Blog by: My Old Man Said
Probably the biggest decision that Paul Lambert faces in terms of his team selection at Aston Villa is that of the midfield.
In the over-hyped frenzy of the final days of the transfer window most Villa fans were crying out for a creative midfielder to be signed, and with that not having happened, Lambert needs to solve the issue which seems to be splitting opinion amongst Villa fans the most – just which combination of players at Aston Villa should be considered the club’s first-choice midfield, at least until January? After posing the question to Villa fans on Twitter and Facebook, here’s my attempt to solve the puzzle.
The only name from the list of Aston Villa midfielders which looks certain at the moment to be on Villa’s teamsheet week-in week-out is that of Fabian Delph, whose outstanding start to the season has been much talked about, and who simply cannot be dropped after his early-season form.
Lambert has preferred, for much of his time as Villa manager, to rely on a 4-3-3 formation, and although he is surely certain at some point after Christian Benteke’s return from a hopefully brief injury lay-off to try out the combination of the Belgian and Kozák up front, it will take a dramatic success in this regard for him to alter his tactics on a more permanent basis.
And to be honest, although some Villa fans have advocated its use, going 4-4-2 could be more problematic than beneficial for Villa.
For a start, there is a dearth of genuine wide midfielders at the club. Although an unused substitute at Carrow Road, Marc Albrighton has been told he is free to leave on loan; and Charles N’Zogbia is a long-term injury absentee but seems unlikely to be involved in Lambert’s plans anyway having been demoted to the regions of the bomb squad over the summer.
Assuming that 4-4-2 would be used to fit in a partnership of Benteke and Kozák, Gabby Agbonlahor could well be utilised on the wing, a move which has both paid off and backfired in the past. Leandro Bacuna could be played wide at a stretch (although he appears to fancy himself as more of a box-to-box midfielder), but given the useful performance he put in at right-back in Matt Lowton’s absence at Carrow Road on Saturday, it seems likely that he may find himself used as a deputy in a variety of positions throughout the season.
Aleksandar Tonev’s performance on Saturday was simply not good enough. He drifted through the game without leaving any real mark on it, and although it’s always nice to see a player at Villa who fancies a shot, he needs serious work on his decision-making, as he seemed to have no plan other than to let fly speculatively.
Despite his ineffective display, Tonev should be considered as a long-term option when teams need breaking down at home or when there is space to exploit on the counter away from home, as given time, and with the right coaching, the Bulgarian has the feel of a player who possesses the potential to do a better job in a central creative role, spearheading the midfield, than out wide.
Although fans have suggested, quite rightly, that Lowton and Antonio Luna look as if they could benefit from some protection, this also raises issues with a switch to 4-4-2. For a start, if, say, Gabby and Tonev were Villa’s first-choice wingers, how much protection are the fullbacks really going to get? Gabby was Villa’s threat at Carrow Road, and asking him to cover the fullback all game would drag him further back down the pitch, going some way to removing this threat.
And, to be blunt,do Villa really have good enough midfield players to get away with only playing two central midfielders? More and more teams are playing with three players in the middle of the park, and Villa’s midfield sometimes seems to get overrun with three, let alone two.
Even if a more defensive-minded player such as Yacouba Sylla played alongside Delph in a 4-4-2, the reality would be that both central midfielders would spend large parts of most games pinned back to protect the defence while the wingers attempted to get forward.
Ashley Westwood was fantastic last season, but there have been grumblings from fans about his performances this season. His play definitely has not been quite up to the standard he set in his first campaign at Villa, but perhaps the main shortcoming to Westwood’s game is the lack of protection he offers the defence, despite playing from relatively deep. If he was playing alongside Delph in a two-man midfield, Fabian would find himself doing all the dirty work.
However, if Westwood is removed from the starting XI on a long-term basis, Villa will have lost probably their best passer of the ball, and the man who often has a hand in the first stages of Villa’s moves, chances and goals. There may well have been a case for dropping the ex-Crewe man, but for me Villa’s strongest XI contains him – he just needs to refocus and sharpen up.
One of the best things about Delph this season has been his dynamism. He’s at his best when winning the ball and driving forward, something he is only able to do if he knows he has adequate midfield cover. Westwood does not possess any particularly strong defensive abilities, so if he and Delph both start in central midfield, a more defensive-minded player has to as well.
Karim El Ahmadi has made it difficult for Paul Lambert to justify naming a midfield three without him in it so far this season. Having drifted around the edges of the Villa first team for most of last season, the Moroccan has played a key part so far this time around. It was the combination of him, Delph and Westwood which drove Villa on to impressive performances against Arsenal and Chelsea in the opening week, and though he was dropped for the home defeat to Liverpool, Villa were greatly improved after his introduction with just over an hour gone.
In our straw poll of Villa fans online, though, the name which cropped up most apart from Delph’s was that of Yacouba Sylla. Sylla was part of the Villa midfield three which drove the side on to an upturn in form in the second half of last season, and stakes his claim mostly through his strength and defensive duties.
Sylla adds extra defensive steel to the Villa midfield that Westwood and El Ahmadi do not possess. It would also mean that Delph could concentrate on playing more of a box-to-box role, knowing that the defence would be protected by Sylla sitting in front of them. It certainly appears to be a system that works as six of Villa’s ten wins last season came with Sylla playing alongside Westwood and Delph in the heart of midfield, and although a significant proportion of Villa fans wanted Westwood dropped for the time being, this is the trio that most Villa fans said they would prefer as a long-term midfield.
The only issue is where the creativity comes from? Sylla would sit back, Westwood would keep the ball moving, and the onus would be on Delph to drive forward from midfield. If Delph can do this in the manner in which he started the season, linking the deep-lying midfielders with the two playing off the front-man, Villa could have a solid and effective midfield on their hands, albeit one that hasn’t scored a league goal between them.
There’s no doubt Villa’s midfield will need to chip in on the goal front, if they are to be considered a decent team. Villa does have potentially more prolific players in that department waiting in the wings though.
Gary Gardner should be eased back into action and when match fit, should be pushing for a start every week and could well threaten Westwood’s place if the latter’s form does not pick up. In his pre-Norwich press conference, Lambert revealed that he had not even considered sending Gardner out on loan, and once he puts a run of games together it will be difficult for anyone to take his place in the side – at 6 foot 1, he adds a physical presence, and his prowess from dead ball situations is something that the side have been seriously lacking of late. Over the next few years, if he steers clear of injury, he could well become one of the club’s most important players.
It has been suggested that Nicklas Helenius, who has an eye for goal, could get an opportunity to play in the hole behind the front-man at home in order to try to crack the issue of the side’s hideous home form. It is something that may well be worth trying, but if anything this just shows how lacking the club’s midfield is in creativity.
The midfield that most Villa fans would prefer to see seems to be Fabian Delph and Yacouba Sylla plus one other, most likely a choice of Westwood or El Ahmadi. For me, the Delph-Sylla-Westwood midfield of the latter half of last season is still the best option. Sylla adds the muscle, I am of the opinion that Delph could become more of a creative player with a bit of work, and once he gets back on form, Westwood’s role as the ‘quiet man’ is crucial to the side’s style.
It is, at least, still early days in the season, so Lambert has time to try out his options. It’s an issue that needs to be cracked soon though – the success of Villa’s season depends on it.