Aston Villa are on a projection to Europe. After surviving relegation by just a point last season, a new era was heralded. Jostling up the table, results such as the 7-2 demolition of reigning champions Liverpool have bolstered the club’s fight to be back amongst Europe’s elite.
In football, times of change often see shifts in personnel. However few players have been disregarded the way that Bjorn Engels has been this season.
After the COVID outbreak halted last season, football was grounded for the best part of three months. Heading into the enforced break, Villa had just lost 4-0 to Leicester City – the situation at Villa Park was looking bleak.
Through the periods of isolation, the club sat 19th in the Premier League table – destined for a championship return.
Conceding the most goals in the league (at that stage) it was clear where Villa’s problems lay.
You may have heard of the ‘defensive triangle’ before. Simply, it refers to the two centre-backs and the goalkeeper behind them. As the three players directly defending the goal, a solid trio is essential for stability. Likewise, with a growing emphasis on playing out from the back, central defenders have an increasing influence on attacking phases.
In Aston Villa’s case, consistency in such an area of the pitch could only be admired. Whilst the goalkeeping situation was a mess in its own right, the ever-changing centre-back combinations were costing Villa points – and a place in the league.
Tyrone Mings was an established choice for Smith. A key figure in the club’s promotion, in September 2019 he was also selected for the England national team. Beside Mings, however, the head coach had altered his preferences all campaign.
Bjorn Engels had been signed from Stade de Reims in the summer and for the first eleven League games, he was trusted in the position. Picking up as many points as fixtures during this spell, the season began brightly. It could’ve been even better had late goals against Spurs, Arsenal, and Liverpool been avoided.
In November 2019, after such a promising start to his Villa career, Engels suffered a groin injury – ruling him out for a fortnight. As it turned out, he would not be the same player upon his return.
Shadow of his former self
When he returned from what looked a fairly routine injury, Engels’ reinstatement to the XI was delayed. A draw at Old Trafford was followed by defeat at Stamford Bridge as the Belgian watched on from the bench.
In the next game (Leicester at home) Mings was forced off injured before the half-hour mark.
Engels was subbed on, partnering Ezri Konsa as Villa shipped four goals.
In the successive matches, Villa lost two winnable games against Sheffield United and Southampton respectively. Engels played 90 minutes in both and Smith happened to reach a conclusion.
For the boxing day win over Norwich City, Engels was an unused substitute. Afterwards, he failed to make the matchday squad again until February, an away game at Bournemouth.
In fact, the only reason Engels travelled to the south coast was that Smith trialled a three-centre-backs formation. As fourth in the pecking order, he made the bench and was introduced early in the second half due to Konsa suffering an injury.
In what’s turned out to be the defining match of Engels’ Villa career – against Tottenham in mid-February – he scored an equalizer in the second half. Although, with seconds remaining, he let the ball roll under his foot on the half-way line for Spurs to latch onto and snatch victory.
Since that misjudgement, he has started just one league game for Villa. The 4-0 defeat to the foxes, mentioned earlier.
Between his Spurs gaffe and the Leicester drubbing though, Engels started the League Cup final. Despite the 2-1 defeat, he defended admirably and almost sent the game to extra-time seeing a late header crash into the Manchester City woodwork.
Project Restart – for everyone but Engels
In the ten games played behind closed doors during the 2019/20 season, Engels didn’t feature. According to club sources, he sustained another injury during a training session that rendered his season over.
This season, Engels has been largely available at Smith’s disposal. Barring a hamstring injury throughout November, and three games missed at the beginning of the season due to the injury keeping him out throughout restart, by his own choice Smith, has not deployed the Belgian.
Be it through his own merit, or down to the numerous injuries sustained by Kortney Hause this year, Engels has been named a substitute for the majority of this season’s fixtures. Having not made it onto the pitch, rumours of a move away in January seemed believable.
As this season’s remaining matches dwindle away, the chances of Engels donning Claret and Blue again are getting slimmer.
For what looked like a promising future for Engels, B6 isn’t the place he hoped it would be. Ten games remain in Villa’s season, it would be good to see this forgotten man at least one more time.