With a satisfying win over the Bluenoses! Villa fans would be forgiven for feeling satisfied with this team right now. The next match against Fulham, however means a lot more to the club’s promotion hunt. A win over an in-form, exciting and recently bolstered Fulham FC to not only maintains momentum but keeps pressure on Cardiff and Derby while signalling to promotion rivals that Villa are the form team of the Championship. A draw opens the door and a loss would signal weakness.
With this Villa side seemingly almost set barring injuries, (take note of Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah) there is one position left which remains unlocked, the DM role. One thing that we know about Steve Bruce is that when he is certain of his players in a system that’s working, is that he only adjusts his starting line up to the opposition - he’s flexible. In Mile Jedinak and Birkir Bjarnason (Whelan as backup), Steve Bruce has capable options to guard his defensive line. So, out of the pair, who is better to face Fulham?
Who’s at DM?
Looking at the 5 last matches Bruce has favoured Birkir Bjarnason, he’s defensively solid, a strong passer and capable of getting forward to contribute to attacks. Bjarnason has proved these qualities recently in burying lower table opposition at home in Barnsley and Burton while showing defensive solidarity away in close wins against Forest and Sheffield United. He’s also much more mobile than Jedinak, but Jedinak offers a point of difference in his defensive characteristics, his ability to marshal defenders/midfielders and the ability make jail breaking tackles/intercepts which turn quickly into counter attacks. He’s a shutdown player
So what about Fulham?
Most recently Jedinak got the nod over Bjarnason and battled successfully with the 6”4 Sam Gallagher with David Davis sitting behind, validating Bruce’s choice. Fulham are not Birmingham City though and the differences are clear. While Birmingham City offer some danger out wide, strong defensive tracking back from Villa’s flank players nullified this danger leaving Gallagher/Davis to compete with Jedinak and the defensive line. Fulham offer other threats despite lining up in the same 4-2-3-1 formation as Birmingham. Fonte/Johansen offer a similarity to Gallagher/Davis despite Rui Fonte being Bjarnason’s height. Fulham have options in the middle with Oliver Norwood or another option to dropping Johansen back to CM and sitting Tom Cairney behind the striker in the hole. All are capable defensively capable and float forward getting involved in attacks similarly to how Conor Hourihane operates.
Where things get really interesting is out on the flanks, Fulham have a slight favourability to attack from the left with the exciting Ryan Sessegnon (should have been snapped up in January) and recent loanee Matt Targett offering pace/aggression down the left, both have Premier League quality, but like Albert Adomah, Sessegnon is likely to cut inside and shoot or put crosses in from the byline. Ahmed Elmohamady should hang back with Robert Snodgrass forced to track back and the pair will require support from the central midfield in order to get back and defend on the break. On the right Lucas Piazon can cause trouble, but Ryan Fredericks is Fulham’s leading goal-maker at right back with 7 assists and offers more of a threat in delivery.
Fulham’s versatility in attack, similar to Villa’s, is the team’s strength and Villa are likely to need versatility in front of the defence to cover centrally and out wide, especially on the left. Despite Jedinak’s strong defensive characteristics and aerial excellence, for me Bjarnason’s physical attributes, range of passing and ability to play/defend wide give him the edge. Don’t be surprised though if we see the glorious beard of the Jedinak gracing Craven Cottage on Saturday afternoon!