Aston Villa are riding incredible momentum through the first month and a half of 2018 and their promotion push is in full swing bumping them up to the second automatic promotion spot over that span.
However, on Saturday, Villa will face one of their stiffest challenges yet as they head to Craven Cottage to face Fulham FC. Fulham is in the midst of their own incredible run in the 15 matches since losing away to Wolves in early November. Since that defeat which slotted them in 17th place, the Cottagers have run off 33 points—a 101 point pace over the course whole of a season—and shot back into promotion contention with a fifth place record as of this match.
Being that Villa have come into their own since running a 4-1-4-1 formation with a single defensive midfielder, there shouldn’t be many lineup changes, but Steve Bruce’s stroke of brilliance to insert Mile Jedinak over Birkir Bjarnason for the Second City Derby victory raises the question of who will be his selection for Saturday’s pivotal match. Let’s take a look at the two and consider what direction Bruce will take. I, Robb Jones, will write up the case for the Icelander to return and James Rushton will give you the goods on Mile Jedinak keeping his spot.
The case to bring back Birkir depends on whether Bruce has committed to his attack and putting their opponents on the ropes and is generally aesthetic. This match against Fulham is vital, and brings back to mind the 5:0 drubbing that Villa put on Bristol City on New Years Day. Birkir’s participation in that match was astounding and his effort allowed the club to keep piling on a very good Robins squad. It was highlighted by his great run on goal for his own score.
Birkirs goal against Bristol. pic.twitter.com/eyTEbYVYod— Robb Jones (@robbjkjones) February 15, 2018
And also with his work here with Robert Snodgrass to cap the day.
And this incredible goal. What a fun day that was. pic.twitter.com/gjt0yyklnm— Robb Jones (@robbjkjones) February 15, 2018
According to WhoScored, Birkir isn’t given a ton of credit for his ratings across his three matches where he played as defensive midfielder (home to Barnsley and Burton around an away match with Sheffield United), but when you look at his heatmaps, you see that in those matches he’s covered a lot of territory, and is pushing the squad forward in each.
Fulham give up most of their goals through open play and of course that’s not at all unusual; however, they concede in this way more than most in the Championship. Prior to last weekends matches, the percentage of goals they have conceded from open play was seventh from the bottom and with Villa scoring 35 goals via this avenue during this campaign it could be the best way to attack the Cottagers and keep the hosts on their heels.
I believe Bruce needs to keep the pressure up with the current run of form and on the high note of after Birmingham City. If he aims for three points against a good opponent and misses, he can’t be blamed, but if he takes a conservative approach and aims to just pull an away draw and loses the point, he could undermine the squads sky-high confidence.
Birkir’s creative run against Bristol, and his linking up with Snodgrass to create their final goal in that match highlight his attitude on the pitch. His attack-mindedness coupled with his ability to play all across the pitch could confound Fulham’s defenders and create the requisite chaos to create ripe goal-scoring opportunities and keep Fulham from pushing further up the table.
Robb makes a great case for Birkir Bjarnason above, and I won’t mind if the Iceman starts against Fulham. He’s been a revelation at defensive midfield for Villa so far.
That being said - Steve Bruce said it was only fair for Bjarnason to start the previous games due to his form. With Mile Jedinak putting in a fantastic performance against Birmingham City, Bruce’s rule suggests that Jedinak must start. It’d only be fair, after all.
While I agree that Birkir is a better all-round player than Mile, Jedinak brings a lot to the table that Bjarnason doesn’t offer. Despite the tackling attributes of the pair, Jedinak is an incredibly imposing presence at the back of Villa’s midfield. He is scary - and that might have a mental effect on the opposite team. He won’t shy away from a scrap.
What’s more - Mile looks very good at what he does, and what he does is actually, in reality, pretty boring. While players like Alan Hutton, Micah Richards and Nathan Baker looked heroic at times for Villa, it’s Mile Jedinak who actually embodies the role of a hero. His tackles are smart, and they look VERY good. I want football to be fun to watch and whole Bjarnason might be more industrious, Jedinak plays good defensive play, that is easy on the eye (to me, anyway). Piss your stats (Mile’s are good), I want to see a grown man slide all over the pitch and head the ball a lot.
Villa might need an older, more defensive head against a creative Fulham side. Let that be Mile.
Who’s your choice? Let us know in the comments!