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Aston Villa vs Middlesbrough preview: Can Villa’s hunt for a play-off place continue?

Aston Villa are in the chasing hunt for a play-off place. Gareth Cooper previews the match with Middlesbrough to see how close they are to grabbing that goal

Middlesbrough v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

With Aston Villa currently on a run of having won the last three games the feeling around Bodymoor Heath and Villa Park is one of not only that a corner may have been turned under Dean Smith at last, but a real optimism that a playoff spot is within grasp.

The buoyancy around Jack Grealish returning to the side and picking up from where he left off before his injury has played a massive part. The side is now playing with a fluidity and when watching the team we all feel that no matter what the final result in any given game this team can score goals, and do, 2.3 per game at home in fact.

Although the win at Birmingham City was a huge result (for all the obvious reasons), the performance merited the 3 points and I think that in fairness it was never in doubt. Although both sides were close in terms of the quality of the chances they created the game was always swinging in the away sides favour. The better chances fell to Villa during the game and we couldn’t have wished for a better and more deserving match winning goal from the captain who has now surely fulfilled all his boyhood dreams in both Second City derbies in just one season.

How do Middlesbrough get on away?

Tony Pulis has instilled some calm and consistency in his Boro side and we all know how he can organize a side defensivelym and then build on that offensively. This Boro side are no different.

After Daniel Ayala’s sending off against Preston in midweek the potential of a four-match ban loomed. However Ayala’s appeal was successful and he will now be available for the Villa game on today. This is a big plus for Pulis as Boro have had the most consistent starting 11 in the whole of the Championship this season.

When accompanying Ayala in a back three, Dale Fry and former Stoke defender Ryan Shotton Boro have only concede 28 goals all season and with an 37.42 xGA ratio (expected goals against) this translates as having conceded just over 9 goals less than is expected. In terms of actual goals conceded this is a record that is the best in the league with the nearest to them being the 34 conceded by 3rd place Sheffield United, a decent record indeed. In terms of per 90 minutes this equates to just 0.72 goals, a ridiculously low amount, this ratio is again, the best in the league. Comparatively Villa concede at a rate of 1.35 per 90 mins.

Away from home the numbers improve slightly. Boro currently have 58 points and 31 of these have come away from home this season with 27 coming at the Riverside, marginal but still impressive.

Middlesbrough this season

Middlesbrough Results

Location Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA Pts Win %
Location Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA Pts Win %
Home 18 7 6 5 19 14 27 33%
Away 18 8 7 3 21 14 31 38%
How are Middlesbrough getting on? Gareth Cooper

In the table above we can see why Villa need to be aware of Boro’s away form and no doubt Dean Smith is well aware of the threat that they pose and the success they have had away from home.

Villa vs Boro in the past

Villa don’t have a great record against Boro at Villa Park with Villa having not won in the last 6 meetings in fact losing on 3 occasions and a trio of draws two of which were nil nil draws. Villa have only scored three goals in those games with a single goal in three of the games played.

Villa, as I mentioned briefly at the start, are on a good run and have scored 9 goals and concedde just the once in the last three games. Boro on the other hand are touching on a sticky patch at the business end of the season with losses in the last two games, both at home, to Brentford and the in-form Preston North End. Both games ended in 1-2 losses.

Probable lineups and team news

Aston Villa

I wouldn’t expect much to change in terms of personnel from the win at Forest especially after Andre Green’s performance and John McGinn being introduced back in to the starting eleven.

Middlesbrough

Boro have one possible change and that’s Saville coming in for Jonny Howson after the former Leeds and Norwich man had a poor game in the week vs Preston. Daniel Ayala will keep his place after his red card against Preston has been over turned.

Formations

Personally I think we will need to add an extra man in midfield due to Boro’s regular 3-4-2-1 shape as we will need to compete in the center of midfield, Friend and Saville drop in to make a back five for Boro and Wing and Fletcher both dropping deeper to make a midfield four alongside Mikel and Besic, so we will need to be quick in the defensive to attacking transitions with McGinn exceptional in this area with his ball carrying abilities as Boro will make it difficult once they get into this 5-4-1 defensive shape.

To that end a 4-4-1-1, shape shown above, will be the best formation as we are familiar with this shape and Grealish is more than comfortable in the number 10 role behind Tammy Abraham a position which I think suits him best. It will be left up to Conor Hourihane to be the deeper of the midfielders but McGinn’s energy means he will not be alone.

The Boro deep block

As I mentioned above Boro seem to settle into a 5-4-1 when defending and breaking down that 28 goals conceded shape is difficult to say the least.

McGinn and Grealish will have to do what they do best and carry the ball in to areas that can hurt Boro mainly just in front of that back five and to aim to play balls into the inside channels for Green and El Ghazi to get into possible crossing positions. I think Taylor and El Mohamady will have to be careful in their choice of when to overlap the two wide Villa midfielders due to the threat posed by the Boro counter attack. Pulis’ team may well sit in a great deal and hope for set pieces for their main source of opportunities, although they haven’t scored one goal from a free kick this season. With Villa conceding 10 goals of the 54 from headers alone this season I feel Boro may have a slight advantage in this area.

Summary

Villa are on a roll and are playing with confidence but Boro are the league leaders in when it comes to keeping the opposition out but I cant see past a Villa win on Saturday due to the fact McGinn and Grealish are back in the side and are in good form. The creative side of the team is back and I think we will have too much for Tony Pulis’s side.

by Gareth Cooper