Almost seems like the season opener has sneaked up out of nowhere as Villa have worked to replace Jack Grealish and strengthen the squad overall. No small ask, but most will agree NSWE, Lange & Co. have a done a pretty fair job so far. Question is, have Villa done enough to stay on track with the vaunted five-year plan?

Short answer is “Yes, probably,” but with Villa’s business seemingly not done, it could easily rise to “Yes, no question.” With a net profit so far on transfers, I’m having a hard time imagining that Compass aren’t going to use at least some of what would have been an expected £100m+ outlay this summer. I’ve put this off so late for that very reason.

The other reason is that it’s really hard to know what to make of Danny Ings’ arrival. Proven player, absolutely. A win-now kind of transfer? Yes. But it raises the same questions that led me to dismiss links with Tammy Abraham. And those questions have a lot of implications for the season ahead.

Recapping the action so far
Villa have mainly added firepower and cover. With £100m worth of attack brought in, you’d imagine Deano will want most if not all on the pitch. The ongoing links mainly circle around a defensive midfielder, and, of course, the Ward-Prowse and Cantwell pursuits. We hear Ward-Prowse is very unlikely to come off, and I wouldn’t disagree. Cantwell? That’s got supporters divided, and I can see why. Young and Tuanzebe are both great bits of business. Young gives cover for Targett and wide left, while Tuanzebe will be pushing for a starting spot. But it’s hard to see Mings or Konsa dislodged, making a back three more plausible than a demotion.

Ings and Young have also added some needed experience and swagger to the side. Good for the dressing room, good on the pitch, and good for the doubts that might have arisen in Villa losing the main man.

Formation options
The obvious question is what does Ings’ arrival mean in terms of formation. Dean Smith has said Ollie isn’t going wide. So if he and Ings are both playing, let’s indulge the general assumption Ings will play deeper, as he has before, in a 4-4-2. The question here is what Ings, as the deeper of the two, will be expected to contribute as a creator and defender, what falls to Buendia, and so on.

Then we’ve got Bailey, Traoré, El Ghazi, and Trézéguet (at some point). Course, we haven’t seen Bailey in the Premier League, and we often question Traoré’s work off the ball. Ghazi’s too, it has to be said. Jaden Philogene-Bidace has had a strong summer. He won’t be full in the mix right away, but should get his moments.

Anyway, are we going to get Buendia as the tip of a diamond behind/off Ings, with Traoré and Bailey either side? That’s five of the outfield 10. Maybe Buendia goes wide, Ings takes more of “10” role, and we end up looking more like the 4-2-3-1. Regardless, I’ll expect a lot of fluidity up front.

But with a lot of CMs already on the books and an established back four, in whatever sort of 4-4-2 Villa could end up playing, we’re basically looking at just one of John McGinn, Morgan Sanson, Douglas Luiz, Marvelous Nakamba, and Jacob Ramsey. And that’s where a possible upgrade on Luiz and Nakamba comes in. (Naturally, I’m assuming Hourihane’s off.)

Does it have to be 4-4-2?
In Smith’s 4-2-3-1, we usually saw McGinn paired with either Luiz or Nakamba. The #10 spot plagued us after Ross Barkley fell apart. But that was the basic idea. We could still see a version of 4-2-3-1 depending on how Ings is played.

So what about a 4-1-4-1 or a 3-5-2? You can give yourself a headache with all the combinations. Chasing a strong DM at this point tends to imply a 4-1-4-1/4-1-3-2 with the ball is an option the club want. A dominant DM who can aggressively cover a lot of ground, tackle, intercept, and provide an outlet for playing out of the back…? That opens up a lot of dimensions. Given Villa seem to be in for that position, we have to assume Smith & Co don’t necessarily think we have that player yet.

Which makes one ask if Luiz or Nakamba has a place going forward? Or even John McGinn?

Basically, we could say that SJM, Luiz, Sanson, and Ramsey are all in competition for the same spot, and we don’t even know if that spot exists.

