The £100 million game. A chance at Wembley glory and a place at football’s top table next year. The stakes for the clash between Aston Villa and Derby Country could not be higher, but the question that both sets of fans will be nervously ruminating is this- who has the tactical nous and mental strength necessary to win?
Villa will approach this tie with quiet confidence, especially with talismanic striker Tammy Abraham leading the line. He has been in spectacular form this year, with his 26 goals in the Championship being bettered only by Norwich’s Teemu Pukki. If Villa’s wide players can provide effective service for Abraham, then Derby could be in for a tough afternoon. Abraham displayed his cool head by scoring match winning penalties in each leg of the playoff semi-finals, and if he remains collected in front of goal, he may well belie his tender age and drive Villa towards promotion.
Villa’s chances of success will fluctuate depending on Dean Smith’s solution to the selection headache he faces. In the first leg against West Brom, Smith employed a 4-1-4-1 formation with Glenn Whelan playing as the holding midfielder. However, Whelan’s individual error allowed Dwight Gayle to score, and the second leg saw Smith utilise a 4-3-3 formation with a midfield trio of McGinn, Grealish and Hourihane. Despite Whelan’s mistake, Smith might consider starting his more defensively minded midfielder in order to nullify Mason Mount and Harry Wilson. Grealish, McGinn and Hourihane contribute exceptionally going forward and all have the propensity to unleash the odd wonderstrike, but Smith may need to sacrifice this attacking potential in favour of a pragmatic approach. The likes of Mount and Wilson will trouble Villa defensively, and if Smith opts for Whelan’s defensive steel over his teammates’ attacking prowess, this tactical alteration might just keep Mount and Wilson quiet enough for Villa to win the game.
Derby are known as perennial playoff bottlejobs and will be aware that they are the bookies’ underdogs. Richard Keogh has endured Wembley heartbreak before, with his last-minute mishit clearance allowing Zamora to clinch the 2014 playoff final for QPR, but as captain his experience will be crucial. Keogh led from the front at Elland Road, assisting Jack Marriott’s winner with a storming run out from defence. He may need to exercise caution against Villa, as creating that amount of space would give Grealish room to run amok, but his desire to drive his team onwards sets a perfect example to his teammates. Whereas Villa have recent experience of such an occasion, there is the danger that Derby’s young side might be overawed by the magnitude of this game. If Derby are to dispel their playoff demons, Keogh’s leadership will be pivotal. He will need to do his best to ensure his teammates remain unperturbed, instilling in them both the desire and the composure necessary for success in such a hugely significant game.
Of course, Frank Lampard will be hoping that Harry Wilson has saved one last scintillating performance. 16 goals and 4 assists is a commendable tally for the young Welshman, but what is even more impressive is not the quantity of his goals but the quality. Wilson is happy to shoot from range and is unerringly accurate, making him a danger to the sturdiest of defences. Success for Derby may well hinge on creating space for Wilson and making sure that he sees enough of the ball, knowing that Wilson is capable of creating a goalscoring opportunity for himself or bringing the likes of Lawrence and Mount into the game. Wilson is the kind of player that can change proceedings in an instant, and in a game of such fine margins and huge rewards, his prodigious talent may well be Derby’s most dangerous weapon.