Whichever side Dean Smith puts out in Aston Villa’s final two games, there’s a reason for him doing so, and fans need to trust the process rather than revolt because a star isn’t on the team-sheet.
Unbelievably, we’re at the tail end of another season in the Sky Bet Championship.
It only seems like a month or so ago that every fan of Aston Villa was biting their nails during the summer, waiting for impending statements from the club in regards to a perilous financial position, and then impending statements of incoming transfers. Perhaps the most nervy of them all, was the waiting for deadline day to see whether talisman Jack Grealish would be having his long-linked move to Tottenham Hotspur or not.
By the time the window closed, there were a few things we knew. Jack Grealish was staying as Aston Villa’s new majority shareholders Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens had issued a “hands-off” warning to Daniel Levy, that we’d be starting the season under the continued stewardship of messrs Bruce, Agnew and co., and that we were horrifically understaffed in the defensive department.
We’ve now fast forwarded to a point where there are only two games of the regular season left before Aston Villa find themselves facing off in the Sky Bet Championship Play-Offs for the second year running.
Unfortunately, these games will likely be the hardest two of the club’s recent run, against third-placed Leeds United before the regular season culminates with a home tie against league leaders Norwich City.
Realistically, there is no worry for the game against Norwich City as they will likely have tied up the league title with their next game, and may choose to field a weakened team against Aston Villa on the final day of the season. It’s Leeds, however, who pose a threat.
When the two sides met earlier in the season, Bielsa’s side came from behind at Villa Park to earn a surprising 3-2 victory. At the time, Leeds were the form side in the league and sat higher than their current position of third.
Now, however, Aston Villa are the form team in not only the Sky Bet Championship, but the whole of Europe, having not lost in eleven games, and winning ten games in a row.
This reverse fixture at Elland Road is more important than initially meets the eye. Both sides are confirmed places within the league’s play-off system, whereas Leeds United could still return to the Premier League automatically if they win their final two games and Sheffield United slip up.
Aston Villa will want to continue their incredible momentum going into the play-off games which could see them meet Leeds United again in the final should both sides end the season between third and sixth, and both sides win their semi-final games. Whereas Leeds, who have suffered from the relegation hangover for nearing two decades, will perhaps be hungrier.
We may see some players rested come Sunday, whether that be Jack Grealish, Tyrone Mings or John McGinn – or we might not and Dean Smith may want to continue with as close-to the side that has seen Aston Villa rise up the Championship table of late.
There’s an argument for both sides.
Keep the players who seem to have it in their locker for every game in the squad, and you risk Leeds targeting them, even injuring them ahead of a potential meeting in the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final. Anything to give themselves an upper-hand and drag themselves closer to promotion as Bielsa ball starts to take its effect on their players.
Change things, and you risk changing things too much and removing all of the good work that you’ve been heading towards of late. Then again, you also could end up with a McGinn-type scenario where you’ve rested a player and they come back in the best form of their career – just at the right time.
Whichever players grace the pitch this coming Sunday, and whichever are benched or left out of the squad entirely, Dean Smith will have thought tirelessly about this for this entire week, and perhaps even before that. It’s not only the “stars” of the side that are performing in this run. Everybody is. Previously ostracised players like Neil Taylor and Ahmed Elmohamady are now shoe-ins on the teamsheet week-in, week-out. We’ve finally got a squad that is pulling in the same direction, and all at the same speed.
So, if you see Henri Lansbury instead of Jack Grealish, or Keinan Davis over Jonathan Kodjia – don’t complain. Dean Smith has a plan, and you’ve all been enjoying it for the last ten games.