How might Villa play next season?

Who expected this before the summer break?

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*:

Villa's line-up against Walsall. Click to enlarge.

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.

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6 thoughts on “How might Villa play next season?

  1. Interesting formation for McLeish to use, though you would guess if N’zogbia signs he will replace Heskey. This does leave the question of what Agbonlahor’s role is. I think his pace is too much of an asset to leave on the bench. How do you think he will fit in this formation if you assume this is McLeish’s first choice?

    • It is interesting, particularly as so many have been saying he would use a bog-standard 4-4-2. I think it’s the right decision though, as Bent, Makoun, Ireland and N’Zogbia (if he signs, which now looks likely) all play better in single-striker, midfield-trio formations like the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 (and their variations). Zogs would almost certainly replace Heskey, but would play a similar, Ashley Young-type role I think.

      I’m a big fan of Agbonlahor, but I don’t think there’s a place in the first team for him at the moment. He’s definitely not going to dislodge Bent, and he’s not a natural winger. I think he’ll be backup for the flanks and second choice striker, maybe coming off the bench late to test opposition legs with his lightning pace.

      If McLeish did want to fit him in, he could in theory fit in place of either Albrighton or N’Zogbia, as an unconventional winger. He could even in a pinch play in Ireland’s position, just higher up and changing the formation to more of a 4-4-1-1, with Gabby playing off Bent. I wouldn’t like that though: he doesn’t possess the vision, finesse and passing ability required to play there, regardless of his talent.

      • I hope he doesn’t try to fit Gabby into a wide role, Houllier tried that last year and he never looked comfortable. I agree that there doesn’t seem a natural place for him, especially as our strength in depth is almost all central midfielders and you would ideally want (as you said) three of Ireland, Delph, Bannan, Petrov, and Makoun playing in the first eleven.

        That being said our lack of width in our squad means a couple of injuries and Agbon will be playing there as a necessity. How times change…

  2. Good post. Although we lack numbers if we sign N’Zogbia we have a very flexible side, who could adjust to a number of different formations. Personally I’d like us to try:-

    Given
    Young Collins/Clark Dunne Warnock
    Petrov Makoun
    Ireland N’Zogbia
    Gabby Bent

    This would give us a lot more creativity through the centre which we often lack but can quickly be changed to give us more width if required. Although Albrighton had a fantastic debut season it’s always tough for a player of his experience to play a full season, especially with the expectations he has on his shoulders. I think rotation is the key and with the injury problems a few players have the likes of Albrighton, Bannan, Ireland, N’Zogbia and Delph could all rotate around for game time.

    The big worry for me right now if we don’t have a destroyer as such in midfield, although Makoun in France has shown he is capable of doing so he hasn’t yet adjusted to the physical demands of the English league. He seems more capable going forward picking out passes in tight spaces and retaining the possession of the ball rather then winning 50/50 tackles. I don’t think him and Petrov as a partnership will be a problem v some teams but we still need the NRC type player who has both the energy and defensive capabilities to protect our back four. Other then that I’d like to see some competition for Warnock but I get the feeling we will have to made do with Lichaj and Clark for cover.

    • Hm. I’m not a great fan of narrow formations like the one you suggested. For starters, we’d need width from full-backs for that to work, which although Warnock can provide, Young can’t. Even worse, if the opposition wingers put in a defensive shift and prevent our full-backs from getting forward, we’re immediately devoid of any width. On top of that, THEIR full-backs are completely free, allowing them to get forward at will and cause untold damage without leaving their defence compromised. With that formation too, N’Zogbia (though capable in the centre) would only get in Ireland’s way.

      I think Makoun can step up. He’s had a preseason now, he’ll be better prepared for the physical side of the Prem. He has plenty of energy and drive, and tackling ability too. What I dislike is this growing idea that Makoun is some kind of playmaker: he is not. He is far more cultured than the defensive midfielders we’re used to, like NRC, who can’t pass over more than a few yards, but his main talents rely on destroying. I’m more worried about Petrov. He’s pretty pedestrian now, his calm passing notwithstanding.

  3. @JumpShields Yeah, although I think Gabby was out of sorts on a bigger scale: injuries, unfamiliar systems, lack of a preseason (which makes a huge difference, just look at our erstwhile winger Downing) and bulking up all contributed. He can play wide – he did under MON, when he first broke into the team – so maybe he can recapture it.

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