Barnsley will look to continue their encouraging run in the Sky Bet Championship this weekend, as we make the trip to the Midlands to take on Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa side.
Hecky’s men will look to stretch their unbeaten league streak to five games on Saturday afternoon following a hard-fought goalless draw with table-toppers Wolves, but know the clash in the Second City will not be an easy one.
Results have picked up again recently for Steve Bruce’s team, who currently sit fourth in the Championship (before Derby’s match with Bristol City tonight) having won their last three league matches, scoring seven without conceding.
The Reds will be looking to swing open Villa’s sturdy defensive door, thus improving on September’s 3-0 home defeat last time out in our 130th anniversary fixture.
Aston Villa are undoubtedly a huge club, rich in history. The 1982 European champions are hunting down a place in next season’s Premier League, and currently lie five points behind the automatic promotion places. This season is Villa’s second in the Championship, having been relegated in 2016 after a 28-year stay in the top flight.
Manager Steve Bruce has been in charge at Villa Park since October 2016, and the team have vastly improved on last campaign’s ‘consolidation year’, finishing 13th. Villa’s breaks in consistency have been the only obstacle stopping them from giving Wolves a real title challenge this year, and despite some unhelpful injury blows, they look to be back on the right path in their promotion push.
Villa possess the same cup fortunes as the Reds, having been eliminated in the third round of both domestic knockout competitions. The Villans were beaten 3-1 by Peterborough a fortnight ago in the Emirates FA Cup, and succumbed 2-0 to Middlesbrough in the Carabao Cup.
A huge credit to Saturday’s hosts is their large support, who have so far boasted an average home attendance of over 30,000 this season.
Villa are an exciting team with some exquisite players at this level. Bruce has developed a positive project with his side in his first full season and they have a versatile style of play.
They can play attractive football and have the squad at their disposal to play numerous teams off the park on their day, but Villa can alternatively adapt to a strong, no-nonsense style with the aggression required in physical Championship clashes.
Bruce has recently found success with a 4-1-4-1 setup, switching from his previous 4-4-1-1 before embarking on their current run of three straight league wins. The holding role played by Glenn Whelan and previously Mile Jedinak in front of the experienced back line has been the key, allowing the central players ahead more freedom in their bank of four. This in turn helps wide men Robert Snodgrass and Albert Adomah focus on supporting a lone front man.
Villa’s squad in the Championship is a masterpiece on paper, and one which could be expected to challenge that of a handful of Premier League sides. The depth of international players at Villa Park brings Bruce a safeguard when injuries and suspensions occur. Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, has provided strong protection this season to a back line which can be altered to equally strong effect. The most eye-catching of Villa’s squad is, of course, former England captain John Terry. Though now nearing veteran stage, the fit-again Terry is still regarded as one of the most capable defenders the country has seen, and his 22 years at Chelsea support that view. Likely to partner Terry will be James Chester, with Tommy Elphick another option. Alan Hutton and Ahmed Elmohamady have also had a wealth of top-level experience, as has Wales full-back Neil Taylor. Former Red James Bree is still plying his trade at Villa Park, too. As mentioned, Glenn Whelan is in line to continue in the midfield engine room following Jedinak’s injury. This leaves creative duties to a four-man setup of top-scorer Adomah, top-assistant Snodgrass, the exciting Jack Grealish and the modern-day Reds legend himself, Conor Hourihane. Former Arsenal man Henri Lansbury is back to full fitness and in contention along with Spurs loanee Josh Onomah, with the tidy Icelandic Birkir Bjarnason another midfielder worth a shout. Up front is where Villa struggled for a period, due to a long-term injury to talisman Jonathan Kodjia. Whilst January reinforcements are possible, the number nine role has fallen lately to Scott Hogan, who has scored in his last two league outings. Youngster Keinan Davis had an impressive display at Oakwell earlier this season and should be in the squad this weekend, whilst local stalwart Gabby Agbonlahor has suffered with injury in recent weeks.
In The Dugout
Since arriving at the second Birmingham club of his career at the back end of 2016, Steve Bruce brought a rekindled hope to Villa Park. Under huge expectations, Bruce guided the side to a 13th-placed finish last year, before raising the ambitions to promotion for this campaign.
In Bruce’s playing days, the former defender was arguably the best footballer never to have earned a senior England cap, and played well over 300 games for Manchester United in the late 1980s and 1990s, winning three league titles. Bruce also served long spells at Gillingham and Norwich, and hung up his boots in 1999 to take on full-time management.
The Northumberland-born coach has managed eight league clubs, most notably including spells at Hull City and Villa’s fierce rivals, Birmingham City. Bruce has won four promotions to the Premier League, two with each of these sides, and famously took Hull to the 2014 FA Cup final, leading 2-0 against Arsenal after just eight minutes before eventually going down 3-2 in extra-time. Now chasing his fifth promotion, Bruce is eager to consolidate Aston Villa as an established top-level club again. Assisting him is former Nottingham Forest manager, Colin Calderwood.
Barnsley’s historical record against Villa has not been great, losing 14 out of 20 previous meetings. However, the Reds’ two victories in this fixture have come in amongst the last four clashes, including the memorable Valentine’s Day date of last year as Tom Bradshaw’s double saw us triumph 3-1 at Villa Park.