The Championship playoffs commence this weekend with Derby County hosting Fulham on Friday, before Middlesbrough entertain Aston Villa at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The club's four managers will no doubt have their tactical sheets filled out, covering all possible eventualities for these tense two-legged ties. Over the course of the season, Tony Pulis, Gary Rowett and Slaviša Jokanović have established clearly defined playing styles with their respective teams, though the same cannot be said of Steve Bruce's Aston Villa side.
Bruce's side have impressed, surprised and frustrated their fans with their performances over the season, despite coming close in their push for automatic promotion. The game could define their entire campaign, though motivation is unlikely to be problem ahead of their clash with Pulis' Middlesbrough side.
Here is a breakdown of some key factors that could Aston Villa progress to the showpiece Championship final at Wembley.
Steve Bruce's Playoff Experience & Tactical Versatility
The Villa boss has proven in the past that he knows how to win the playoffs, having taken both Hull City and Birmingham City up via that route. He will have the experience to get his team in the right frame of mind, as he looks to outwit renowned tactician Tony Pulis.
Villa have altered their formation multiple times this season, often performing better in a 4-1-4-1 formation, utilising Jack Grealish in a free role. This will be the most suitable formation for Aston Villa to field in order to best oppose the conventional 4-3-3 that Boro have consistently used this term.
The five man midfield should allow Villa to dominate the centre of the park, given their two man advantage. The one man in front of the defence, whether that be Mile Jedinak or Glenn Whelan, will allow Conor Hourihane and Grealish greater authority to venture forward, and provide supporting runs for lone striker Lewis Grabban.
💬🙌 TuesdayThoughts: @ConorHourihane knows what mindset is needed for Play-Off joy, having won promotion before...— Aston Villa FC (@AVFCOfficial) May 8, 2018
"It’s about handling the occasion and not getting caught up in it all. We will do our homework and be ready. We’re looking forward to it."#PartOfThePride #AVFC pic.twitter.com/cuAbMu2A4l
Without the ball, the formation allows the midfield to drop into a more conventional 4-5-1 structure, seamlessly transitioning between the two.
Villa's full-backs like to come forward, providing additional width on each flank when Villa look to hit their opponents on the counter. Bruce will likely take a more conservative approach in this away leg, in an attempt to protect James Chester and John Terry from the blistering pace of Adama Traore.
The aim will be to contain Middlesbrough, before taking the game to their opponents back at Villa Park.
Utilising Alan Hutton at Left-Back
Alan Hutton has recently come back from an injury, and must replace Neil Taylor in the left-back slot. In his absence, Taylor has been the weak link in the Villa squad, playing with a distinct lack of confidence and making a considerable amount of errors.
A recent mistake led to Derby's opener in their league encounter, with the Welshman struggling against Andreas Weimann before an early substitution. Should he start against Middlesbrough, he will have to face Adama Traore, who has been their standout performer.
The pacey winger likes to hit the byline and whip crosses into the box for either Patrick Bamford, or Britt Assombalonga to latch onto, providing Boro with a vast amount of joy. Villa may struggle against Traore, with Hutton likely to be shown down the line on his weaker side.
Overturning Boro's Momentum
Middlesbrough are the in-form team coming into the playoffs, having strung together a positive run of results. As of February 12, Middlesbrough lay in 9th place in the Championship table, whereas Villa were riding high in 2nd - a clear indication of their late season form.
Boro have won four of their last six games, while Villa have picked up points, despite putting in fairly stale performances since beating Wolves at the beginning of March.
While tactics matter, they are no match for momentum, quality and drive, and Villa will have to prevent Middlesbrough seizing the initiative with a capacity crowd behind them.
Mental Strength is Paramount to Success
Errors are what have harmed Villa most this season, with various mistakes throughout the season directly leading to opposition goals. At times, the Villains have been their own worst enemy and if they want to progress, they need to eradicate the unnecessary errors from their play.
Middlesbrough definitely have the firepower to capitalise on a shaky Villa performance, so they will need to concentrate fully during the course of both legs.
Everything points to a very evenly contested tie, and one that is very hard to predict. What you can expect though is a cagey affair. Both teams will be under no illusion what is at stake, and what their fans will expect of them.