The most-contested fixture in the top flight of English football returns tomorrow, with both clubs struggling and in dire need of a positive result. Everton are in danger of getting off to their worst start in over ten years and Aston Villa are reeling after being humiliated at St. James Park and knocked out of Europe on their own pitch. The last time Everton and Aston Villa clashed Everton were chasing a spot in Europa and Villa were trying to hang on in the race for fourth. Villa barely managed a disappointing 2-2 draw thanks to a Phil Jagielka own-goal in the 90th minute. I don't think that it's presumptuous to say that such a result would be a relief amongst the Villa faithful.
Villa are in real danger of falling into a tailspin. Yes, it's still early. But the results of the past two matches are not indicative of the level of talent on this squad. Something else is going on here, and the manner in which the team collapsed against Newcastle and Rapid Vienna is indicative of that. In most cases I would expect a win at home against this Everton squad, but after the past week I would be absolutely thrilled with a draw. The team that so thoroughly dominated West Ham on the first day of the season hasn't been in evidence at any point since, even during the 1-1 draw in Vienna. I wish that I knew why, because if I could spot it it seems reasonable that the folks in charge of running a Premier League club could do the same.
What we do know for sure is that Villa's downfall has been in their inability to control possession in the midfield and an uncharacteristic lack of organization at the back. If Richard Dunne is able to return to the pitch tomorrow and allow Villa to feature their first-team defense for the first time this season, it will go a long way towards alleviating the latter problem. As to the former, that's a bit greater of a concern. The team has quite clearly missed James Milner since his departure; Stephen Ireland is not the same type of player, and without Milner's ability to win balls and find space in the central midfield Villa's only option has been to funnel attacks down the wings as much as possible. That strategy has worked to some extent when Marc Albrighton has been on his game, but the youngster hasn't shown yet that he's capable of bringing his best to the park consistently.
Villa's struggles to control the midfield are especially worrisome when you consider Everton's strengths. The Toffees are at their best when they are bouncing the ball around the midfield, waiting for Mikel Arteta to find space to create. If Villa aren't able to disrupt their possession, things could could ugly in a hurry. It will be interesting to see the lineup Everton brings tomorrow as the Toffees played Hudderfield Town on Wednesday and Jack Rodwell, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienaar, Leighton Baines and John Heitinga all saw significant time.
More crucial in my estimation would be the lineup Villa choose to feature. Ashely Young has looked excellent playing as a withdrawn forward, but Stephen Ireland is one of Villa best XI and his best position is attacking midfielder. Young and Ireland both playing central attacking roles with Carew or Gabby up top could work, but it would require drawing the wide midfielders closer to the center and Villa don't have fullbacks capable of supplying the width in attack necessary for such a formation to work. One of Young or Ireland will need to move wide and Young is better equipped to do so. My ideal lineup would be something like Friedel in goal, Luke Young and Warnock at the fullback spots, Dunne and Cuellar in the center of the defense, Petrov and Reo-Coker in the center of the midfield, Young and Downing out wide, Ireland in an advanced midfield position (similar to what we've seen from Young, but a bit further behind the striker) and Agbonlahor up top.
Whatever lineup Villa decide to feature, the keys to achieving a positive result will be the same. Villa need to keep their share of possession in the midfield and pressure the defense through the center of the pitch. The defense need to keep Mikel Arteta in check and hold their shape. And if things start to go poorly, the players need to maintain composure lest it get out of hand. Everton are a good and talented club, but no more so than Aston Villa. This is a team that desperately needs a boost in confidence and getting three points in front of their home supporters against a very good club could provide just that. Even a well-played draw could boost spirits. This is most like Kevin MacDonald's last game in charge, and I'm sure he'd love to go out with a win. Let's hope the boys want to give it to him and play the kind of football we know they are capable of playing.