with Villa.
Malone’s likely replacement would be veteran Ashley Cole. Despite being 38-years-old, Cole is a vastly experienced left-back and will more than likely be the coolest head on the pitch come Monday.
Cole has played numerous games at Wembley, winning FA cups, League cups, Community Shield’s and many England appearances. For him, the occasion will certainly not be an overwhelming one.
Whilst his experience is unquestionable, his mobility will certainly not be what it was. This may favour Andre Green over Albert Adomah. Green will hardly be able to outsmart Cole, but he may stand a chance of outpacing Cole with speed and power.
The prospect of Ashley Cole playing may see Smith starting Anwar El Ghazi on the right to use his directness to unsettle Cole from the off. El Ghazi also has the power and presence to cause a physical mismatch, if he’s allowed to run at Cole or turn him.
Both Green and Adomah can play on the left. It’s perhaps Green’s favoured position and most of Adomah’s goals last season were from coming in from the left.
The secret perhaps to the Villa options in the wider areas for Smith will be the in-game management of them. Switching and substituting the combinations of them to maximise the threat and keep them fresh.
Smith may elect to start with Adomah on one of the flanks, simply to maximise the impact of Green coming off the bench later on to capitalise on his pace against a tiring Derby backline.
Of course another option for Smith would be to start with Jonathan Kodjia on the right. Filling in for Tammy Abraham during his period out with a shoulder injury, Kodjia went into the play-offs in decent form with three goals from four appearances.
On form Kodjia can offer more than both Green and Adomah in front of goal, however he is infamous for a lack of defensive concern in terms of tracking back. Despite the odd piece of magic further forward, Kodjia sometimes struggles to be a fluid member of the team, allowing the opposition to regroup as he takes more touches than perhaps will benefit his team in any given attacking situation.
Kodjia has been known to going missing for large spells of important games, a reason he lost his position to Lewis Grabban last season. Still, Kodjia has goals in him, so will probably only feature coming off the bench, if Villa are chasing the game or need a spark.
None of these options fill fans with an overwhelming sense of confidence, and it’s a position you would expect Smith to strengthen whatever league Villa find themselves in next season.
While the first XI team sheet would improve with a standout player on the right side, at Wembley to complement the rest of a strong Villa teamsheet, Smith, as suggested above, at least has options and combinations at his disposal to keep Derby on their toes.
Additional writing David Michael