The season may only be four games old, but it’s already been a mixed bag for Villa so far. There’s been plenty of positives individually and collectively, alongside a fair amount of frustration. Amongst the highs and lows so far, one factor has began to look apparent on occasion, and that is our dedication to Smith’s 4-3-3 formation of choice. It is only early doors but in its current form it has left us looking a bit open and prone to the better quality of opponent that we’re now coming up against on a weekly basis.
As a pre-cursor to my thoughts, this isn’t a negative critique of Smith’s tactics – certainly this early in the season and given the success that the formation wrought last season. This is instead a postulation on whether or not, given our new personnel and the differing advantages they can bring to the team, we could make use of a pragmatic plan B for those games where currently we may find ourselves stretched or liable to be overrun.
Now, every fan is a manager and tactician in the stands and in the pubs, and often, with the advantage of hindsight, we can all have opinions and ideas on where we could improve. For me, looking at the playing staff we now have and the improved depth it offers us in certain positions, there are realistic alternatives to the 4-3-3 that I think we could find ways to utilise when required without great disruption or upheaval to our preferred style of play.
At the moment the strongest, most consistent part of the team is in the partnership of Mings and Engels in front of the experienced head of Tom Heaton. In front of them, the current midfield three of McGinn, Grealish and Luiz all have clear talents and attributes which suggest a very healthy triumvirate can form between them. There is a minor disconnect, however, when we push forwards that can oftentimes leave Luiz a little isolated against a surging midfield.
Luiz really looks like a very tidy deep lying playmaker in the mould that Smith likes, smaller quick footed quarterback style midfielders, dictating tempo and spreading the play from deep. But I feel he would work better in such a role with a tenacious, battling presence alongside him to strengthen in the defensive phase, and that’s where Nakamba could come in.
Admittedly we’ve only seen him competitively in a very solid debut against League Two Crewe so far, so it’s early to wax lyrical, but he certainly carries the nous and energy required to fulfil the role. Since the writing of this, Nakamba has impressed against West Ham with a very solid defensive display. That added solidarity would allow Luiz to flourish and further allow McGinn and Grealish to push on into the attacking areas where they can be at their most effective.
This does create a dilemma though, as it doesn’t facilitate the use of Smith’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. The inclusion of Nakamba in the aforementioned deep lying protective role would shift us more towards a 4-2-3-1, which is workable with a very fluid attacking 3 in midfield.
If we were to avoid using traditional wingers but rather encourage players to float between positions with the ability to drift wide when required, it could be workable. It would require a lot of discipline, communication and understanding to work, something Grealish and McGinn certainly already have but that is evident in El Ghazi and Jota too. A little more work might yet be required to integrate Trézéguet into that system, but he’d be more than capable from what we’ve seen so far.
Alternatively, and perhaps a little more radical but still very workable with our current squad, is a formation more like a 4-2-1-2-1 formation. McGinn sitting central and using his boundless workrate to move box to box with Luiz and Nakamba behind operating a dynamic screen in front of the defence when out of possession with plenty enough comfort on the ball to allow us to turn defence into attack quickly or just to more comfortably build out from the back.
In front of McGinn – and free to roam centrally or wider to draw defences out and make lots of pockets of space – any of Grealish, Jota, Trézéguet or El Ghazi would be able to create plenty of problems for opposition defences to deal with.
With Grealish and Jota’s ability to either dribble into the box, draw fouls or create chances for themselves or others coupled with the more direct options offered by El Ghazi and Trézéguet’s ability to shoot from outside the box, the potential options going forward in such a formation look strong. Either way a midfield five in this fashion could prove to be compact out of possession but create a myriad of problems for opponents when attacking too.
The caveat to this formation’s advantages however, is the requirement for adventurous attacking wing backs to offer attacking support and additional width to stretch teams. Down the right we have already seen the capabilities of Guilbert in fulfilling this role comfortably, and Elmohamady is an able enough deputy when called upon.
The issue would be in the left wing back position. We saw from the Crewe game that Targett is more than capable of being a threat in the opposition half, but that he looked weak (perhaps just match fitness) in his defensive play. Whereas Taylor has been pretty solid in the role so far as a functional defensive presence alongside Mings down the left hand side of defence, but markedly unabitious in getting up the pitch to support the attacks. Even Hause (not a natural left back) offers a greater attacking ambition than the often overly cautious Taylor.
Whilst my suggestions are only hypotheses based on the players we have, I think the added versatility and flexibility of alternatives to our current go to formation will serve us well long term.
There is of course, the additional fact that this is still a relatively young team learning to gel together, but the Premier League can be ruthless in its willingness to let you develop your style. Having a workable Plan B may help us make ourselves harder to beat than we perhaps have been in the opening weeks (even if we’ve been somewhat unlucky to lose after spirited performances).
There’s still plenty of positives to take away from the first month, but acknowledging where we have weaknesses currently and becoming more assertive in our own strengths is going to be key to developing into a genuinely decent Premier League side over the coming season.