With more than half of the pre-season games played, virtually everyone in the squad has had a touch of the ball (though we are still waiting for the return of our captain, Ron Vlaar, and the injured strikers Libor Kozak and Christian Benteke have not featured). Speculation is rife as to who is going to start in our first match of the season against Stoke City. With everyone being given a fresh start, our squad is rather extensive – with twenty-eight senior players and multiple youngsters knocking on the door of the first team – so predicting the starting XI for the first game of the new Premier League campaign is rather difficult. As interesting as it is to guess and discuss who may play, there is another exciting aspect of fielding the team: the formation. I would like to take a look at our most likely options.
Paul Lambert seems to favour three different formations, which he changes according to the opposition and the players available to him. These three formations are the 4-3-3, the 4-2-3-1 and the 5-3-2 (also interpreted as a 3-5-2). I will focus on each one, with the aim of determining its purpose.
The first one up is the 4-3-3, probably Lambert’s most used formation during his time at Villa. It is the basis for the counter-attacking football that worked well two years ago but became less effective last season. One reason for it proving less effective in 2013-14 might be the drop in form of our three main strikers, Christian Benteke, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann, who the whole set-up was tailored to and in effect dependent upon. Another reason could be that this formation was very one-dimensional and therefore easy for the Villans’ opponents to predict once they had gotten used to it. However, with certain players’ form seemingly improving and new players coming in, this formation might deserve another chance, especially in games in which our possession percentage is predicted to be low. A tactic like this can be key to success, although this set-up will obviously not work in every match.
The next line-up in focus is the 4-2-3-1 and it features something that we have been waiting for for a long time: a play-maker. Now that we have two of them at our disposal, it is time to make full use of this well-balanced formation that has been successfully adopted by many teams around the globe. Guided by an in-form Charles N’Zogbia or the experienced Joe Cole, the team could once again play fine attacking football. The best passing football during Lambert’s reign at Villa has been played when this formation has been deployed and the pre-season games have indicated that the players are able to put theory into action and string the passes together. With the central attacking midfielder pulling the strings, the defensive midfielders would now have the opportunity to help the defence, should help be needed, and our goal-difference could look much more positive with this line-up being used effectively.
Finally, we have the 5-3-2 – the formation that Lambert used to stabilise the back line last season simply by adding another defender. This choice means that there is a player “missing” further up the pitch. This trade-off can work out but it is vital that our full-backs, who in this case turn into wing-backs, give their all and are always up to to speed. It is the wing-backs who help to outnumber the opposition in order to create our chances (or prevent the opposition’s). This process has to function flawlessly if the tactic is to work. The set-up allows Lambert to implement a play-maker by making the midfield three consist of two defensive midfielders sitting behind the attacking midfielder, just like in a 4-2-3-1. Otherwise, a flatter midfield, like in a 4-3-3, can be used. Furthermore, the use of two strikers unlocks new options, moving away from the lone-striker systems like the two above.
Each of the three formations has its advantages and over the course of the season Paul Lambert and his new assistant Roy Keane will probably use all three of them – and maybe even more. At present, with the Villa squad short of wingers, the big target men missing through injury and with an abundance of central defenders and wing-backs, the 5-3-2 seems like a likely option for the start of the season at least. There are still three more pre-season games to be played and it won’t be until the pre-season campaign concludes that we have a clearer picture of Lambert’s possible plans in terms of formation.