In a 3-5-2, you’ll have Targett and Cash wide, and likely Mings, Konsa, and eventually Tuanzebe at the back (apologies, Kourtney Hause). One assumes Watkins and Ings up top. So the three across the “middle”…? You’ll be picking from an even larger contingent for the other two with Buendia’s spot a given.

Of course, we don’t know how often Watkins and Ings will play together. We’ve all got our assumptions, and they seem pretty reasonable, but you never know. With Davis injured and Wesley looking like he’ll at least be going out on loan, we’ll only have two recognized senior strikers as it stands. Not overworking either Ings or Watkins could be key to a sustained campaign.

Long way of saying I’ve got no answers, only questions. What I can say is that it seems there’ll almost inevitably be more variation in personnel and formation depending on the opponent, and the generally first-choice formation and starting XI we’ve gotten used to could very well be a thing of the past.

What does all that mean for the season?
For one, could be a slow start, obviously, so let’s not freak out if it is. The early fixtures are relatively favorable, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the season’s arc is one of a new-look Villa finding their feet and best balance, improving, then gaining confidence and consistency, and kicking on at some point. It could take a little bit for this to settle, and it’s been a very disjointed preseason.

On the flipside, Konsa has hit back at the “one-man-team” label, and I’m guessing that’s a widely shared sentiment. They’ve got something to prove.

Second, Villa will end up being much better stocked, which means less impact from injury absences as well as the ability to rotate based on form and season-long energy.

Third, Villa will have more options when it comes to in-game changes.

Fourth, Villa will clearly no longer be so reliant on a single player, though Emi Buendia is going to be pivotal. We’ll be less predictable to start games and harder to prepare for. Add more in-game options, and I think we’re looking pretty good.

So me, I’m excited, even if I have no idea what to expect. Most have us 6-10 in their league predictions, which, given the variables and changes is fair enough. I’d like to think there’s no reason we can’t finished above Spurs, Arsenal, Everton, West Ham, and Leeds, but it’s a long season after all, and it will depend on how quickly this comes together. If we aren’t yet done with our business, it’s anyone’s guess how deep and good we might be. If another midfielder like Ward-Prowse or Cantwell comes in as well…Just tear all this up.

First things last
What about Saturday and Watford? Well, I’m going to buck the consensus that Ings will start from the off, and guess that Dean will stick with the familiar system to get things rolling as long as Ollie is fit. And if he isn’t, same plan, but with Ings. Smith likes to introduce new players slowly, and doesn’t generally sideline current players instantly. I’m thinking the starting XI will be Martinez, Cash, Konsa, Mings, Targett, Nakamba, McGinn, El Ghazi, Buendia, Traoré, and Watkins. Certainly doesn’t mean that’s how we’ll walk off the pitch.

The fun part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Smith has some options now (more so after Bailey gets bedded in), and will end up with more depth in quality. He could just as easily come out with guns blazing. But until the DM question is sorted and Bailey is available, I’m thinking he’ll rely on McGinn and Nakamba for just a little bit and let Buendia ease into things with what would otherwise be an unchanged squad. He’ll soon have Luiz and Bailey available.

Final thought
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of pressure on Deano this season. He’s been backed, Jack has gone, and he’s going to have to pull all this together and at least show Villa are knocking on Europe’s door by season’s end. Never mind that John Terry and now Richard O’Kelly have departed. I’ve no idea what was behind either of those departures, but they were familiar faces around the camp, and Craig Shakespeare’s influence will clearly be even more critical.

I didn’t think I’d be saying this after Jack left (and I’m just going to leave it at that), but I’m still optimistic. With Jack still here and  £100m invested, I’d probably be very optimistic of cracking the European spots. By the time the window closes, though, Villa are going to have a very solid squad, and the greater distribution of creativity and control will make for a better team. But, there is a little distance to travel between A and B, and the shorter and easier that trip, the better.

Over to you.

Comments 54

  1. nice one John

    The target has to be a great fa cup run and 60 points for me. The owners arent going to accept going backwards or standing still.

    Totally agree this ones a biggy for deano.

    Looking into kellys departure. Apparently offered an u21 role but wasnt impressed so left. Has got the smell of a Lange revolution in the air. change and progress is coming.

