In an end-to-end afternoon of football, Aston Villa beat Derby 2-1 to win the Championship play-offs.
Dean Smith’s men avenged their play-off final loss last year by beating Frank Lampard’s Rams and are back on their way to the Premier League. What did we learn?
1. Hourihane Cuts Through The Fog
The play-off final can often be a game where the tension overwhelms players. The scope of the occasion, where a club can join the Premier League and earn an enormous cash windfall no matter how badly they play (Huddersfield earned as much in TV money for finishing rock bottom as Atlético Madrid did for finishing second in La Liga) can often overwhelm the teams and lead to a scrappy game.
For 40-odd minutes at Wembley, that was absolutely the case. Villa had the better of things but neither side was totally in command and the match was a mishmash of mediocrity. Two teams just headbutting each other, waiting for the other to fall – and not even giving it their all either. It was so dull. Then the ball broke to Conor Hourihane halfway up the pitch and the Irishman lasered a beauty of a cross in behind the Derby defence.
This pass was spectacular. Struck first time it skipped across the surface like a stone across a lake, slowing down perfectly into the path of Albert Adomah. The winger held the ball up before slipping it back to Ahmed El Mohamady who lifted a gorgeous cross in for Anwar El-Ghazi to run onto and head into the back of the net.
Every aspect of the goal was beautifully done, but none of it would have been possible without Hourihane. The Irishman was selected at the base of midfield ahead of veteran Glenn Whelan for his passing, and it was that passing that allowed him to cut through the fog of the game and clear the path for Aston Villa to begin their ascent to the Premier League.
2. Shattered Diamond
Derby’s immense comeback in the semi-final second leg against Leeds came because of Frank Lampard switching to a diamond midfield. That change bamboozled Marcelo Bielsa and let Derby fire their way into the final, where many expected them to use a more width-heavy system. Instead, Lampard stuck with the diamond which had worked so well against Leeds.
But whilst it worked before, it backfired tremendously here against Villa. By pulling everyone into the middle of the pitch and relying on their full-backs for width, Derby made it too easy for Villa to use their own wide players to pen the Rams back into their own half. Villa ended up dictating the match by controlling the width, allowing them to take the lead and, quite frankly, look comfortable. In the end Derby had to abandon the diamond in favour of a 4-3-3 in the second half, and that’s when the Rams actually managed to get back into the match.
3. Captain Jack’s redemption
One year ago, Aston Villa came to Wembley as favourites against Fulham and somehow lost. They had seemed sure to come up, with local lad Jack Grealish one of their leading lights. As it turns out the Cottagers managed to win 1-0 and Villa were condemned to another year down.
This season Grealish in particular has really stepped up, scoring and assisting more than he ever has in a single season. When Dean Smith was appointed Villa boss, Grealish was even awarded the captain’s armband and he responded superbly, becoming more of a leader. He came back from injury to lead Villa’s late-season rally; in the Second City Derby he got punched in the head by a Birmingham City fan but rallied to win Villa the game.
And then he came into the play-off final against Derby and played his heart out. This wasn’t a star turn from Grealish, he wasn’t the focus of Villa’s attack nor did he pick the Derby locks, but he worked and ran his absolute heart out. The boy who remained loyal when all manner of bigger clubs showed interest, now wearing the captain’s armband; the local lad come good.
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4. Derby Disseminated
Derby County got so close, but ended up so, so far from where they wanted to be. They’ve spent big money and used their manager’s status to recruit some high quality loanees. Fikayo Tomori, Harry Wilson and Mason Mount are all true prodigies from Premier League giants that will be playing in the Premier League next season. Had the Rams gone up it could have been with them, but now? They will be recalled.
When you consider how focal Tomori, Wilson and Mount are to the way Derby play, one can tell that taking them out of the side would leave a gaping hole. Moreover players like Tom Lawrence and Jack Marriott could be seduced by Premier League sides trying to shop smart.
And finally, possibly worse of all, is that Frank Lampard and his assistant Jody Morris are men in demand. Their feats this season have drawn the eye of bigger clubs than Derby, Premier League clubs, and should any of them come calling it will be hard to see them staying in the Championship, leaving Derby County a disseminated side.
5. A Sleeping Giant awakes?
Only four clubs have won more league titles than Aston Villa (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton). They also have more European Cups than Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs put together. They are a colossal club, the avatar of the midlands.
Dean Smith (an Aston Villa fan) took over in October 2018 with Villa 14th in the Championship. He almost wholly transformed the club, leading them to charge up the table. But with Smith’s guidance they went on a club record winning run, driving forward with a sense of destiny about them. They knew their worth, played to their level, and are now back in the big time.
With an Egyptian billionaire backing the club, Villa are a side that is prime to not just come back up but stay up. The hard part of actually getting out of the Championship without overspending has been done, now with the Premier League’s TV money and gate receipts bolstering their income, Nassef Sawiris can loosen the purse strings and Villa can flash some cash to not just survive – but thrive.