For a player so crucial at the start of 2019/20, it has been quite the drop-off for Aston Villa’s Belgian centre-back. However, with Kourtney Hause expected to be out for over a month, could we see Bjorn Engels make a return?
Words: Harry Trend | @HazaTrand
Cast your minds back to the 9th of March 2020. Dean Smith’s struggling Aston Villa had just been thrashed 4-0 by Leicester City at the King Power. It was to be the last game Villa played before the national lockdown and the Premier League’s three-month break. However, it was also to be the last time Bjorn Engels would pull on an Aston Villa shirt.
Due to his lack of game time, it was surprising to see Engels stay at B6 during January transfer window just gone. How has Engels, a mainstay at the heart of Villa’s defence at the start of the 2019/20 season, situation at Villa come to this?
Engels, whose contract runs out in 2024, signed for Villa for around £7 million from Stade de Reims in July 2019 off the back of a strong Ligue Un campaign. The 26-year-old slotted in at centre-back alongside Tyrone Mings as The Pride went down 3-1 to Tottenham on the opening day. Despite the defeat, Smith saw enough from Engels to keep him in his starting XI; the Belgian making five interceptions, five blocks and one spectacular flying clearance.
Engels would feature in every minute of the following ten league games and, despite Villa’s indifferent form, established a solid partnership with Tyrone Mings at the heart of the Pride’s defence. The pair complemented each other’s games so well that a section of the fanbase referred to the two as “Mingles.”
Another good performance in the Pride’s 2-0 win over Everton even led to Belgium manager Roberto Martinez recognising Engels’ form, thus driving speculation that the Villa centre-back was on for an international call-up.
Engels never did get that Belgium call-up, but the former Rennes man continued to impress the Villa faithful with his braveness, sound positional sense and heading ability. In Villa’s 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool in November 2019, Engels had his best game at B6. The 26-year-old seemed to block every cross that Liverpool put in; it was only in the dying moments that the Reds overturned the 1-0 deficit in their favour.
However, a hip injury would rule Engels out of the following two fixtures. Crucially, Ezri Konsa would be his replacement as the right-footed centre-back. This a period where Smith probably identified the quicker, younger Konsa as the starting defender moving forward.
While Engels would come back in the side and have his moments during the period between his hip injury and the March lockdown, he would struggle to find previous form. The Belgian centre-back featured in three games, all losses, and looked sluggish; especially when trying to prevent Shane Long scoring in Villa’s 3-1 home defeat to Southampton. Engels would then be struck by a bout of illness that kept him out of the following game against Watford.
It would be a month before Engels played again in a Villa shirt, the Pride’s number 22 not featuring in January 2020. When quizzed on his lack of inclusion in the Villa squad, Dean Smith said it was just down to selection before adding, “I’ve got five good centre-halves here.”
Engels did make a comeback in March, playing 45 minutes in a defeat to Bournemouth. Then came what will be many Villa fans standout memory of the Belgian at B6. In starting against Tottenham Hotspur, Engels was to play his first full game in almost three months; within the 90 minutes Engels would give away a penalty, score a header to level proceedings at 2-2 before letting the ball roll under his studs allowing Heung Min Son to snatch all three points for Spurs.
Then Engels featured the Leicester City defeat prior to lockdown. Villa fans haven’t seen him on the pitch since. This is not ideal for a player who, at 26, is supposedly entering his prime. According to transfermarkt.com, Engels’ transfer value (£5.85m) has almost halved since December 2019 (10.8m).
Obviously, this is not without reason. The form of Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Kourtney Hause has meant Smith hasn’t had reason to put Engels back into his starting XI. Plus there’s the fact Engels’ start to 2020/21 was halted by a calf strain.
Nevertheless, Engels has presumably now moved up to third choice in Villa’s centre-back pecking order with Kourtney Hause’s injury. After all, it would be ridiculous to drop either Mings or Konsa who have restricted teams more to more blanks than not this term.
While it would be nice to see Engels get his Villa career back on track, that concept just doesn’t seem feasible unless either of Villa’s current defensive partnership pick up an untimely injury. However, if he does end up featuring, Villa fans will hope to see Engels embodying his early form in a claret and blue shirt.