  2. and i cant stress enough how deano needs this number 6 in. its everything. And a lw. he cant leave himself short here. needs a full armoury.

    talk of this current team in a 442 is complete suicide

  3. Great leader again JC, but surprised that not once, like others talking about the future, did you mention Ashley Young, who was one of our first recruits, and a great capture, forget being on a free, and his age. To me, he has shown enough in pre-season, what he is capable of, and I actually see him playing as a DM probably in the early part of the season at least.
    His influence will be huge going forward, and helping this side to settle, and would be a great guy to captain the team.

    Interesting is the loss of Terry and Kelly, and in both cases, so quickly, without a more gentle moving on, but maybe this is the way of the new regime being built.

    The team to play Watford could be an eye-opener.

  4. Excellent script JC on our forthcoming season.

    Deano now has real depth to his squad meaning that he has no excuses whatsoever for not using his subs to full effect. I expect him to use the maximum allowed and much sooner than he has done historically. Fresh legs in the middle as the game becomes more open is a necessity.

    On formations and selections, let’s see how we start at Watford. I’m one of the optimistic guys this season and I hope I’m not disappointed. As PP says, Young may prove to be great value.

  5. PP,

    I did make a passing reference to Young, but didn’t really highlight him, no. And I agree, it’s a shrewd signing, glad he’s been with the squad for the full camp.

    Besides cover for Targett and a savvy wide option, he’ll bring a lot to the dressing room and training ground. In many ways, a player/coach.

  6. Plug,

    The selections and formations speculation has been very interesting. Like you, we have to wait for Watford, and I don’t think that will necessarily be a firm indication of what we’ll become.

    I’ve seen a lot of 4-4-2 with Watkins and Ings, then Bailey and Buendia on the flanks, and McGinn and Nakamba in the middle.

    Could well work out that way, but seems like it opens up the middle far too much. SJM and Nakamba aren’t going to control midfield if there’s a hole behind Ings and Buendia is wide.

    Buendia’s known for being a terrier, but the only “con” I saw on a couple player profiles of Bailey was his defensive side. Add that to Traoré, and, well, there’s some bits to finish off.

    I don’t mind the idea of Nakamba and Luiz staying, etc., but we need a Kante type. Everyone does, really, but that’s what helps keep all the attacking talent on the pitch.

    If Sanson does come good, he could rival McGinn if we’re using that AM in the center pivoting with the DM.

    All that said, I’d like the squad better if we had a ‘destroyer’ in front of the back four. Is it Axel?

  7. H&V,

    That would make sense with O’Kelly. I was trolling around trying to find an explanation, failed, and that seems fairly detailed.

    I’ve wondered, watching him, whether he’s just been more of a security blanket. I’m sure he’s extremely popular and a great guy, will do whatever Deano asks. But he may have been a bit of a passenger and yeah, I can see upgrading the staff as something Dean would be on board with. Might be Lange driving it, but Dean’s a realist.

    And while Terry would cut a great figure with the players, could well be they want a more seasoned specialist with a real coaching agenda and philosophy.

    Also agree about a #6. Unlike a lot of people, I think Luiz can grow into the job, and would be a more progressive outlet than Nakamba. But Luiz was off the boil (and maybe part of the covid business), and was being left a lot to do. Nakamba, less progressive, but did well getting to the ball, covering and breaking up attacks. You just want the best of both in a single player.

  8. And you can see that by default, I’ve assumed a more central role for Buendia. I thought that when I believed Jack was staying, and I probably think it even more, now. That’s why the 4-4-2 math is a little tricky.

    He’s got the #10 shirt, so that’s more what I would expect. We might play narrow, but out wide in a 4-4-2 would seem to limit his influence.

  9. luiz as a 6 stiffles not only him but villa. A proper 6 for modern teams is the most important position right now. Fernandinho, fabinho, ndidi etc but is bigger still for this villa team packed with number 8s who could fly.

    i honestly think we are 100x the side with a proper 6

  10. H&V,

    The Anguissa and Doucoure links persist, so I really hope Deano’s just playing a bit dumb. I’d much rather complete one of those deals than worry about JWP or Cantwell (if any of that’s to be believed). Though I do understand the idea of Cantwell-Buendia, and him being one for the future.

