Birkir Bjarnason’s move to Aston Villa has to be up there as one of the strangest signings that the Villans have made.
This is not because he’s a bad player, or an unknown - but because the club have struggled to find a role for the Icelandic international since he made his £2 million move from FC Basel. He’s been deployed across the park in a similar manner to Leandro Bacuna. Both tricky wingers with midfield talents who couldn’t pin down a single spot.
And thus, Bjarnason so far has found it very hard to settle in at Aston Villa over the past 12 months - he has never had a singular role in within the team. How can someone be expected to settle down, develop and become comfortable with a squad if their role within that squad is transforming between weeks?
Birkir has found some success in a wing position, even helping contribute to the demolition of Lee Johnson’s Bristol City at the turn of the year, where a cunning run cut the defense in half, before he slotted home after an Alan Hutton pass. He’s barely played there for an extended period of time, though.
Despite his goal, his position was changed again when Peterborough came to town and ran wild. As a central midfielder, Bjarnason was unable to do much (in fairness, Villa’s somewhat gung-ho approach did not help proceedings). It was this role he found himself in again when Glenn Whelan was taken off injured at half-time in the game against Nottingham Forest. A minor worry to most Villa fans as nobody bar Mile Jedinak has excelled as a defensive midfielder over the past few seasons.
Excel? In a word it’s exactly what Bjarnason did. His heart showed through his work-rate as he chased down the Forest attack as they stretched and contracted out wide and through the middle. He came up good with strong sliding tackles and wasn’t afraid to launch his head into the danger zone, coming off with an elbow to the face as a reward. There were mistakes, but the whole team was guilty of that. When Bjarnason settled into the game, he was extremely impressive and his ability to keep up a sprint over the course of forty-five minutes was admirable. Villa found themselves able to construct moves easier with Bjarnason, who found more success passing than Glenn Whelan. He was a commanding presence in the air, contributing an incredible amount defending airborne passes in the half of football he appeared in. WhoScored have him second only to Robert Snodgrass in that regard.
What Bjarnason represented was an upgrade on Whelan, who didn’t even play poorly against Forest. Bjarnason found a lot more of the ball and covered a lot of ground in his time on the pitch. While Mile Jedinak will always be first choice in this area, it’s very comforting to now that Birkir Bjarnason is a more than able deputy in this area. He’ll only get better in that regard with the games he plays and everything that Villa are looking for could be found in Bjarnason if he is able to replicate his performance against Nottingham Forest.
What strikes me, as a massive nerd - is the weird similarities between Bjarnason and his namesake, Thor. It’s not just physical as well. Thor, in both legend and his Marvel Comics representation is always portrayed as a brash, brave and bold character. A smart man prone to bouts of heroic idiocy, who is just as quick to lash out with his hammer Mjölnir as he is to sit down and talk things through. It was the God Loki who always showed the most cunning in Asgard, home of the Gods. The way Bjarnason has played for most football teams is akin to Loki’s trickery - sidewinding runs, quick passes and finesse finishes. There was no bravado. Bjarnason is an easy person to shove into the role of Thor, simply because of his hair and his Nordic background - coming from a peaceful town in the north of Iceland at the base of the Eyjafjörður Fjord.
The character of Thor has been a struggle for most people to portray, because any showcase of the character quickly falls into the same tropes. It’s when the entire world is against Thor that we see his talents, and when his aggression is used as a platform for defensive abilities - the last man standing - that’s when he’s a true hero. In the film Thor Ragnarok, we see a boring character actually given something to do when he’s on the back foot. In the Jason Aaron comics run, we see Thor actually do something when the chips are down and he can’t just start swinging. The same goes for Birkir Bjarnason, a cunning player - who seems so much better when he’s deployed centrally as the last man before the defense. Maybe there is more Thor in him than Loki?