How can we find a cutting edge?

We are five games into our first season back in the elite tier of English football and have four points to show for our hard work thus far. This places us one point above the drop zone but realistically we have been unfortunate; refereeing howlers have certainly hurt us and over 90 minutes, we should have come away with three points against both Bournemouth and West Ham based on the balance of play. Additionally, given the influx of new signings, we should only improve as our players continue to gel and get to grips with the style of football Deano demands.

Our centre back partnership ‘Mingles’, infront of ‘safe hands’ Tom Heaton has looked incredibly assured and impresses more in every game that passes. In my mind, this trio of talent is worthy of a top 8 side; either centre back would walk into Man City’s side until Laporte is back and that says an awful lot. When you combine this with our central midfield; Grealish, McGinn Nakamba, Luiz and even Hourihane, it becomes clear that we have an abundance of talent that should see us beat the drop.

Guardiola badly wanted Douglas Luiz in his side, Ferguson wanted United to sign McGinn and Pochettino was desperate for super Jack.

Our central areas are littered with talent; this has resulted in us being competitive in every game that we have played so far. All you have to do is look at how opposition players in these central positions have fared against us and you begin to realise how effective our central midfield has been. Billing should have seen red for Bournemouth, Andre Gomes dropped a disasterclass for Everton, Milivojević could have had 5 yellow cards for Palace and Noble should have seen red last night.

So, all in all, there is no reason to panic.

That said, we do have one major issue that does need addressing – our cutting edge. We simply have not created enough clear cut chances yet and, when we struggle to score we do not have a plan B. One of our writers, Jamie, has written a piece about possible plan B formations which is well worth digesting – Link

This article will look to analyse the reasons for this and suggest an array of possible solutions.

Issue 1 – Weakness out wide

This, for me is the primary issue that needs addressing and was very visible against West Ham. We play with just one striker and therefore our wingers need to be a constant threat to the opposition and to create much of our chances – apart from Jota’s great pass against Everton this simply has not happened yet.

On the right side we have a very impressive, dynamic and attacking full back in Guilbert, yet we have not found someone as effective to play in front of him. Against the Hammers, Jota looked like he was not up to the physical requirements of the Premier League and was, to be blunt, not a threat.

Coversely, on the left side I actually thought El Ghazi had a decent game. Out of all the wingers on the pitch, he arguably had the most joy and was very direct in his play. However, unfortunately, his backup was Neil Taylor. Taylor has done well defensively this year and credit to him for that but he will never offer enough defensively to justify his forward contributions (or lack of).

This leaves us looking relatively average on both flanks. We show signs of inflicting damage but fail to drive home a meaningful advantage. One thing that really frustrated me against West Ham was the numerous occasions on which we would look to play the ball out wide but have to pause before doing so; as if our wide men were not capable of making a run without being told to move. These delays gave West Ham’s defence time to prepare, mark Wesley and nullify our threat from any crosses. If you look back on our best chances, Grealish actually had to pick up the ball and then make the move out wide and supply the cross himself. Jack, by the way, was actually one of our best players yesterday.

We need to find combinations out wide that really put our opposition to the sword and utilise our possession more effectively.

Issue 2 – Wesley is isolated

There is no doubt that Wesley has been isolated so far. He did well to net against Everton after making a very intelligent run but has not really had another clear cut chance since. This is worrying.

His hold up play has been good and he has also run the channels well; my criticism is not aimed at Wesley, it is anything but that.

It is hard to identify the exact cause of his isolation – maybe it is the wingers sitting too deep or the team being pushed back in general.

Maybe it isn’t.

My real problem with his isolation is that it compounds itself with a further issue. McGinn and Grealish both try to push up the field to provide support to Wesley and create chances. However, as soon as this happens we resort to hoofball and struggle to pass the ball up the pitch. Grealish and McGinn drive the team forward and we rely on them to turn possession into attacks. I am sure that if we could get the ball to them when they start in the attacking phase that they would turn attacks into goals, but we fail to do this.

Once again, perhaps the blame lies out wide. Luiz or Nakamba both knock tidy passes out to the four wide players in our system – maybe it is up to them to then combine with each other and bring the ball up the pitch. I don’t intend to put all the blame on our wingers though because this may be a far more complicated problem that needs a far more complex solution.

For now though, three things remain clear:

  1. Wesley is isolated
  2. We need Grealish and McGinn high in support of Wesley
  3. When Grealish and McGinn are high we can’t bring the ball out.

Solution 1 – Play to our strengths

One possible solution, which would kill two birds in one stone, is that we play to our strengths. As aforementioned, we have an abundance of talent in the centre of the park and a lack of it out wide. With this in mind, there are a few different ways in which we could adapt.