    Not sure why Berge seems to have fallen off everyone’s radar. Could be the injury.

    The other thing holding us back atm might simply be numbers. As I was going through the permutations, all those MFs, they make sense in a 4-2-3-1 and for depth, etc., but I think they’d have to sort some outgoings to make room, keep players happy, and still have JPB and Chuk in the frame.

  11. According to Dean Smith it is Richard Kelly’s choice to leave, he would of gone earlier but for dean being in isolation and JC leaving. Don’t know about the U21 offer but

    “It’s no big surprise,” he said, “and there is nothing sinister in it. He’s made a professional decision where he’s seen the progression of the football club and feels that it’s time to step aside.”

    he also wanted some down time.

  12. Smith also said the new players meant we can play many different ways ( a fan criticism of Smith’s belligerence when it was actually the lack of players) has also said we will play 2 up top and sometimes 1.

    I think Young has a big part to play somehow, and there smith said a few will go out on Loan. Hasn’t said we won’t buy again, he said he refuses to talk about other teams players when asked about JWP.

  13. I hear Dean Smiths under pressure this season 🙂 lets be honest when hasn’t he been under pressure? these owners are no mugs and I don’t think they will hesitate to Move him on so why haven’t they? why have they given a prem Novice £350m to spend? To me Smith knows all this and he is determined to stay.

  14. Think about it, Beundia plays in Bailly for fun as Bailly cuts in from the left and leaves the defence in his wake, Beundia plays in Ings or Watkins, Ings plays in Watkins and Watkins cuts back for Ings, Bailly cuts back for all of them 🙂

  15. Well last night you could see why we were after Smith Rowe. He must be wondering if he made the right choice after the lacklustre display from most of his team mates. They’re bound to have been knocked by their two top strikers being out with illness but having said that, Brentford were fantastic, and their fans giving Saka a standing ovation when he came on showed a real touch of class.

    It was a timely reminder of how unpredictable early season games can be and how we’ll have to be right on our game if we’re to get anything out of this afternoon’s match.

    You’d like to think that with leaders on the pitch such as Mings and Martinez, we won’t get bullied at the back, although if anyone is going to prove me wrong then pantomime villain Deeney must be a good candidate.

    As highlighted in John’s article, there have been so many predicted line ups for us today with the midfield being particularly variable. Sanson has featured in quite a few articles recently so does someone know something from training that we don’t?

    I can’t imagine McGinn not being there and it maybe a bit soon for Luiz after his exploits in Japan, so I’d guess Magian and Nakamba will be in the middle.

    It does seem that promises have been made to Tuanzebe so 3 at the back does seem likely as surely neither Mings of Konsa can be left out? and although it would be tough on Targett, I’d start with the experience of Young. . . . .particularly in this first game, with Cash being retained.

    That only leaves 3 places to be divided between Buendia, Bailey, Watkins, and Ings, and that’s before you even mention Traore, El Ghazi. Philogene Bidace and Chukwuemeka.

    Hmm. . . . . maybe I need to make space for one more of those, so let’s go back to the start.

    Tricky isn’t it!

  16. I guess a lot will rest on the overall strategy for games this season. Are we going to play a more open, attacking game, or build on the solidity we showed at the back last season?

    . . . . . or maybe it’s going to be more mix and match according to the opposition in which case we probably ought to be ‘going for it’ in this first game and one of McGinn or Nakamba will make way for the extra attacker.

    Or, if we have confidence in our back 3, could we use a Bailey or Watkins as an attack minded wing back against teams where we felt we should dominate play?

    I’m glad there are people who know a lot more about it than I do!

  17. El G starting. Will need to deliver to hold his place. Nice to have Bailey and Bidace for last 30mins. Ashley starting as winger. No Sanson or Guilbert in squad.

    I’d like to see Nakamba prove himself at 6. I’d gladly take £25/30m for Luiz and £5m for Conor.

