By Camden Bauman
There Can Only Be One
Once Tyrone Mings finally signed on the dotting line for Aston Villa, the big question was who was going to partner him at centre-back in Villa’s backline. In a stark contrast to their centre-back shortcomings at the start of last season, Villa now have four centre-backs to chose from to partner Mings. It’s certainly a close call between James Chester, Ezri Konsa, Kortney Hause and Bjorn Engels, as to who’ll be the starter.
Many would have seen the reported £12m price tag for Konsa, as an early indication that the ex-Brentford man, would be in pole position. Similarities with Axel Tuanzebe have been spoken about, in terms of age and playing style, yet despite playing 42 times in the Championship last season, would Konsa be classed as too inexperienced to make the immediate step up?
Hause and Chester had both successfully filled the role before for Villa, but would they be starting in the Premier League from the off? Wolves were happy to sacrifice Hause, once they got promoted and Chester had been on West Brom’s bench in the Premier League, when Villa came a calling.
Despite Smith’s long-term interest in Bjorn Engels, it was still something of a surprise when Villa opted to add a fifth centre-back to the squad, when often having four options is considered enough.
Maybe it was a case of opportunity knocks?
Engles joined Villa for a rumoured fee just over £7m from Stade de Reims. The move came a few weeks after Engels made his loan to Stade de Reims permanent from Olympiakos. The former Club Brugge man has had an interesting career up until this point, going through many footballing peaks and troughs already, despite being only 24-years-old.
What Has He Done?
The former U-21 Belgian international came through the youth ranks of Club Brugge before making his debut at the age of 17 in the Europa League against Bordeaux in September of 2012. It would take Engels until August of 2013 to make his second appearance for the club and he would go on to make a total of 35 appearances with five goals as an 18-year-old.
For his performances, Engels was nominated for Young Footballer of the Year for Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League.
Unfortunately, the former Arsenal target would not really take the step forward in his progress as the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons were plagued with injuries, most notably the former campaign, where he would only make 12 appearances in all competitions (although he scored three goals).
The following season, Engels was injured at the start, making his first appearance in December for Brugge. Despite the injuries, Engels was able to make 21 appearances, scoring two goals as Club Brugge won the league.
Even though he had a couple injury-plagued couple of seasons, his performances were enough to attract interest from other parts of Europe. Despite links to Arsenal, Fulham, and Stoke, Engels would end up signing for Olympiakos for around £6.5m.
In the 2017/18 season, Engels would make 17 appearances in the Super League Greece and 24 in total, scoring three goals. However, the following season he was sent out on loan after being told he would not play a lead role in the Olympiakos’ side. Engels would end up at Stade de Reims in Ligue 1 for the 2018/19 season.
The 2018/19 season for Engels would turn out to be his best, as he was able to stay fit and make 33 appearances for Reims as they finished eighth in their first season back in Ligue 1.
The 33 appearances while on loan is the highest amount of appearances in Engel’s professional career. At the end of the season, Reims made the loan permanent, but made an agreement with Engels that they would accept any considerable offer from the Premier League.
So despite a seemingly stop-start career so far, why have Villa drafted him in?
What Does He Bring to the Table?
Set Piece Weapon
Despite playing at the heart of the defense, Engels has scored a total of 15 goals in his seven professional seasons. He has scored in every season of his professional career, with a high of five goals in the 2013/14 campaign. Looking at his highlights, the six-foot four-inch (193cm) defender climbs above players marking him well and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Perhaps the main reason Smith has been interested in Engels for over a year is he’s comfortable on the ball and effective with it. Just looking at Engels’ passing statistics, the cost for the centre-back seems like a steal.
His 83.8% passing percentage last season would have placed him seventh in the Villa team last season, only slightly behind Tuanzebe’s 84.1%. In addition to the fairly high passing percentage, Engels led all centre-backs in Ligue 1 in key passes with 11 last season.
This shows Engels has the vision and ability on the ball to play a pass that leads to an opportunity. Engels seems to fit the new style of play that is expected of centre-backs, like a defensive midfielder who can play a cross-field ball or carry the ball forward.
Top Level Experience
Something that has been mentioned a lot about the Villa squad that has been compiled is that they are young and do not have a lot of top-level football experience. Engels has the most top division appearances out of all the summer signings, including 15 appearances in Champions League and Europa League.
The talk about how Villa’s new signings will adjust to the Premier League (except Targett), will go on until the first matchday, but Engels looks to have the attributes to cope well.
How Does He Fit?
Someone who fits the bill of the new Villa transfer profile, Engels looks to be an integral part of the upcoming Premier League campaign.
In terms of his all-round play and pace, perhaps Konsa is more like Tuanzebe, while Engels is a different type of player. Engels does not have the pace or nearly as much versatility that Tuanzebe provides, but Villa has many other players who can handle the other positions.
Engels looks to be an ideal partner for Mings, as they both have the height and defensive stability Villa will need for the Premier League. However, where Mings will look to push forward with the ball at his feet, Engels looks to play slightly more conservative but can hit a pass when he sees an opportunity.
With five centre-backs who are comfortable on the ball, Dean Smith now has the potential option of playing with a three centre-back formation in a more proper manner than we’ve seen it played at Villa Park by recent managers.
Frederick Guilbert and Matt Targett are both capable of playing further up their flanks, and Engels would line-up very nicely alongside Mings and either Konsa, Hause or Chester, making up the three.
Having started the Walsall friendly with Engels alongside Mings, how Villa line-up against Charlton and then against RB Leipzig will obviously provide a further insight into how Smith is thinking in terms of his immediate centre-back pairing.
To kick off the season, Villa’s Head Coach may favour the more imposing physical duo of Mings and Engels, to give Villa more of a presence at both ends of the pitch at set pieces, while Villa develop their play and bed their new boys in during the initial games of the season.
At just 24 and with a fee of around £7m, Engels looks to be a decent piece of business and could be at the heart of the Aston Villa defence for many years to come.
Additional reporting David Michael
Follow Camden on Twitter here @CamdenBauman