Aston Villa put themselves in the driving seat to reach the playoff final with a well-disciplined 1-0 first leg victory at Middlesbrough on Saturday evening. Whilst it was far from pretty as a spectacle, credit must go to Steve Bruce who got the tactics spot on. Now a decision will need to be made whether to stick or twist.
In a difficult week personally for the much-maligned manager, he remained focused on formulating an effective plan which the players executed admirably.
My only gripe was that we perhaps put ourselves under more pressure than was necessary by always clearing the ball out long up to no one in particular instead of trying to pass the ball out. In particular the second half, we sat a little too deep which Bruce did highlight himself. However, the fact that Boro barely had a shot on target despite largely playing in our half for the majority of the second half shows that defensively, we were rock solid.
So, should we stick by setting up in a similar manner and protect our lead and hope to snatch something on the break, or twist and take the game to Boro and look to finish them off? There are a few things to consider.
Ex-Villan Adama Traore is clearly Boro’s plan A, B and C; get the ball to him and see what he can do. However, despite somewhat of an upturn in form during the second half of the season, the stocky speedster seemed to still have a propensity to just put his head down, run quickly and see where it took him. Which ultimately wasn’t very far.
It’s a strange style of playing, like the kid in the playground who thinks he’s better than his mates and tries to do it all himself. Yet Traore has managed to rack up several assists this season which shows that approach may work occasionally. But Bruce was savvy enough to insist upon doubling up on Traore and despite one good cross into the box in the first half, the ex-Barcelona man was nullified as a threat almost instantly every time he tried to accelerate his way through. Alan Hutton was particularly instrumental in this.
It was Hutton’s versatility that was key in this battle with the Scottish Cafu starting at left back and then switching to right back to continue hounding Traore as Boro tried to free him up unsuccessfully.
Bruce would be wise to stick by employing similar tactics and personnel regarding Traore back at Villa Park. However, the manager won’t be able to stick in one position with a small twist forced upon the team with a hamstring injury to Ahmed Elmohamady looks to have ruled him out and with Neil Taylor suffering from the same injury, options are stretched. James Bree would be a natural choice to come in at right back and has played left back when required but I feel Bruce should draft in the more experienced and battle-hardened utility man Birkir Bjarnason who could also allow the switching of flanks if necessary.
Boro may well have their own defensive problems to worry about. Centre-back Daniel Ayala hobbled off injured after around the hour mark and is a huge doubt for the second leg. With the big defender having a scan on Monday, Boro manager Tony Pulis has insisted if there is any chance Ayala can make it, he will play.
There is little doubt that if Ayala does make it, he will be far from fully fit and Villa should look to get at him at every available opportunity. Similarly, if the Spaniard doesn’t make it, Pulis’s instance on still being willing to play him half-fit betrays a lack of confidence in a makeshift centre-back pairing that would possibly see Ryan Shotton moved to central defence. Either way, the situation should play into our hands.
It’s a given that Bruce won’t be gung-ho but sitting back and hoping to win 1-0 on aggregate shouldn’t be an option either. Boro has decent options up front in Britt Assombalonga and Patrick Bamford and it will be interesting to see whether Pulis plays both together. Bamford, in particular, is a more awkward type who could cause Villa more problems in the air, rather than Assombalonga’s more direct style which seemed easier to cope with.
Our home record this season is incredibly strong and we should enter this match full of confidence and looking to finish the tie off. The worst thing we could do would be to sit back and invite Boro to come at us hoping to protect a 1-0 lead for 90 minutes. The crowd could grow nervy and with a sold out Villa Park, an expectant atmosphere always has the potential to turn negative if given the chance.
Coming out quickly is key rather than allowing Boro to grow into the game. As the home side, we have to look to take the initiative and create chances to grab at least one more goal, which is something we are more than capable of with the likes of Jack Grealish and Lewis Grabban playing very well in recent weeks.
So, stick or twist? It has to be erring on the side of rolling the dice for me; a bit of bravery and adventure in Bruce’s tactics should see us grab at least one goal which should be enough to see us in the final. When all is said and done, Boro has to come and win this game. And I think that will be a step too far for what is ultimately a decent yet fairly ordinary side, especially if Traore can be nullified again.