  18. Yeah, like I say, r0bb0, can give yourself a headache trying to slot everyone in.

    I do think we’ll see more formations, and I’m guessing Axel will be part of a three.

  19. VillaMD,

    Yeah, Ghazi has a lot to do. Young’s an interesting choice, Traoré’s on the bench, dunno if he has a bit of a knock, but Dean seems to have been impressed so far.

  20. Oh dear, Ings isn’t Ollie for sure wants to come deep but obviously is playing in ollies role, Beundia looking lightweight, getting knocked about and little protection. Young left us open down the wing, Targett looks off the pace and up against it. Second goal deflected but we are not looking great in defence or attack err or midfield although McGinns trying. That stop start pre-season is showing.

  21. Halftime thoughts.

    Bit of fortune on both Watford goals, but you can’t really say they didn’t deserve them on the balance of the situations. Very fast and dangerous on the break.

    Nakamba playing very advanced at times, not doing terrible, but he and McGinn aren’t really enough to deal with Watford’s size and pace in the middle.

    Young’s made some nice attacking runs, but isn’t offering Targett much cover to deal with Sarr. Ghazi has been pretty invisible.

    Very tight in and around the Watford box. Classic situation where you get up, attack, get turned back and turn it over, and suffer on the counter.

    So, I’m seeing a good case for that DM we’ve been chasing, and I like Ollie leading the line better than Ings. He’s game, but doesn’t cover the same ground. Bailey’s pace will be welcome, and Ghazi? Well, it’s one of those opportunities where he isn’t really taking it.

  22. MK,

    Yeah, looks like we saw it pretty much the same. Guess Smith thought Young would offer more protection than Ghazi, but he (and others), getting caught very far upfield.

  23. We were trying to get over and in quickly a lot to start, which left us less exposed, but it didn’t really come to much.

    Being more patient in buildup, we got sucked up.

    Buendia’s been fine far as it goes, but as a midfield trio, it is lightweight, and like you’re saying MK, there’s no real protection. And we’re not really trying to play through him, Buendia, that much.

    Marvelous did slot in a nice ball for Ings that was well covered. But when it comes to ball winning, we are getting outmuscled in the middle.

  24. Saw Bailey warming up in the first half, wonder if Dean will roll the dice and get him on. We could use some electricity and pace somewhere.

    Likewise Traoré. If he’s truly fit, can’t offer much less than Ghazi. Could even take a punt on Axel in front of the back four.

  25. Disappointing, not really at the races to start, and got the tactics wrong.

    But looked a lot better with Ramsey, Bailey and Traoré on the pitch. Ramsey’s definitely added some strength.

  26. Well, not what I expected. Watford did well. They are a big team with speed and will probably give some teams something to think about.
    Villa couldn’t get untracked but definitely some bright spots. Ramsay, traore, and bailey are going to prove a good combination for Villa.
    I suppose it should have been 2-2. A bad bounce for the second goal was frustrating.

  27. Sarr’s pace skinned us. Frem will be fuming.

    Deano lost the tactical battle to Munoz. I did fear the worst when I saw El Gassy in the starting 11. But the bottom line remains the promoted team took the points. Simply not good enough. Hugely disappointed.

  28. Perspective is needed chaps, Dean Smith has not had his entire squad once yet to select from, Bailly and Beundia no pitch time worth calling.

    If Smith made the wrong call maybe it was not trusting the kids after they have played most of the pre-season and done ok.

    Bailly looks a very good player, better and less erratic than I thought he’d be. Traore showed some fight for once and did well, Ramsey beginning to show his potential perhaps as a ten. To early to tell if Beundia is to lightweight for that position for me but I fancy it will be Watkins and Ings anyway.

  29. It takes Dean half a dozen games to get it sorted. Every season has been that way. 4 on the trot last year was good luck and really, did we expect that? That set us up for a disappointment later in the season.

  30. MK,

    Yeah, the Twitterverse had all the usual shite to say. It does get old.

    That said, I do think we could use a unit as an option at DM. Not all teams are like Watford, but McGinn and Nakamba were just too lightweight. And so are all the other options.

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