Will He? Won’t He? Villa Fans Await Return of Grealish, as Parker’s Fulham is a Different Beast

Aston Villa vs Fulham

By Dean Gregory

The international break came at a convenient time for Villa, who after a bad run of form have dropped out of the top half of the table. As they prepare for Fulham’s visit, they will be looking to get the season back on track, and finish strong.

Fulham have improved significantly since the start of the season but they still find themselves in 18th, two points behind Newcastle in the promised land of 17th place. They know a win could see them clamber above their rivals (if the Toon lose against Spurs today), and will do everything in their power to get one.

League Form

Aston Villa – W L D D L

Fulham – D L W L L

Manager Quotes

Dean Smith on team news

Jack Grealish’s trained all week – he’s only had a few sessions though. He seems in good nick and he seems fit enough, so he’s certainly put himself up for selection which is good for everybody.

“We’ve pretty much got a fully fit squad. Wesley is still playing catch-up in terms of his match fitness.

“Kortney Hause is back in full-time training. We had a practice game behind closed doors during the international break for all the players who hadn’t been getting minutes.

“We’re in a good place at the moment.”

On Fulham

“It will certainly be a very different game [to the reverse fixture]. Looking at the last game they played and when we played them earlier in the season, there are only five players who started that game against us.

“It’s going to be very different. I believe they’re a good team and a team that’s in-form. They’ve already made up a great amount of points on the teams above them when it looked like they were getting cut adrift.

“That shows the job that Scott Parker’s done that they’re in touching distance of three of four other clubs now.”

Scott Parker on Aston Villa

“What brings staying in this division is finances, what the club wants to do and their ambition. It is down to each club and Aston Villa stayed in the league, invested last year but managed to add on to that and invest again this year with extra money.

“What comes with that is a team that is comfortable in this division, they have built a squad and a team that can be very good in this league.

What Villa did last year highlights that all clubs coming into this league see that the gap between Championship and Premier League is massive – there is no hiding from that.

“The money, the quality, the players are very, very good – the first season is to try and stay in the league and then build again. You want to take massive steps of course, sometimes spend a lot of money, or you take small steps and keep building – but what brings you those options is staying in the league.”

Tactical Analysis

Fulham generally line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aleksander Mitrovic leading the line, Bobby De Cordova-Reid, Tom Cairney and Ademola Lookman behind him, Harrison Reed and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa in the middle and a back four of Ola Aina, Joachim Andersen, Tosin Adarabioyo and Antonee Robertson.

With 49.9% possession and a passing accuracy of 80.9%, Fulham are a team that have clearly gotten to grips with their style of play over the course of the season. While they still struggle to impose themselves on games, they have a clear understanding amongst the players that was not present before. They still utilise long-ball tactics at times with 12% of all passes being long, but they trust each other much more now to be able to move the ball through the middle of the pitch.

They like to allow their fullbacks to push high and provide width with wingers Lookman and Cordova-Reid pushing centrally and forward, providing the main goal threat. Mitrovic, who has not been the reliable goal machine he has been over the years for Fulham, now primarily occupies the defenders and chips in with an assist here and there. This seamless shift in roles has been a major help in Fulham’s push for safety.

They have managed 23 goals from 34.29 xG. Their problem is not necessarily an inability to create chances, but a lack of bite in front of goal. Things may have improved for them over the course of the season, but if they do manage to survive then a more capable centre-forward who can more reliably put chances away will be their main concern in the summer.

They have conceded 38 goals from 46.3 xGA. Their defence has tightened and improved significantly, but they still suffer the problem of allowing far more opportunities for opponents to shoot. Their defensive players tend to make more tackles than interceptions and clearances – interceptions are a sign of good positional awareness and planning, while tackling is usually last-ditch damage control when something has gone wrong.

Fulham are no longer the hapless relegation fodder that inspired betting companies to pay out early on them dropping down a division this season. They still have some way to go before they’re truly competitive and are not safe just yet, but this will not be as easy for Villa as it was at the beginning of the season.

One to Watch

With four goals and four assists, Ademola Lookman has been the team’s primary goal threat. He takes 2.3 shots and makes 1.9 key passes per 90, and helps out defensively from the front with 1.1 tackles per game.

After a shaky start to his time there, including an embarrassing attempt at a panenka penalty, he has started to settle in nicely and if his team do survive, he will be the key reason.

Memory Match

Aston Villa 1-0 Fulham – 10-03-2012

Andi Weimann scored late on to secure the three points in the last game Villa won at home against Fulham.

Previous Result

Fulham 0-3 Aston Villa – 28-09-2020

Goals from Grealish, Hourihane and Mings secured a fairly easy three points for Villa in their second game of the season. It will probably be Hourihane’s final game in a Villa shirt, so it is fitting that he got on the scoresheet.

Aston Villa shirt sales

How it could play out

Villa fans rejoice – Jack Grealish is once again “up for selection”. Recent social media rumours hint that he’s not 100% and might be a bit of a false messiah in terms of an Easter Sunday return. But when’s the last time you relied on social media for the truth? 3.30pm team news will confirm it either way.

A bad run of form has coincided with the captain’s absence and his return will be a welcome one. It has highlighted the fact that Villa are still somewhat reliant on him and their fortunes rest heavily upon his shoulders.

It is prudent to remember that they are still building a team capable of regularly challenging at the top of this league however; it is not to say the team is bad, but Grealish’s standard is so high that it raises expectations for the entire club.

With Jack back in the team the run-in for this season looks a lot more palatable. Of course, Smith has not said he is 100% fit and ready, and he is known for playing his cards close to his chest. Could it be that Jack is only ready for a place on the bench this time out?

Villa will be facing a much stronger Fulham than they did at the start of the season, so while that game was something of a canter, this one is unlikely to be as simple. Villa’s defense has proven to be sturdy but not impenetrable, but this is a game that will be won in the middle.

With McGinn having had a very active international break, Barkley being out of sorts since his return, Luiz not being at his best in the last few games and Sanson not quite fully settled yet, Villa’s midfield has been a little concerning for a few weeks now. Nakamba has shown himself to be solid when he has played, but would this be his sort of game?

The puzzle of how to set up this midfield just lately is one that is yet to reach a solution, and it will need to be under control if Villa want a strong finish to the season. Jack’s return will be a massive boast, though.

Verdict

Aston Villa 1-0 Fulham

Villa should have enough to see this through, if Grealish plays a part (a draw is on the cards, if he doesn’t). It is hard to imagine it will go as well as it did the first time. Win here, and carry the momentum forward – that should be the main goal.

1 COMMENT

  1. well a surprising ending after going 0-1 down after a stunned Mings gave them a free pass to score , the subs did us proud with a 3-1 final score . The question now is what sort of lineup & tactics will Smith serve up for next game ?

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