After snatching a draw in the closing minutes against Preston North End, Fulham travel to Aston Villa in hopes to continue climbing up the Championship table. A few days ago, I wrote about Fulham’s overall struggles with finding an identity that they built on from last season. Some of the reasons were out of their control. Other’s aren’t.
Either way, this version of Fulham have to find a way to come up with three points against a flawed but improving Villa side. Led by Steve Bruce, there’s no denying what you will get out of a club managed by one that is so good in the Championship, but so poor at cracking the code in building sustainability in the Premier League. Bruce employs a “keep it simple” 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 with two central forwards playing off eachother while the central midfielders do all the dirty work. Oh, and the wingers and fullbacks trade off dribble within their confines and hoof balls without leaving their usual location.
Such consistency in a plan comes after years of neglect and turmoil throughout the club. Last year in particular was rough with as new owner Tony Xi failed to land a quality manager on his first try as Roberto Di Matteo’s tenure was a clear failure from the word go. Along with that, there were too many veteran players that no longer were suitable for league football and a complete overhaul of the squad was needed. Whether that has improved so much that promotion is possible is to be determined, but under Bruce’s leadership, things are finally turning around in that part of the West Midlands.
However, Aston Villa haven’t shown analytically that the squad’s whole is better than the sum of their parts just yet. They have been outshot 142-152 throughout the whole campaign and they only have a total expected goal scoreline of 15.9-14.9. Villa also don’t keep the ball that well and don’t pick teams apart that often with their passing (19th in the league in key passes, 23rd in the league in long balls) despite being in the top-ten completion percentage. They can dribble quite nicely and have almost the same rankings as Fulham in all the major defensive categories. Still, it’s so hard to not talk about Villa underacheiving despite the quality in the group of players they have.
Once they can really come together and have all their skills mesh, Villa should be able to secure promotion back to England’s top flight where they belong. Until then, they are scrapping their way to wins every matchday, just like Fulham. On that note, here are three players to watch for this Saturday.
Lets’ get this done and over with. No conversation involving Aston Villa happens without talking about one of England’s greatest center backs this millennium. Yes, John Terry is 36. Yes, it is beyond awkward that he is playing for a team other than Chelsea. Lastly, yes, John Terry really does play like he is 36 and his numbers show that.
That all being said, it is not like Terry is so bad that he is unplayable anymore. He does play a more conservative game and, at minimum, matches his career averages in headers, discipline, clearances, and blocks as a result. If you are looking for a guy that will intimidate all foes who dare attack through the middle, Terry is no longer your guy. But if you are looking for a steady presence while the rest of the team does the dirty work, he can sure fill that slot.
Just think of him more as a Tim Ream than as a Tomas Kalas. Yes, comparing one former Chelsea player to a younger quasi-current one is that wierd. In order for John Terry to work in 2017/18, that means others have to play well in order for Terry to play well.
Ahmed El Mohamady
The first comes from another former Premier League veteran in El Mohamady. The former Sunderland and Hull wing has moved over to fullback while at Villa Park and has been an overall success for the most part. While he did not contribute enough in attacking situations while playing up front, the Egyptian International is so much more comfortable picking the killer pass to his teammates while coming from the back four.
Like Preston North End last week, Villa are one of the better teams in the Championship at putting in crosses. While Preston’s best players in that category were mainly from midfield, El Mohamady easily owns the distinction as Villa’s best at putting the ball in the box in both open play. It also goes as no surprise that he is Villa’s most dependable player in corner kicks.
Until 2016/17, El Mohamady has completed at least one successful cross per 90 minutes in every Championship or Premier League season while playing over 1,000 league minutes. This campaign, he has had a resurgence and fitting well into his new club. At 30, we’ll see how long this will last. But for now, just watch out for the man that will deliver the best service down both flanks.
Of all the talented players Villa have, there is no player that is better at controlling the game better than Conor Hourihane. The 26-year old is finally having the footballing world take notice after claiming his first two Ireland caps this year and making the move to Aston Villa from Barnsley. Beforehand, Hourihane struggled to make the grade at Sunderland and Ipswich Town and needed to ply his trade in League Two Plymouth Argyle to make a name for himself.
Only Tom Cairney can rival Hourihane’s qualities in England’s second tier at both an attacking role and playing as the creative fulcrum as a number ten. He doesn’t deliver the same long ball pass or dribble from end to end as much as Cairney does. However, Hourihane easily dismantles Fulham’s key man in defensive actions. With him and fellow Irishman Glenn Whelan, Villa’s central midfield is a mindfield for creative players who dare pass through. Winning those battles will be critical for Fulham to win.
Otherwise, Villa’s duo from that area will absolutely pick apart Slavisa Jokanovic’s side and unleash the likes of Keinan Davis, Albert Odomah and Jonathan Kodjia. Oh, and I haven’t talked about having Scott Hogan and Josh Onomah coming off the bench. It was very difficult to ignore those attacking talents in this week’s post, but such are the quality of players this team has.