Aston Villa: Midlands giants close in on top flight return
After a turbulent 18 months on and off the pitch, manager Steve Bruce has found a formula for success at Villa Park.
Victories over Birmingham City are always particularly sweet for Aston Villa, yet Sunday’s triumph over their city rivals held particular significance.
Goals from Albert Adomah and Conor Hourihane ensured the Villains would hold local bragging rights but it also saw the club enter the automatic promotion places for the first time since their relegation two years ago.
The triumph was Villa’s fifth straight league victory and their seventh in their last eight – a run which has included five clean sheets.
They have turned Villa Park into a fortress with ten wins and 35 points from their opening 15 home games – only runaway league leaders Wolves have a stronger record.
With a third of the season remaining, fans will be wary that their margin of era remains slim yet Steve Bruce’s men have the vital momentum as winter turns into spring.
A form team
There is an acute awareness that the former European Cup winners are a ‘form’ team, who have the capability of going on winning streaks yet conversely, are also culpable of losing control and letting bad form damage their showings.
After all, between April and mid-September they managed to win just two of their 13 league outings while they failed to win five consecutive league games throughout December.
However, there is more reason for optimism than just the recent form guide. This is a side packed with experience and know-how with a clear playing style and identity while manager Bruce is aiming for his fifth promotion from the division, having previously done so twice with city rivals Birmingham and with Hull City.
Calming the waters
The former central defender’s appointment at the club in October 2016 was not met with widespread approval – understandably, considering his links with the Blues.
His opening season was not without its complications, a 13th-placed finish including a nine-game winless run after Christmas brought questions over Bruce’s suitability for the role.
Expectations were high for a club with one of the league’s biggest budgets and a fan base who had not experienced the second tier in 26 seasons.
Yet Bruce has carried out a stellar job of calming the waters, getting back to basics and forming a team capable of challenging for promotion.
A tough nut to crack
Usually deploying a 4-4-1 formation, the team is one who pride themselves on being tough to break with defensive discipline and being structured at set-pieces.
Stronger aerially than with the ball on the ground and with an ageing defence being vulnerable to pace, the experienced Glenn Whelan often shields the back four when the team is on the attack to ensure they are not left exposed.
John Terry, now 37, and James Chester provide the aerial presence both offensively and defensively from set-pieces while Alan Hutton and Neil Taylor complete a back four heavy on top flight experience.
Whelan spent just shy of a decade in the Premier League with Stoke while, somewhat unusually, the main goal threats come from midfield.
A fluid attack
The star has been Adomah – 13 league goals in 27 outings – while Robert Snodgrass has also starred on the opposite flank, with Hourihane chipping in from central midfield with eight goals.
Josh Onomah often provides the support to Keenan Davis upfront but 48 league appearances between them this season, have only managed six goals.
It is this interchanging nature of their attack, with such a goal threat coming from midfield and set pieces, which has often baffled opponents. Jack Grealish’s return from injury also adds an extra layer of creativity into the Villains attack.
Fans of Villa must be wary they still must face five of their top seven rivals in the run-in, two of whom come in the next games (Fulham, Preston) before a testing trip to Sheffield Wednesday.
The penultimate game of the season – against Derby, currently a point behind Bruce’s side in third – has already been earmarked as a potential deciding game for the final automatic promotion spot.
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