This past week can only be described as gutting for Aston Villa; losing 2-0 away to Southampton, relegation rivals Norwich, West Ham, and Watford picking up wins, and Bournemouth earning a hard-fought point against Chelsea. The St Mary’s shocker prompted manager Dean Smith to say that “some players have played their way out” of the line-up for Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City – but what tricks could Dean Smith possibly pull out of his sleeve?
It is fair to say the 2019/20 season hasn’t gone in Conor Hourihane’s favour. After being replaced by Douglas Luiz for the Bournemouth game, he has struggled for game time but has shown flashes of brilliance, such as a goal and assist against Newcastle, and a rampant day at Carrow Road when Villa ran out 5-1 winners.
With Villa’s recent midfield problems; the inconsistency of Marvelous Nakamba, the occasional vanishing of Douglas Luiz, the disappointing Danny Drinkwater – who is indeed cup-tied – Dean Smith may well call upon the Irishman to shake things up in the centre of the park.
In fairness, his last start came against City in the 6-1 home thrashing. Conor brings to the table set-piece brilliance in a game where our attacks may not come from open play – and given his stellar performance last time out at Wembley, Smith may well see him as an outside option but a safe pair of hands to slot into the midfield alongside Nakamba.
Well, well, well, the definition of an enigma. Orjan Nyland is a football player I cannot wrap my head around – signs of promise in the Championship, but erratic and frightened, like many fans I thought he was finished at Aston Villa. But what has transpired this season has been nothing short of a phoenix rising from the ashes in the case of Orjan Nyland.
From my seat in the Holte End for the Leicester City semi-final second leg, or to be more accurate, where I was standing, Nyland looked like a man possessed. Squinting towards the North Stand, I watched the Scandinavian goalkeeper resemble a Peter Schmeichel masterclass – rather ironically, given his son was in the Holte net at that time. He flew across the goal like no goalkeeper I’ve seen for Villa before. Save after save, claim after claim, he oozed class.
Pepe Reina, you may well be a victory specialist, but we would be nowhere near Wembley if it wasn’t for the heroics of Nyland. Nor do you have the fitness or athleticism, in my view, to cope on such a large pitch against such a fast-paced team. Nyland has earned his place – he’s worked back from injury, drowned out the critics, and carried the mighty Villa to the lofty arches on Wembley Way. There’s no other man on this planet who deserves to be between those sticks on Sunday than Orjan Nyland.
While this may be partially down to the likely inclusion of Trezeguet on Sunday, his captain Ahmed Elmohamady – for Egypt – may well be an option for Dean Smith to utilise against the reigning champions of both this trophy and the Premier League.
I was vocally annoyed when Elmohamady came on against Leicester, and felt justified in that when Harvey Barnes breezed past him on the wing shortly afterwards…oh how I ate my words. He might be old, slow, and shaky on the ball – reasons why I personally would not include him – if there’s one thing Elmohamady can do, it’s put a bloody good cross in. Inch-perfect, dipping, spinning, the ball landed on the foot of Trezeguet who guided it home to send Villa to Wembley.
Perhaps Elmohamady’s assist that game – and his assist for Anwar El Ghazi and generally solid performance in the play-off final – lends him more favour to start in this one. Personally, I disagree – Guilbert is faster, better in the tackle, and has the energy to survive that massive pitch against a high-intensity Manchester City. But I’m not the manager at the end of the day, and given Guilbert’s shocking showing against Southampton, I would be in no way surprised if Smith gave Elmohamady the nod over the Frenchman.
Unfairly maligned, and I admit a personal favourite, Keinan Davis may be a shock inclusion – Graham Fenton, anyone? – to Dean Smith’s squadron. He will make the ball stick, he will add aerial prowess, and he will give us some physicality up front – with the presence of Rodri, I feel like we need someone who will go toe-to-toe with him.
Of course, him starting relies upon a 3-5-2 – Samatta’s name is high on the team-sheet. The only time we have started with a 3-5-2 this season was that fateful January home clash against Manchester City. Davis’ fitness – at most a week’s training – may also hold him back from starting.
But I’d much prefer his energy, physicality and hold-up play compared to the likes of Baston. At the very least, he should be on the substitute bench. And if Dean Smith does opt to change the formation and build a solid 3-5-2 with Jack Grealish in his favoured number 10 role, Keinan Davis is the ideal man to plug the gap in my view.
If you enjoyed this article, ensure to check out the last episode of The Villa Filler Podcast, featuring Dan Morgan and Dan Wiseman, who share their unpopular opinions ahead of the Carabao Cup Final tie against Manchester City. UTV!