Following a dreadful showing in a 3-2 season-opening defeat at Watford on August 14, Aston Villa turn their attention to Saturday’s home fixture vs. Newcastle United.
The performance at Watford, although shockingly poor, could be used as a springboard to get the Villans back on track. The stark realities of life after Jack Grealish, the lack of a proper preseason, and a squad not yet at full strength aside, Villa have to put forth a much better effort this week.
The good news: manager Dean Smith may have forward Ollie Watkins and midfielder Douglas Luiz available for selection at the weekend. The duo was missed at Watford as Villa struggled to press high up the pitch and advance the ball in midfield.
If fully fit, both should play vs. Newcastle. But, for Smith, there are other, more difficult decisions to make in the run-up.
Dean Smith’s Villa side can line up in a number of different formations
With so many new players in the squad, Smith must determine which formation is best for his group. Until Danny Ings signed earlier this month, Villa were set to line up in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. Now, with two top-drawer forwards in the ranks, it appears Smith will favor a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formation.
We didn’t see that set-up at Watford because Watkins was injured, but the new-look 4-2-3-1, with Emi Buendia playing behind Ings, was a disaster. Ings struggled for touches, and neither he nor Buendia or right winger Anwar El Ghazi pressed the Watford backline enough.
Should Watkins play up top with Ings in either a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, how much would change on the press? Watkins would offer more, but does Ings have it in him to provide sufficient pressure to Newcastle’s deeper midfielders?
Would another week of training prepare Buendia, a player typically strong off the ball, to press better on his preferred right side? These are questions Smith needs to consider. Villa afforded Watford’s defenders and holding midfielders way too much time on the ball last week, and they paid the price for it.
Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore were game-changers at Watford
After falling behind 3-0 at Watford, Smith brought on Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore to play as left- and right-wingers, respectively. The moves turned the match on its head as both players registered better dribbling statistics than El Ghazi and Buendia in a fraction of the time on the pitch.
Additionally, Bailey assisted on John McGinn’s 70th-minute goal, and Traore won a penalty in extra time.
Starting Bailey for Newcastle is a no-brainer, but rumors are circulating that Traore picked up a knock in a behind-closed-doors scrimmage at Liverpool on Sunday and could be out for up to a month. We’ll have to wait and see what the winger’s status is in the coming days.
The midfield remains Villa’s great unknown
In midfield, McGinn played well despite being paired with Marvelous Nakamba in a two-man pivot. To be fair, the front-four and back-four were both poor out of possession and often left the duo out to dry, but Nakamba was particularly poor on the ball. His inability to make plays on the dribble from a deeper midfield position limited Villa’s options building out from the back.
Luiz can help here but, defensively, he’s a step-down. Nakamba, for all his flaws, is good in matches when Villa expect to be out of possession more than in possession. He breaks up plays and supports the back-four well. But, at home against a Newcastle side likely to play with three center backs, Luiz is the superior choice as the hosts are more likely to dominate possession.
At Watford, Villa looked a better side when Jacob Ramsey came on after the break. Moving to a 4-3-3 formation, Ramsey offered McGinn and Nakamba support defensively and helped bridge the gap between the back-six and the front three.
Smith must find the right balance
A poll we ran on Twitter showed supporters would, overwhelmingly, prefer to see Smith run with a 4-3-3 formation vs. Newcastle. It’s no surprise, considering a healthy Watkins up top, and either McGinn or Ramsey as a free eight would make for a more defensively formidable side.
The issue here is that Smith has no intention of playing Watkins wide, and he and Ings are earmarked as center forwards. If Smith wants to play both Ings and Watkins–and to be fair, it’s a mouthwatering prospect–he has to go with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1.
With that shape, Smith is likely to have some of the same issues he did at Watford: free space for the opposition’s holding midfielder(s) and a disconnect between the back six and the front four.
That is unless Ings, the more likely of the two forwards to drop off into the midfield pocket, presses well, and Luiz brings a well-rounded effort into the midfield, offering stability in and out of possession.
So Smith has a lot to consider. He could also tinker with the backline–move to a back three or swap Ezri Konsa for Matty Cash at right back–though that seems unlikely and unnecessary. The key is finding the right balance of attackers and midfielders to solidify play in and out of possession.
It could take time to find that balance, but Newcastle offers another opportunity to smooth the squad’s rough edges.