Football of the winning kind returned to Villa Park last weekend to transform Aston Villa’s expectations going into the Second City derby this Sunday.
With the amount of goals Villa had been conceding at home this season, the joke had been they need to score three to ensure anything from a game. When Villa had four by the half-way mark against Derby, Villa supporters could finally feel a rare confidence that three points were on their way.
Derby chalked up their third loss on the spin, after failing to get a foothold in midfield and register a single shot on target.
The hype before the game had all been on Jack Grealish’s return, appointed captain, he didn’t disappoint. The midfielder seemed to turn the switch for the Villa midfield ‘ON’, after its previous dormant state during the year, so far. Spurred on by Captain Grealish, it crackled into life with constant positive intent.
Conor Hourihane and Glen Whelan both seemed to be transformed by Grealish’s presence and the defence behind them looked comfortable, now that Villa’s midfield was dictating play.
Dean Smith’s biggest decision going into this weekend’s Blues game now is very much, who’s his midfield three?
With John McGinn returning from suspension, does he start the Scot from the bench and stick with the same balanced trio that were successful against Derby? With Hourihane free to get further up the pitch and support Abraham, with Whelan playing the defensive shield role, but being more progressive with his passing than he has been.
Does Smith play a more combative midfield with Whelan and McGinn, backing up Grealish.
Or does he drop Hourihane or McGinn deeper, with both playing with Grealish?
Perhaps the first two options provide the better balance and put players in their natural roles.
It’s an interesting dilemma.
Elsewhere, Smith may ponder his goalkeeper choice, while at centre-back Kortney Hause could slide across, although there still is the option of Mile Jedinak, who’s had previous success against the Blues.
Aston Villa Player Observations and Recent Ratings vs Derby
Jed Steer – 6
Steer didn’t have a shot to save against Derby and it’ll be interesting to see if Smith keeps faith with him, or elects to bring back Kalinic into the fold.
To be honest, it’s something of a 50-50 call, as Kalinic hasn’t been totally convincing yet.
Ahmed Elmohamady – 7
Elmohamady had a very decent game against Derby, combining and overlapping well with Adomah. It was a great delivery to the back stick for Tammy Abraham’s goal too.
More of the same against the Blues will be a big plus.
Kortney Hause – 7.5
Has settled into the left-back role over the past few games and looked increasingly comfortable against Derby, even getting forward with good intent. Sods law that with Tommy Elphick now out, it now looks likely he’ll play at centre-back in the immediate future.
This will potentially mean that Neil Taylor will be back, which could be a concern unless he steps up to the plate. John McGinn had played a training game or two as left-back while suspended, so Smith could have that wildcard up his sleeve.
Tommy Elphick – 7
After settling in as part of Villa’s new back four, it was a sorry sight to see Elphick leave the field on a stretcher after falling awkwardly, after reacting to a misplaced pass by Mings. The injury didn’t look good and he’ll now be out for roughly six weeks.
Villa are now thin at the back once again and will be hoping there’s no more injuries in the next three games before the international break.
Tyrone Mings – 7.5
Mings has certainly become the main man of the defence in recent games and his role will become more important after Elphick’s injury. It was noticeable to see Elphick play the ball to Mings to provide the out ball. Hause though made some decent passes out at time, so it could become a decent partnership.
Glenn Whelan – 8
An ever improving force in the Villa midfield, since he missed ‘that penalty’, this was one of Whelan’s best performances in a Villa shirt.
His range of passing was more expansive than his normal tidy short pass routine and he made sure Derby got no purchase in their passing game. Whelan got in a couple of crunching tackles that reminded the Rams who was in control of the midfield.
His highlight though was his inch perfect corner to Grealish for his spectacular volley, a routine they’d been practicing on the training ground in the week leading up to the game.
Would Villa benefit from Whelan’s experience and form against the Blues? It’s tempting to start him and then introduce either McGinn or Hourihane off the bench, if the team needs more impetus.
