After a frustrating start to the season, in which we have no points from the opening pair of matches despite performances which warrant more, I have noticed big issues in our style of play that need addressing.
For one, we are failing to adapt to the different attributes of Wesley – And instead stay within the Tammy timewarp. Villa need to use Wesley better, treating him not as a new Abraham, but as his own player whose strengths need to be exploited in matches. But the issues lie deeper than just that, in my book.
The Wesley example
Specifically, we need to lessen our reliance on our strengths from last season. They worked for the 21-year-old loanee who got 26 goals, enough to warrant his earning of the #9 shirt at Chelsea this season, forcing us to turn to Dean Smith’s personal pick Wesley – A completely different player to Abraham.
Our record signing, the Brazilian is a physical striker who invites wide runners into the middle through his link-up play. He drops deep, into the hole, drawing away centre-halves to expose gaps in opposition defences that our overlapping attackers can use to score goals. He got below 15 goals last season in Belgium, but 10 assists – This almost even ratio shows how his game does not revolve around goals.
Meanwhile, Abraham got 26 goals and 3 assists. This is a much more skewed outcome that speaks to his playing style. He is a fox-in-the-box, who is quick on his feet but capable of scoring all kinds of goals inside of the box. His 6’3 stature but slender figure make him fast off the mark and able to press opposition centre-halves well. His instinct and awareness in the box are that of a pure goalscorer.
To properly utilise Abraham last season, we pumped as many crosses into the box as we could – Scoring the most from them as any team in the Championship. Getting the ball in that area got the best out of him, but that’s not the case for Wesley. He operates much better by having the ball to his feet, drawing a centre-back from the line, and playing through an inside forward or attacking midfielder to create chances. And yet we still operate as if we have Tammy up top. We still pump crosses in and try to make Wesley run channels (that will never happen) – Both bad ideas.
It’s no wonder that Wesley, despite showing promise, has overall contributed nothing of note to either game he has played in. Not only is he adapting to the faster and more physical Premier League, but he has to play a role that isn’t his. Wesley will never succeed for Aston Villa if we continue to adapt our style of play around a departed striker and not the Brazilian forward.
The simple solution to this is to allow Wesley to run deeper, encourage him to stay on his feet, give the ball to him on the ground and get other players to make runs around him to give him options. But I think that that may yet prove to be a lacklustre solution, as problems that Wesley is an example of lie deeper. My solution is more drastic, especially given how early in the season it would come.
Fixing the deeper issues?
I am not fond of a team that succeeds using a set system which then abandons it for a new one. But the fact remains that we have signed 12 new players, with completely different styles and attributes than those we let go. To get the best out of our current squad, I think we need to move to a 5-3-2 formation. The main advantages this brings are that Targett and Guilbert would have less pressure to defend because of the presence of that extra centre-half, Wesley would have a strike partner as he had at Club Brugge who he could use for link-up play, and overall our defensive solidarity would be stronger so we’d have a better foundation to go and win games. The inconsistent, misfiring El Ghazi would be dropped as well – He is struggling badly at the moment.
On the opposite end of the stick, teams generally should not abandon the system that worked for them in the past. But just because it worked then does not mean it is the best one now. As I mentioned, new players have come in and we have to adapt. Also, the matter of the breaking up of Engels and Mings’ partnership exists, but with the way I’d like to see the 5-3-2 operate, that would not happen.
In goal, I would have the experienced Heaton. Wing-backs Targett and Guilbert, who we need for options and backup out wide going forward. On the right and left of the defence, I’d have Engels and Mings. In-between? Douglas Luiz. Moving him there allows him to move the ball out of the back in this 5-3-2 which if he played in midfield would not allow him to do so. He’d be very fluid, moving into the midfield but dropping back when needs be. One of the greatest examples of this working is Wolves’ Conor Coady, who after being moved to this role has excelled and in my book deserves an England call-up. In midfield, Hourihane who is effective when given freedom to attack, would play in-between Grealish and McGinn and all three would have the license to go forward given the stronger foundation of having three centre-halves behind them. Upfront, the hold-up striker Wesley alongside the pacey runner that is Trezeguet. They’d play well off each other and they suit each other’s styles of play.
To conclude, the way we use Wesley has exposed holes in our style of play – Our over-reliance on crosses for example. Regardless, the problems lie deeper than just Wesley, as with new personnel our beloved 4-3-3 is no longer the right system. Instead, a more solid yet more suited 5-3-2 is the best option to keep us in this division – And the perfect way to get the perfect Wesley.