Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
Midlands rivals Aston Villa and West Brom do battle on Saturday – here’s how we see the game going.
Aston Villa are reaching the point of having to accept a fourth consecutive season in the Championship.
Wednesday night’s 1-0 loss at Brentford, inflicted by pantomime villain Neal Maupay’s injury-time goal, leaves them seven points off the top six with only 14 games to play.
To reach the usual 72-point mark needed to make the play-offs, they would need to accrue 28 points from their remaining fixtures, exactly two points per game which not even Leeds are currently managing.
One of the factors behind their poor form, which reads just two wins from their last 12 games, is the absence of Jack Grealish, who has been out for 11 of the dozen encounters.
It cannot be denied that the attacking midfielder, when fit, has been at the heart of their every attacking move; his ability to control and create simultaneously through exquisite touch and excellent vision belongs at a higher level and it is no surprise Villa are missing him.
Equally, Dean Smith’s response to the 23-year-old’s absence could be questioned.
A solution could have been to start Callum O’Hare who, although not on Grealish’s level in terms of individual quality, is similar in style, meaning that John McGinn and Conor Hourihane could have retained precisely the same roles in the three-man midfield.
— Matthew Todd (@MatthewTodd1) February 13, 2019
Instead, O’Hare has been sent on loan to Carlisle and Smith has added more defensive-minded midfielders in Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak.
In fairness, Whelan has done reasonably well in the last three games through his tenacity but he is very different to Grealish stylistically and that alteration has caused a huge shift in the make-up of the midfield, which may have contributed to underwhelming performances.
West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore admitted that his side did not play at their best in Tuesday’s 2-2 home draw with Nottingham Forest.
He can, at least, draw on an improved second half display and in some ways, the Baggies are lucky that they have players with the quality to reward short spells of pressure.
Structurally, the Black Country outfit have rarely looked especially comfortable this season, because they have always had at least one player operating out of position.
Earlier in the campaign, when they had three at the back, they suffered defensively from not having a natural right wing-back or left-sided centre-back.
Although the recent switch to a four-man defence with Mason Holgate coming in at right-back has solved that problem partially, their attacking play has suffered slightly without Matt Phillips, who has been injured and Harvey Barnes, back at Leicester.
Although central forward Jay Rodriguez is evidently a capable goalscorer with 16 for the season, he has not aided attacks in general play and his inclusion means Dwight Gayle has had to be shoehorned into a wide role.
Moore has been in charge for 10 months now and while his likeable character and community-centred outlook has won him the respect of many locals, as well as reasonable results, he is yet to establish his best team and system.
Neither Smith nor Moore have yet established a clear tactical template for their respective teams and because of that, there is a lot of unpredictability about who’s side, if either, can take control.
For that reason, we are looking at the anytime goalscorer markets and more specifically, Tammy Abraham.
The Chelsea loanee’s power, athleticism and instinctive finishing has made him a potentially world-class footballer, as the Championship’s third-top scorer at just 21.
EFL Championship goal to min best ratios:
— Blades Analytics (@Blades_analytic) February 11, 2019
On 20 league goals for the season already, he needs just one more to match the 21 goals that last season’s top scorer, Matej Vydra, bagged last term.
He is not afraid to perform in important matches, too.
Abraham has scored nine goals in nine league starts against teams above Villa this season – perhaps he raises his game against higher-placed, fellow Midlands teams.
We’re backing him to find the net here.
Tip: Tammy Abraham to score anytime 21/20