Here we are, moment of truth, more than simple silverware on the line. Apart from whichever match ultimately sealed our relegation, this is the most important game Villa have played since at least the European Cup Final. And perhaps the most important match for years to come. For those of us who are down at Wembley…well, obviously I hope it’s one of the best days of your lives. Likewise for those of us watching at home.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it is big. We all know the stakes. And while I can look back and say I’ve enjoyed being competitive in a competitive league, Villa’s place is in the top flight. Simple as. And with the financial implications, it may well be the case that Villa need to be in the top flight.
So. Fulham. While Slavisa Jokanovic might not really have meant to imply out loud that Villa are old and tired, given the full transcript of his comments, it’s still probably the case he thinks we are. And, yes, we are an older side. More experienced, more time in pressure situations, but not as quick and probably not quite as full of running. Fulham will do what they do: press hard and look to have around 55-60% possession. They’ll want to knock it about and tire us out.
Steve Bruce even touched on the topic, granting that the Saturday-Tuesday rotations throughout the season could’ve been handled better. It’s one thing for me to say, “Keep the winning lineup intact,” but there are simple facts.
With 12 days to rest and prepare, however, we’ll have the best legs possible and just one game to worry about selling out for. We’ll also have a little bulletin-board material I imagine the likes of John Terry will be taking personally. The man doesn’t like losing and I’m sure he doesn’t like being told he’s old and tired. He also doesn’t want to end his career on a down note. He’ll give it all he’s got and likely with a good-size chip on his shoulder. We’ll want that to carry through to the rest of the team.
As we all know, big games are often scrappy and cagey affairs, and it’s Villa who will have to make it scrappy. Neither side will feel good about conceding first, though Fulham might be a bit less worried. So I’m imagining that job one is not giving anything up early. Which is pretty much job one in any game.
The best way to do that is for Villa to get stuck in, contest every ball, disrupt Fulham’s rhythm, and don’t just cede control—which is what Lewis Grabban seems to have been saying would be the idea. We’ve seen that starting off that way often carries throughout the game for the side and we play better as a result. Our bad showings have largely been about energy/lethargy.
If the energy is there like I expect it to be, I’d like to see us move it quickly in attack, of course. But I also don’t want to see everyone rushing forward pell mell and then turning it over. Being a little more methodical in their half, if we have the chance, has the benefit of helping us keep our shape and limiting breaks. But when there’s space, you have to be quick to exploit it. A fine balance. Box smart, as Bruce likes to say. And if we’re up into them at the start, it may well be that the openings are there early. So let’s hope players are ready to be clinical. Don’t overthink it. Make the pass. Take the shot.
Given Fulham’s ball-winning possession approach, I think Jack Grealish likely will be pivotal to the outcome. We’ve got to look for him early and often. He’s got to be able to take possession in tricky areas and carry the ball to open things up. I also think that Bjarnason would be helpful here because he has shown an ability and willingness to carry the ball from deep, as well as doggedness, tenacity, and the ability to run all day.
Now, Bruce has disagreed with me at times when it comes to Jedinak versus Bjarnason. And he was right about Jedi in the semifinals. I’ve a tendency to believe he’d wish he could stick with that side, and it would seem hard on Jedi not to be in there. But if we’re looking for energy, disruption, and recovery speed, I’d be looking to Bjarnason. Because although Villa might be older, on average, Albert, Jack, Conor, and Birkir are quick enough. Snodgrass is a bit slower, but obviously will fight and run til he drops. Point is, we can attack and move about the midfield with a fair degree of pace.
It’s at the back that we’re a bit creaky, and Bjarnason stands a much better chance of being involved box to box so that we can get forward without leaving a huge gap to exploit. He’d also help us keep contesting the midfield throughout, and the higher up the better. We saw once Pulis moved Traore into the middle, Villa had a very difficult time containing him. Fortunately, Pulis only clocked onto that late in the game and out of desperation. Jokanovic will have seen that. On the other hand, Jedinak is a pressure-tested player.
If Bruce starts with Jedinak and it’s going well, then great. If we find ourselves under the cosh, though, I hope he’s open to making changes like bringing Bjarnason in sooner rather than later. It’s not a day for being stubborn or being worried about hurting someone’s feelings. This sort of decision is where I’d like to think Bruce’s experience and feeling for the side wins through.
Coming in favorites and without the same levels of experience, I’d imagine Fulham will perhaps be feeling the pressure of the moment more than Villa, at least at the outset. However, sometimes youthful exuberance and even naiveté are antidotes to nerves. As the game wears on, if Villa aren’t in front, the pressure obviously will move squarely onto our shoulders. But this year we’ve played better as underdogs and played better when we get after it from the first whistle.
Villa will be feeling pressure at the outset, too, but of a different sort: the weight of expectations and a greater downside for the club with a loss. What will probably determine the course of this game is whether Villa channel that pressure into greater determination and will, and even a certain freedom in the single-mindedness of the task. The upside to experience is players like Jack looking to Terry in the dressing room to find that steel and shine on the day, rather than shrink.
As I often say, it’s the team who wants it more that usually walks away with it. All of the above? Well, it’s really about whether Villa have the mentality to go out and seize it—simply refuse to lose. I’d like to think we do.
So come on you Villa boys. One game. Ninety minutes (please). Give it everything you’ve got and make yourselves proud. At the end of the day, it’s another game of football, and you’ve played and won a lot of those in your careers. Now that’s it here, I’m ready to go. I have a feeling you are, too.
Over to you.