Since Dean Smith was appointed manager in October 2018, Aston Villa have largely been set up in 4-3-3 or similar 4-2-3-1 formations. Initially part of a midfield three, Jack Grealish was moved onto the left early in the 2019/20 campaign, and the switch unlocked new attacking potential for the side.
Fast forward a year, and Villa bring Ross Barkley in on loan from Chelsea, and the attacker slots in off the shoulder of Ollie Watkins in a number 10 role. Smith harnessed the momentum that tactical change created and had Villa rubbing shoulders with the Premier League’s elite for roughly half of the 2020/21 season.
We know the club had its struggles from December onward last year, but it was clear a 4-2-3-1 best suited the style Smith wants to play. When Emi Buendia was signed in early June, the consensus among supporters was that Smith intended to use either the Argentine or Grealish in the number 10 role for 2021/22.
That means changes are abreast. There are obvious replacements for the number 10 role, but there would be little point in bringing Ings–a prolific Premier League goalscorer–into the squad to come off the bench. And Watkins, a 14-goal scorer in his first top-flight campaign, certainly won’t be making way.
Watkins played as a winger earlier in his career and under Smith at Brentford in 2017 and 2018, but the gaffer has already made it clear that moving the club’s leading goal scorer a year ago out wide is out of the question.
"“Watkins hasn’t played wide for a couple of years. I didn’t bring him in to play there. He scored 26 goals for Brentford playing as a centre-forward in the Championship and came to us and got 16 goals also as a centre-forward – so no, I don’t envisage him out there.”Dean Smith via Sky Sports"
If Smith is to play Ings and Watkins together–and there is nothing to suggest that isn’t exactly the plan–he has a few options. The first being a 4-4-2–which we saw vs. Salernitana on Sunday–or the similar 4-2-2-2.
In front of two holding midfielders, Smith could use two outside midfielders and Ings and Watkins up top. That would allow Buendia on the right or one of the two center forwards to drop off and collect the ball in midfield.
In open play, that formation could look a lot like the 4-2-3-1 we saw most of last year, specifically if Smith designates one of Ings or Watkins to be the default second striker. In that case, it could also be classified as a 4-4-1-1.
Another two-striker option for Smith is a 3-4-1-2. With central defender Axel Tuanzebe returning for a third loan spell, Villa have four viable options in the middle of defense. Smith can go with Tuanzebe, Tyrone Mings, and Ezri Konsa in central defense; Matt Targett and Matty Cash as wing-backs; two central midfielders; and a forward three of Buendia behind Ings and Watkins.
Three in the back is very much in vogue these days in world football, and it seems clear Smith has at least some intention of trying it, considering the club was able to lure Tuanzebe back for a third loan spell.
Losing Grealish was not ideal, but the club has done well to turn an unfortunate loss into a strength. Instead of relying on one man and accommodating his style of play, Villa have targeted a wide array of talent and now have several tactical options. Smith can realistically run with five or six formations at this point, and that’s something we could not say over the past three years.
Having options like these will keep opponents on their toes. Nearly halfway through last season, teams learned how to neutralize a rather one-dimensional Villa side. That is sure to be much harder this season with the likes of Watkins, Ings, Buendia, Bailey, Bertrand Traore, Anwar El Ghazi, and Jaden Philgene-Bidace making up a wildly varied attacking corps.
I think off the bat, we’ll see a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1. Bailey is set to miss out at Watford on Saturday and Buendia’s availability is in doubt, but according to Smith, we should see Watkins feature. With all of that in mind, don’t be surprised to see Watkins and Ings up top with El Ghazi and Philogene-Bidace on the flanks.
John McGinn and Marvelous Nakamba are guaranteed to start in central midfield, and last season’s back four will provide cover for the prolific Emi Martinez in goal.