Another game brought another defeat. Aston Villa Football Club is well and truly struck in a rut and the Villans are still without a win since the 2-1 victory over Burton Albion on Boxing Day. A raft of signings during the January transfer window may take some time to bed in but they have generally received a positive response from supporters. However, rather than the players at hand, the real question marks right now seems to be over tactics.
Steve Bruce has come in for a lot of criticism, especially after the defeat to Nottingham Forest. The buck rightly stops with him. I wrote a few weeks ago about the team having no identity and how Bruce needed to address that quickly. There are still no real signs of that. To try and be fair, we are now just one game into the era where the manager can rightfully begin to be judged on the players that he has brought in. He now has to fit them into a system that works.
I think that, overall, it was a good window for the club. I was over the moon with the acquisition of Conor Hourihane. I also think that Scott Hogan will be top drawer for us. Henri Lansbury and Birkir Bjarnason give us depth in midfield. We also added competition in the full back slots with Neil Taylor and James Bree. I was underwhelmed by Sam Johnstone and have always said that Bruce should have brought in an experienced goalkeeper instead. Ultimately non of us will know just how successful the window will be for a while a little like http://www.wintingo.com/table-games/ when you are waiting for your cards to come out at Wintago Online Casino.
Nevertheless, irrespective of your or my opinions, these are now Bruce’s charges. On paper we look very good but there is something alarmingly wrong right now. The 4-3-3 formation that we have mostly used this season has come under much scrutiny recently. On top of this, players are being played out of position.
Like most sane people, I’m a huge believer in playing players in their preferred positions. So, looking at our current squad, which formation best suits the players we have? First and foremost, 4-3-3 isn’t working and hasn’t been for a long time. I think it causes us to shoehorn players into positions they aren’t naturally suited to, especially on the left side of the attacking three. With Green coming into the side recently, he would certainly be a more obvious candidate there. Whilst it seems to be an attacking formation, we haven’t executed it well at all. I think that, despite it appearing to have three players up front, we’re really only playing with one main striker. The two other attacking players are more used as auxiliary wingers. It also sees us losing the midfield battle on a regular basis. It needs to be ditched.
On Saturday against Nottingham Forest it was ditched. Bruce experimented with a 3-5-2 formation. This system was deemed somewhat outdated until recent times when it was mostly popularised again by Antonio Conte firstly with Italy in the Euros and being implemented with huge success so far this season at Chelsea. I like it, especially as it reminds me of the great football we played under Brian Little. For the system to work, the wing backs are perhaps the most important part of the team, having to get up and down the pitch for ninety minutes. Bree looks as if he has the attributes to do a job there and the role seems perfect for Jordan Amavi to bomb up and down all day, which makes Bruce playing Bjarnason there instead on Saturday even stranger.
My biggest concern defensively is that I’m not overly convinced by Tommy Elphick playing in a three at centre back. Roberto Di Matteo tried the system out against Newcastle United at Villa Park earlier in the season and the former Bournemouth skipper looked so uncomfortable. Again on Saturday, I felt there was an anxiousness about him. He is brave and will throw his body on the line, which is great, but I can’t help feeling that he is liable to give away a penalty at any moment.
The other drawback is that we only have three centre backs available who can play the role. If one of them is injured or suspended, we will need to revert to another formation. This brings up an issue of inconsistency rather than being able to play a settled side. We are too light in that position to cope with any injuries and suspensions if we play three at the back. For Bruce to now switch to this formation having not strengthened in this area shows a lack of foresight and highlights that 3-5-2 was probably just a by-product of the drubbing handed to us by Brentford in the previous game rather than any long term plan.
Despite this, the system has many positives. It allows a flexibility in midfield as the wingbacks will lend support. This means the core midfield three can see Mile Jedinak sitting deeper as he prefers, whilst Hourihane and either Lansbury or Bjarnason play alongside or slightly in front of him. Offensively, the system works for us also. I like the thought of playing two strikers up front and Kodjia and Hogan looked to have a promising fledgling partnership between them formulating against Nottingham Forest.
Even though it may not have been executed exactly right on Saturday, there were definitely signs of the system showing promise and the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Stephen Henderson certainly kept them in the game with several excellent saves. Jack Grealish’s stupidity went a long way to inviting pressure for the late winner and Johnstone’s spill was unnecessary for to let them back into the game before half time.
The other realistic option is the classic flat 4-4-2. I’m not as keen on this as I think it raises the same issues that 4-3-3 presents, namely the left hand side of the midfield. I would hate to see Hourihane or Lansbury wasted out there and I don’t think it is a natural position for Bjarnason either. Similarly, they would be wasted out on the right hand side also. Adomah would be the natural fit to give the system width on the right but, again, unless Green starts games on the left, we are back to being unbalanced. That would then also only leave two spaces in the middle for Jedinak, Hourihane, Lansbury, Bjarnason and hopefully eventually Grealish to compete for.
An alternative which may work better is a diamond midfield 4-4-2 which sees Jedinak at the base, with Lansbury and Bjarnason as the two in the centre and utilising Hourihane as a playmaker behind the front two. Whilst this system does limit width, it still allows for two strikers up front. It should also give us more control in midfield than we have been used to, which for me is a big part of why we have been so poor this season. Again, I think this system suits the player options we now have in midfield rather than forcing a formation to fit.
Another alternative is a 4-5-1 approach, although I wouldn’t really want to see us play it. I see it as a fairly negative system. It may make us difficult to beat yet I think our real problem up until recently has been scoring goals and I don’t see this formation helping us. Variations of it could be employed and the permutations of a five man midfield would be interesting. The big sticking point for me is that it immediately negates the point of having both Kodjia and Hogan available to us.
Overall, I think that 3-5-2 is our best option right now. It suits the players we have better than any other system. The key is that Bruce needs to utilise it as an attacking formation rather than it becoming a more defensive 5-3-2. We should not fear any team in this league with the players we have in the squad. We should be on the front foot rather than worrying about nullifying opponents.
A concern right from the start of Bruce’s appointment was that his brand of football was solid and unspectacular. He likes to make his teams tough to beat first and foremost. At the moment, we aren’t even that. We’re a soft touch and we’re showing teams far, far too much respect.
Playing Ipswich Town at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon presents the boss with a great opportunity to give 3-5-2 another try and hopefully this time be more adventurous with it. What Bruce must avoid is chopping and changing systems as Di Matteo ended up doing before he was sacked. The players needed to be successful and entertaining are certainly in this squad. Let them run riot!