One option is that we switch to a 4-2-3-1 and have Luiz and Nakamba in the deeper roles. This would allow McGinn, Grealish and El Ghazi to float about in what would be a scintilating trio and in doing so, provide support to Wesley as they would be much higher up the pitch. It also eradicates the issue of picking a second winger, even if they are one of our weaker players, as the three would provide plenty of width between them. All three are very good dribblers and McGinn could use his energy to provide a very good press on any of the oppositions deep lying ball players in this role. We have lacked an effective press so far and this formation could also be the remedy to that. If Targett replaced Taylor then I could see this formation creating a lot more chances than the current one.

A more radical option would be transitioning to a 3 at the back. To be honest I had not really considered this as an option until after last as I thought it could disrupt Mings and Engels who have been playing brilliantly. That said if they could make the transition and it did not impact their performances then Konsa would be a fine addition alongside them. There are a few variations we could try with 3 defenders but given the solution of ‘playing to our strengths’ I actually think that @JackCudworth has come up with the best variant that I have seen. Radical yet rational, his proposed 3-6-1 would see attacking wing backs and quintessentially, 4 men in central midfield . Playing two holding midfielers and two number 8’s to support Wesley could really see us get the best out of our wealth of midfield talent and it would give McGinn and Grealish the freedom they need.

I have seen some fans sugest an alternative option where Grealish resorts back to a left midfield role and then either Luiz or Hourihane comes in alongside McGinn. For me, Grealish needs more license to roam about the pitch than that if we are to be at our most effective. He is the player that finds space between the lines and will take the ball on the half turn then drive at a defender. Furthermore he frequently roams out to either wing anyway so simply trapping him on one will do more harm than good.

Solution 2 – Patience

The step up the Premier League is a big one and our players are still adapting to this. They will gain confidence as they play and will become used to each other and thus display more chemistry on the pitch. An increased understanding should lead to more chances being created.

I do not think our 4-3-3 is awful by any stretch of the imagination – as previously mentioned, we have gone toe to toe with every side we have played against. Things may click and we might find the attacking moves that allow us to really punish teams.

Additionally, we might be able to sign more talent in January and this could make the difference – Benrahma and a striker could be enough to transform our goal threat.

Conclusion

One thing is for sure, we need patience in management and the club. This time last year it took a last minute Hourihane free kick to get a point against Blackburn. I’m an optimist of the highest and most ridiculous order when it comes to pre-season and Villa; admittedly this is partially to wind-up family and friends yet I do hold out some hope that I will prove to be Nostradamus and Villa will finish in the top 6… Inevitably this does not happen, but I don’t judge the players by my ludicrous hopes. If we stay up this season, then the season has been at least a partial success – it really is that simple. Our current performances, in my view, would see us in a relegation battle but one that we would survive.

Some fans do not seem to understand this and offered more moaning than support last night. From accusing Grealish of being S*** to claiming Smith was not the man for the job when Jota got subbed off for Elmo (he was literally the only sub in this position and Jota was offering nothing) I really was shocked by what I heard. Yes, as fans we have a right to moan and be frustrated but we can’t get onto the players back so easily. They need support to foster the confidence to step up to this level and Villa Park screaming at every wrong decision a player makes will not help. I am not trying to be a ‘superfan’ or judge others – I also groaned at the wrong passes and, as you can see by this article, have my doubts and suggestions for how we can improve. At the end of the day, we drew to a West Ham team who have top 8 credentials, a £45 million striker and would have gone third with a win last night.

The game was frustrating because we played well, it was frustrating because we deserved to beat West Ham and it was frustrating because we did not score the goal we needed. This article was written with the intention of exploring the various ways that we can overcome that frustration by finding the cutting edge needed to turn our good performances and domination into points.

The fact we have that frustration is, in itself, a good thing. An article like this would not have been possible in our last season in the Premier League as you cannot be frustrated by a lack of clinicality when you lose 6-0 to Liverpool at home or when you finish a season on 17 points. It is precisely because we are competing so well in central defence and central midfield that I am focusing on us sharpening the knife to really penetrate teams.

I’m content with the start we have made to the season, I am delighted by how competitive we are and I have full faith that Dean Smith will find a way to sharpen the knife.

I’d love to know your thoughts on how we can find the goals we need and which if any of my solutions you agree with – let me know by tweeting @HeartOfTheHolte or @C-G-Richardson .

For now let’s keep Villa Park bouncing, stay positive and hope that the goals begin to fly in.

Thank you for reading and UTV!

By Callum Richardson

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