How might Villa play next season?
A short round-up
Whilst Dots&Crosses has been away, it has been a pretty ridiculous summer for Villa fans. Randy Lerner’s search for a manager included all the usual suspects, and some new ones: Mark Hughes resigned from his Fulham job, only to be snubbed by Villa, Steve McLaren was contacted only for Lerner to apparently cancel the meeting, Carlo Ancelotti ruled himself out and rumours of now-Fulham boss Martin Jol were flying around before it was made concrete that Villa had enquired after Roberto Martinez. In a twist that Lerner evidently hadn’t foreseen, however, Martinez opted for loyalty to his current club, and the search was back at square one. Eventually, the Villans sat at their keyboards pressing F5 on football sites got their wish for manager news, though it was the biggest shock of the lot. Out of nowhere Alex McLeish resigned from Villa’s arch-rivals Birmingham and within days he was in the job, despite huge protests from crowds outside Villa Park.
It wasn’t just the managerial position that was changing. Ashley Young, the jewel in Villa’s crown, left to go to Manchester United in a wholly amicable transfer. Unlike the departures of Gareth Barry and James Milner (and one other we’ll get to later) the transfer was widely accepted by Villa fans: not only was Young sure to go to someone sooner or later, he went for a good fee, to the best club in England, and departed Villa with a great deal of respect. On a much less savoury note, one of the few shining lights of last season, Stewart Downing, also departed the club. In stark contrast to Young, the mood surrounding Downing’s departure was grim. Villa fans were astonished and angry at a player who had been purchased for £12 million when no other club was willing to take a punt on a player who had a long-term injury and was coming from a relegated club. Downing spent 6 months out injured and another 6 months with wholly indifferent form. It was only last season that Downing showed any indication of repaying his employers, but it seems that all he was using Villa for was as a springboard for joining Liverpool. The fee was at first rumoured to be £15 million – a ridiculously low sum if all things were considered – but Lerner and McLeish stood firm to demand their preferred valuation of £20 million, which they received.
Quite apart from the saga of the two Villa wingers, 10 players were released. Along with the expected – John Carew, Robert Pires and Moustapha Salifou – was the disappointing sight of Nigel Reo-Coker leaving. The big-hearted midfield terrier was excellent for Villa last season, zipping around the field and breaking up attacks with ease. Brad Friedel, too, left for Tottenham to challenge Heurelho Gomes for a starting spot. Carlos Cuellar, too, is likely leaving the club, with a £2 million fee agreed with Rangers. The end result of all of this was that Alex McLeish has been left without a first-choice goalkeeper, no left-wingers at all and a horrifically imbalanced squad.
Hope for Villa?
The big Scot has moved with purpose to begin to remedy those problems, however. Shay Given was brought in for a fee believed to be around £3.5 million, and the experienced Irish ‘keeper will significantly strengthen a backline that was a liability last season. An extra bonus is his nationality: with Richard Dunne and Ciaran Clark both Ireland internationals, the three of them could form the heart of a restructured defence. Charles N’Zogbia, a man Villa have suffered at the hands of before, has been heavily linked. Reports are that Wigan and Villa are haggling over the price, being as close as a million pounds apart in their preferred fees.
Just as significantly, however, McLeish has promised all players frozen out under Houllier a clean slate. This means that Stephen Ireland could have a chance to justify his move in the part exchange deal that took James Milner to Manchester City, and Stephen Warnock could end his exile from the Villa squad to fill an empty spot at left-back. It is cliché to say it, but both would be like new signings to Villa, who lack a midfield playmaker (other than the developing Fabian Delph) and any kind of natural left-back at all, let alone one of Warnock’s quality.
So how could Villa play?
We got a glimpse of a possible line-up in a friendly against Walsall two days ago*:
McLeish set out in a 4-2-3-1, neatly confounding all the critics who bullishly insisted that he would only ever play a rigid 4-4-2. A regular back four with new signing Given behind it also included Warnock, who got forward well to provide left-sided width. Ahead, the double pivot of Stiliyan Petrov and Jean Makoun screened the defence, with Makoun taking the place of Nigel Reo-Coker in a destroying midfield role and covering the moves forward of Warnock. Petrov played his usual distributive role slightly in advance of Makoun, linking defence to attack. Stephen Ireland’s return saw him take his favoured place playing ‘in the hole’ behind the striker, Darren Bent. On the right, Marc Albrighton was a classical winger, stretching play, and on the left a lack of suitable personnel saw Emile Heskey take an unfamiliar narrow left-sided role.
The formation and tactics in themselves worked excellently. Heskey’s narrow position would normally have seen a lack of width, but a combination of Warnock’s buccaneering style and Albrighton’s constant width on the right negated the disadvantage well. Makoun and Petrov dovetailed well: the aggressive Cameroonian battled well, and Petrov was equally solid whilst also retaining the passing range which makes him such a well-rounded player. Most encouragingly, Ireland’s return to the fold was impressive before he was forced off with a tight hamstring, drifting laterally across the pitch to find space which the excellent movement of Bent opened up for him. Their partnership may well be crucial this season, as Villa’s star man thrives on the type of probing through-balls Ireland has the talent to provide.
In the second half, McLeish gave a chance to more of the fringe players and youngsters: with Ireland going off, the 4-2-3-1 switched to a 4-4-2 as Ireland went off and Nathan Delfouneso came on in his place. The 4-4-2 was a regular formation under Houllier, but the Frenchman insisted on playing the duo of Petrov and Reo-Coker and leaving Villa without any kind of creativity from the centre. As a result, the burden to create was left to Stewart Downing and to a lesser extent Ashley Young, which made Villa predictable and slow. McLeish seems to have understood this, and Barry Bannan was used in midfield, in order to give some central creativity and invention from his deep-lying midfield position. It was also promising to see a new crop of youngsters getting their chance, with Shane Lowry, Daniel Johnson and Graham Burke all bolstering the young brigade of talented players coming through from the academy.
It would be stupid to write too much into a preseason friendly, and it is normal that young and fringe players are given a chance to impress in these early friendlies. However, McLeish has impressed so far, and crucially Darren Bent looks extremely sharp. One or two more signings, and Villans can be forgiven for being extremely optimistic for the coming season.
*Thanks Gary for the live feed from the game, much appreciated.