This clearly hasn't been Stiliyan Petrov's best season in the claret and blue. He's struggled defensively, been tentative in the passing game and at times his tendency to look to draw fouls has hindered the flow of Aston Villa's attack. We've been critical of him, and for good reason; he's been poor in comparison to our expectations. Now that he's no longer an option however, we need to acknowledge the truth: this is a pretty big blow.
Fans have a tendency to over exaggerate the impact of a player being at less that their best. I've certainly been guilty of that myself on numerous occasions. At times Petrov's poor form has resulted in people calling for his being removed from the lineup. I've probably mentioned that as an idea worth exploring a time or two. But now that we're in a situation where there's no other option than to do so, a Villa XI without Petrov doesn't seem to be all that desirable a thing. Despite Gerard Houllier's willingness to play with the team's shape, Villa haven't employed a formation without two central mids at all this season and there's little reason to think they'll begin doing so now. Nigel Reo-Coker will certainly be one of the two and seems the most likely candidate to take Petrov's spot as Captain during his absence. So who will be his counterpart? Stephen Ireland? Steve Sidwell? Isaiah Osbourne? Moustapha Salifou? The smart money is on Ireland or Sidwell, and I can't imagine anyone is especially thrilled with that situation. Ireland has been a disaster when asked to play both ways and Steve Sidwell is, well, Steve Sidwell.
Seeing how it's exceedingly unlikely that Villa will move to a 4-3-3 with one central defensive mid and two attacking mids, I think the ideal solution would be to play Sidwell against teams with a more dangerous attacking game and Ireland against teams that are a bit softer in defense. Ireland can't stop a runaway shopping cart but he can create problems for the opposition's back line and if there is one thing Steve Sidwell can do it is tackle people. It's also important that another true central midfielder sees more regular time in the squad, preferably Isaiah Osbourne. Osbourne is no great shakes, but if one of the three tweaks something he'll be valuable insurance. Petrov's absence won't just be felt in the starting XI; the central midfield is a position of little depth for Villa and after Osbourne there is precious little insurance.
If the club can do only one thing during the January transfer window, I hope that it would be to address this situation. Petrov will need to be replaced sooner than later (and it's rare that players of his vintage ever really fully recover from knee injuries, so the timetable may very well be moved up accordingly.) Aside from that, a club of Villa's size simply must have more quality depth at such a crucial position. Petrov, Reo-Coker and Sidwell are the only players on the squad capable of playing the most important position on the pitch at anything approaching Premier League quality. Fabian Delph should be back before the season is out, but there's no guarantee of his fitness. The club desperately need another option in the center, and if one positive can come from Petrov's injury it would be the people in charge recognizing that.