The Aston Villa rollercoaster continued its recent upward ascent with a gritty 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest at the weekend. The win meant it was three league wins on the bounce, not to mention three clean sheets as well. For now, everything is once more looking rosy, the squad is looking strong and fit again and thoughts are focused on hunting down the second automatic promotion spot which again has seemingly become an achievable target.
In many regards, Villa are lucky to still be in the hunt. But the same can also be said of most of the teams in and around us. The strength of this seasons Championship is undoubtedly weaker than last year’s campaign. This is evidenced by our own form; a strong showing between September and November eased what was a stuttering start. December was somewhat of a washout also. So to be sitting fourth as we currently are in itself highlights that we’ve been able to keep touch despite several bouts of inconsistencies so far.
We can also use last year’s league table at the same point to back this up further. After 27 games, the top two automatic places were already all but sealed with Brighton and Newcastle United sitting on 60 and 58 points respectively. Third-placed Reading was already nine points adrift.
However, this season, things are much tighter with several teams hotly tipped to go up with online UK bookmakers. Everybody has all but accepted that Wolverhampton Wanderers have the league wrapped up. However, there are just two points between second placed Derby County and third-placed Cardiff City. That is a huge difference to the previous season. The fact that there isn’t a team that stands out for second place helps out our own cause massively.
Without being disrespectful, the teams involved in the promotion battle also indicate that the standard of the league perhaps isn’t quite as strong as it previously has been. With the exception of Derby and ourselves, not many people would’ve picked out the other hopefuls. Both Cardiff and Bristol City were strugglers last season and have performed way above expectations this year. Similarly, Sheffield United was promoted from League One just last season and have probably been the ultimate surprise package of the season.
The one common denominator between each of the chasing pack, including ourselves, is that we’ve all endured a terrible loss of form at some point this season, and noticeably, they have all been fairly recent. Cardiff have just emerged from a run of four consecutive defeats. Bristol City are currently riding the crest of a slump with three straight league defeats (make that five including cup games). And Sheffield United have won just one of their last ten league games. Our December meltdown of five games without a win isn’t something we’ve endured alone.
However, unlike our current playoff rivals, we have been able to abandon the slippery slope and find a decent patch of form. The bleak winter months usually prove the test as to a team’s mettle as injuries and suspensions begin to take their toll. As we should be, it appears that we are better equipped to deal with the loss of key personnel and general fatigue and that should hopefully be a factor that sees us go on to nail down a playoff spot at the very least.
In recent weeks, various squad members have stepped up and dragged Villa out of our pre-Christmas slump and proved their worth. The much-maligned Tommy Elphick has put in a couple of assured performances, most noticeably at the Riverside against Middlesbrough. Birkir Bjarnason also excelled in a defensive midfield role this weekend against Forest.
Question marks still surround Elphick’s ability to handle playing for a club the size of Villa and he’s proved more than once that there is an error waiting just around the corner in him. But the fact is that he would probably be the first choice for many of the teams in this division. In short, he is a decent player to be able to call on and a better squad option that is available to some of the teams around us.
Similarly, Bjarnason is a player that has competed at Champions League level and international tournament level. To be able to bring in someone of that standard is beyond the possibilities for many of our current rivals. The big Icelander has many detractors, but he is a versatile and experienced option which represents a big advantage to have in the squad.
Fair enough, it may only be one or two games in which they’ve stepped up and doubts may still surround whether they are good enough to remain at Villa in the long term. But I would suggest that our rivals do not have the same quality within the depth in their squads as we have, especially for this level. And for me, that has been a key factor in our emergence from our slump whilst others continue to limp along.
We can also go a step further and look at the return of other members of the squad such as a swaggering Jack Grealish who, pardon the cliché, has been like having a new signing. John Terry is back and building up his sharpness and is invaluable despite recently turning thirty-seven. On top of this, the likes of Scott Hogan and Robert Snodgrass have really put in some displays befitting of our expectations of them and that has also been hugely important in our revival.
There is no doubt that the squad of players, in one way or another, is now beginning to prove it’s worth as we approach the business end of the season. The edge over our competitors that we hoped would come to fruition has started to materialise. However, we aren’t there yet.
Although Hogan looks like he may finally have achieved lift-off, we still need to bring in someone else in attack with Jonathan Kodjia practically confirmed as missing for the rest of this season. Leonardo Ulloa from Leicester looks increasingly likely by the day and would represent a good addition. If there is one thing we are missing, it is a consistent goalscorer. Luckily, the midfield have really stepped up this season and contributed massively.
For me, this is where some of the rest of the chasing pack, and especially Derby, currently hold an advantage over us. The form of Matej Vydra so far this campaign has been exceptional and the Czech hitman is sitting pretty at the (joint) top of the goalscoring charts with an impressive fifteen strikes so far. Alongside him sits Sheffield United’s Leon Clarke, whilst Bobby Reid of Bristol City isn’t far behind with twelve strikes.
Albert Adomah has had an excellent first half of the season, but it is unrealistic to expect him to go on and hit the twenty goal mark simply due to the fact that he isn’t a striker. We’ve done well considering we’ve relied on nineteen-year-old Keinan Davis for much of the season, but a regular hitman could be the difference between us making a real go of a push for second place and relying on the uncertainty of the playoffs.
It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well and we have seen that a few bad results can create total hysteria and panic. That will probably happen another couple of times before the end of the season. But for me, Villa are in the midst of slowly picking off some of the pretenders that have had flying starts who seem to be struggling to maintain their lofty positions.
The quality within the squad may not always be apparent, but we are fortunate to have the players that we do at this level. If we are to haul ourselves into second place, there is every chance that the bit part players will more than have played their part along the way.