Since day one of the Championship season back in August, the two West Midlands clubs who meet each other on Saturday evening have been talked about a lot. Most of it has been divergent.
Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers have had very different starts to the season. Wolves have been on stellar form, and after an exciting summer where a new manager and some very impressive signings arrived at Molineux, they’ve made it all count on the pitch, where it matters.
Villa, meanwhile, looked all but set to sack their manager Steve Bruce after just a few games and murmurs of a move for Oscar Garcia, currently managing in Ligue 1, to replace the former Hull City boss after a stuttering start to the campaign weren’t far from making it to the surface.
But a look at the table will probably leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. Aston Villa may currently be sitting outside the play-off spots – surely the very least they’d expect come the end of the season – but a victory this weekend would put them just a point behind their opponents, Wolves. If ever a club needed a turnaround, it was Villa. Over the last month, they’ve got it.
Ever since a dour draw at home to Middlesbrough in mid-September, Villa have been on the up, and indeed their form is better than that of Wolves going into the game, even though Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have only lost once in that time.
Sam Rourke, Editor-in-Chief of Football League World told me about Villa’s turnaround ahead of Saturday’s big game. And it’s clear the tables have turned quite dramatically in favour of Bruce at Villa Park.
“Aston Villa now look like the side to beat in the Championship,” says Rourke, “that’s something I never thought i’d say earlier on this season. They’ve won their last four league games, and Bruce seems to have found a balanced eleven that is finally seeming to work together collectively.”
The return of Jonathan Kodjia has been a massive boost for the Villans. Indeed, his very first appearance of the season came in that 0-0 draw with Boro when he came off the bench with 20 minutes to go. His first start came in the next game, a 3-0 victory over Barnsley, and Villa haven’t looked back since. They haven’t lost a game in which the Ivorian has played, and they won every time he’s started.
That hasn’t been Bruce’s only plus over the last few weeks, however: Kodjia’s strike partner over the last few weeks hasn’t been last season’s January signing Scott Hogan, but 19-year-old academy graduate Keinan Davis. It takes a special kind of grit to oust a £12m striker from your squad in favour of an unproven teenager when your job appears to be on the line, but that’s exactly what Bruce has done in the last month. And Rourke believes that belief and fight has been transmitted to the players, too.
“Surprisingly, the result that I feel is the most impressive was their recent 1-0 home win over Bolton,” he says. “They didn’t play well at all, yet still ground out a victory. I think the Bruce haters are waning now and his credentials as a manager are really starting to shine.”
Bruce’s managerial prowess may have come in for criticism, but his experience and track record has never been in doubt. His Championship know-how is one of the reasons he was asked to do the job, but that’s not the only route to promotion. His opposite number has no experience of England’s second tier, but Santo’s managerial CV takes in both Valencia and Porto. Indeed, he was the last manager to take Valencia into the Champions League, finishing in fourth place in La Liga before leaving the club and being replaced by Gary Neville when things started to go wrong in eastern Spain.
His arrival at Wolves in the summer has been part the next phase of an extremely exciting time at the club, along with the signing of Ruben Neves and the loan deal which took Diogo Jota to the club, too. He’s brought with him an exotic flair and made the team into one of the most intriguing in the country, let alone the Championship.
“Santo’s use of wing-backs has been incredibly effective this season,” Rourke tells me, “and it’s a stark contrast to the standard 4-4-2 formation that Bruce has opted to utilise of late. And in terms of an attacking front three, Wolves have one of the best outside of the Premier League. Diogo Jota, Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro are a genuinely scary prospect, and they can be devastating! You have to worry for John Terry on Saturday, will he be able to cope with the pace and trickery of this talented trio?”
In some ways that highlights exactly the differences between these two clubs this season. Villa have the experience, Wolves the flair. But received wisdom will tell you that experience and know-how is what gets you through a bruising 46-game Championship season. And although Wolves have had a fast start some might worry if an exciting, technical team who play 3-4-3 and are coached by a Championship novice can keep their form up for an entire season or whether they’ll struggle when winter starts to bite.
“Wolves have all the foundations to launch a serious promotion push this season,” Rourke says, “and if they can keep their main players fit, then they have an excellent chance.”
We’ll know much more about their promotion chances by the end of Saturday’s game.