Conor Hourihane – 8.5 MOTM
Playing further forward in the Villa midfield clearly is Hourihane’s preferred role and allows him to make his greatest contribution to the team.
After receiving plenty of abuse by certain Villa fans and also being subbed during the Baggies game for a teenager, his brace in the Derby game was the perfect response.
Villa have nothing to lose now this season, so Smith may go gun-ho and play Hourihane in the same role against the Blues. Villa would have to get on the ball and dictate the game like they did on their travels to Derby and Boro.
If Hourihane has a good game, then Villa probably will win.
Jack Grealish – 8.5
If only he had come back a month earlier, how different would the league table look?
There really was no time for Grealish to ease his way in, so it was great to see Jack hit the ground running. His pass completion rate was over 95%, which shows you most of Villa’s play was successfully going through him.
His jaw-dropping strike will give him a big boost going into a potentially difficult game for him. He’ll no doubt be targeted by both the Blues players and fans.
Certainly it’ll be an interesting test and a litmus test of his character, now that the team look up to him as their captain.
Anwar El Ghazi – 7
El Ghazi played with a refreshing gameness about him. Keen in possession and notably tackled back a couple of times. Should get the start against the Blues and hopefully he’ll have his shooting boots on like he did at the Hawthorns.
Tammy Abraham – 7
Suddenly against Derby, Abraham wasn’t alone again, with Hourihane and Grealish buzzing around him. It’s no surprise he returned to the goals.
He should be pumped up for St Andrews and Villa will need him to be amongst the goals in the two games after, to put them back in the play-off picture.
Albert Adomah – 7
Looked like his old self against Derby. If he keeps up that level of performance for the rest of the season, it will be very welcomed, as he provides Villa with a more varied threat, when on song. Linked up constructively with Elmohamady throughout the first half of the Derby game, which is a partnership that will certainly help Villa’s cause.
Off The Bench
Neil Taylor (67) – 6
Now is Taylor’s time to shine or at least be a consistent 7/10 player with Villa’s defence now down to the bare bones.
Tom Carroll (71) – 6
Looked lively in the opening minutes he was on the pitch against Derby with his quick movement and snappy passing. Expect him to see time off the bench in the coming weeks.
Andre Green (80) – 6
Having Green as that direct wide impact option off the bench, will certainly come into play by Smith, if Villa are all square with the Blues late on. Didn’t see much of the action when he came on against Derby. Could start against Forest, if Smith elects to freshen things up, after what should be a high intensity clash versus the Blues.
Manager Rating – 7
Smith got the balance of his midfield spot on against Derby, although John McGinn’s suspension forced his hand to a current degree.
The question is now, will he sacrifice Whelan or Hourihane for McGinn? I don’t think it’s such an obvious call. Whelan is playing well and is an experienced head, all-action McGinn maybe pulled into the fray. Will McGinn play deep against the Blues? Is he wasted there?
As mentioned above, Hourihane further forward, linking up with the attack could prove more of a threat than McGinn. Yet could McGinn playing instead of Hourihane, alongside Whelan, help win control of the tense midfield battle against the Blues?
We’ll see what happens.
Meanwhile, after throwing some pointed remarks at WBA’s boss Darren Moore the other week, for sitting back in the second half when 2-0 up (nothing wrong with securing the three points, Mr Smith), the Villa Head Coach admitted post-match that he instructed his team at half-time against Derby to make sure they kept a clean sheet.
Yes, ultimately we didn’t score any more goals, which were in the offing (although we did go close), but a focus on the defensive side of Villa’s game is most welcome.
People who were questioning Smith’s loaning of Kortney Hause as well as Tyrone Mings, will clearly see the benefits now, after Elphick went off. Without him able to now slot in at centre-back, we’d be in big trouble considering the posse of defenders currently in sick bay.
The Derby win will be a welcome result for Smith, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer. A win against the Blues though will certainly provide a spring catalyst for Smith heading into the final games of the season.