Both teams have players who have had outstanding seasons, and it might just boil down to those special talents in regards to deciding who books their slot in the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final.
It was always going to be this way, wasn’t it? If Aston Villa were to get promoted to the Premier League, a feat that has proven difficult for them since being relegated in 2016, they were going to have to go through a difficult test. It just so happens that test will be Midlands rival West Bromwich Albion in the EFL Championship Playoff Semi-Final.
Villa fans have the propensity to think very highly of their club no matter what is going on. But, this time Aston Villa fans have all right to be loud and proud about the squad this season. Tammy Abraham is firing goals for fun, Jack Grealish is giving the opposition nightmares, Tyrone Mings looks like the second-coming of Paul McGrath… but what about on the other side of the pitch?
What are West Brom bringing to the field in terms of tactics, productivity, goals and assists?
The Key Battles for Aston Villa vs. West Bromwich Albion
Tammy Abraham vs. Dwight Gayle
Every Aston Villa supporter is aware of what Tammy Abraham has done for the club this season. While only a loanee from Chelsea, the striker has scored on 25 occasions in 37 games, while adding three assists. In the short time at the club, Abraham has become revered to the Aston Villa faithful for all of the right reasons.
For the opposition of West Brom, their leading goalscorer is nothing to shake a stick at, either. Dwight Gayle has scored 29 goals in 33 appearances in league play this season. The 28-year old striker has been used in various offensive positions during West Brom’s season, but has scored the majority of his goals at the centre-forward position.
As a centre-forward, Gayle is averaging a match rating of 7.34 per game. Gayle may be a force to be reckoned with, but his goal scoring flame has dwindled over the past few weeks. From March 29th to April 19th, a span of five games, Gayle found the back of the net an astonishing 7 times. Since then however, Gayle has not been able to find the goalmouth and hasn’t looked himself. If Aston Villa can keep West Brom’s leading scorer quiet throughout two legs, it would be a massive accomplishment.
Jonathan Kodjia vs. Jay Rodriguez
Aston Villa’s favorite Ivorian dancer, Jonathan Kodjia, has found his form over the last four games in the absence of Tammy Abraham. In the last four contests, Kodjia has netted three goals and cemented himself as Villa’s second leading goalscorer for the 2018/19 season. Kodjia is rarely every Villa supporters cup of tea, but on his day he is arguably one of the better strikers in the Championship. His trickery with his body position has been on display lately and has been causing chaos in every oppositions defence. Kodjia may be the ‘go to’ striking option off of the bench for the play-offs, and for good reason. His nine goals on the season point toward an idea that you just never know when the Aston Villa man is going to pop up and surprise a few people with a timely goal.
West Brom’s second leading goal scorer, Jay Rodriguez, has scored 22 goals on the season and assisted on 6 others. It may seem daft to compare Rodriguez and Kodjia, but Aston Villa generally play with one striking option up front. West Brom have been known to use multiple different formations over the season, but they always seem to field two or three strikers in their starting eleven. Rodriguez is carrying an average match rating of 7.02 through 45 appearances this season, and is definitely a big part of why West Brom find themselves in the Championship Semi-Final. Five goals and one assist in his previous ten games played shows just how much West Brom has relied on the 29-year old.
Jack Grealish vs. Chris Brunt
It’s a tale of two totally different players on this occasion. Grealish, the poster-boy for Aston Villa, has had a remarkable return from injury and helped Aston Villa’s historic winning run into the playoffs. In 31 games played, Grealish has found the back of the net six times and assisted on six others. A pass success rate of 87.4% and an average match rating of 7.44 is just a small nibble of how the 23-year old can dictate an entire game. Grealish is the most fouled player in the Championship by a distance and West Brom would be smart to avoid trying to play rough with Villa’s Number Ten. He has a point to prove not only to the supporters of the club he holds dear to his heart, he also has a point to prove to himself. It would be an uncommon occurance for Grealish not to produce a bit of magic through two legs against West Brom.
Chris Brunt on the other hand, a 34-year old midfielder, plays a defensively smart and calculated game in the middle of the park. Brunt has been a part of 32 matches for West Brom this season, ten of those appearances coming off of the bench. Brunt plays more similar to Glenn Whelan than to Jack Grealish, a defensive midfield roaming role more often than not. With six assists to his name this season, Brunt has the ability to be offensively minded when the opportunity arises. Yet, his job will not get any easier if he is dispatched to deal with Aston Villa’s midfielders in Jack Grealish and John McGinn. The pace of those two alone could call Brunt’s defensive capabilities into question early and often if he is picked for the starting eleven for West Brom.
John McGinn vs. Stefan Johansen
28-year old Norwegian midfielder Stefan Johansen will most likely be tasked with going up against the staunch midfield of Aston Villa over the two playoff legs. Johansen, on loan from Fulham, has appeared on eleven occasions for West Brom and has not looked out of place in the heart of their midfield. Johansen is also the present captain of the Norway national football team, which invites the assumption that he does well with organising his teammates on the pitch. Two goals and three assists for West Brom in the regular season indicates that Johansen can turn up in various phases of the game. On the other hand, his defensive capabilities have come into question not only at West Brom but also at his parent club. West Brom’s midfield will need to work together to keep Aston Villa’s talented midfield at bay.
At the heart of that talented midfield for Villa, John McGinn has been known to be a taskmaster of sorts. Be it in the offensive areas, the defensive areas, grinding out a result, or scoring a world class goal…the Scottish 24-year old always comes up aces. Six goals and nine assists in Claret & Blue this season, McGinn may just be the bit of luck Villa need to push on and win the EFL Playoffs and secure promotion back into the Premier League. An average match rating of 7.26 in 40 appearances, McGinn is the efficient engine in machine that has been Aston Villa over the past two months. Make no mistake, Jack Grealish is every Aston Villa supporters favourite son. John McGinn is their second favourite.
It will be very interesting what formation and what the starting eleven for West Brom is over two legs against a team like Aston Villa. Villa’s starting eleven basically picks itself, as the Villans steamrolled into the playoffs with one loss in their previous 13 games. There is no way in the world that West Brom is going to roll over in either leg, but it seems as though Villa have the more individually talented and determined set of players. It is a true dogfight, in the sense of West Brom electing to play a more patient and defensive style while Aston Villa seem to be able to play the game any way that will bring a result. This specific EFL Championship Semi-Final should be a real delight for supporters of each club, adding to the pride that is on the line in a local derby.