(This is part one of what I hope will become a regular series. Now that the insanity of the transfer window is behind us and Villa seem to be playing at a level that makes relegation a minor-at-worst concern, things are, well, a little boring. The games are interesting of course, but when you're as obsessive as we are that's not really enough to keep us sated on a day-to-day basis. In that spirit, we're going to talk about the state of the squad and some thoughts about ways to move forward in terms of maximizing the talent in house and missing pieces that might bring Villa back to the level which we'd hoped to see coming into the season.)
The first half of the season was, in an optimistic sense, a time for experiments. Things got uncomfortable towards the end, but in those heady, early days when the kids could their own with no less than the famous Red Devils, each and every one of them seemed like the next great thing. The future was limitless, a gold-toned Jonathan Hogg leading the way towards glory. But of course reality intervened; a lot of the kids weren't quite ready, and some of them almost certainly never would be.
Of those that still held promise, a few stood out. Marc Albrighton was right up there, and he did his best to build upon the initial flashes of promise he showed last season. Ciaran Clark has similarly managed to work his way into the regular rotation. And then of course there's Barry Bannan; Gerard Houllier, Gary McAllister and Darren Fletcher all compared him favorably to Xavi, Iniesta and Paul Scholes. He was Aston Villa's next rising star. And then, all of a sudden, he disappeared. There were rumblings of some less than savory behavior, a miniature tiff with Houllier and nagging but unpublicized injuries, but an explanation has still not been forthcoming. All that we know is that Barry Bannan hasn't been included in the 18 for a league game since the January 22nd victory over Manchester City, hasn't played in a league game since the January 16th draw with Birmingham City and hasn't started a league game since the December 28th drubbing at the hands of Manchester City. Bazza has gone from being a regular fixture in Villa's XI to the periphery, and with the additions of Jean Makoun and Michael Bradley he's moved even further down Gerard Houllier's pecking order.
With all of that being said, we don't have much reason to believe that Bannan has slipped from the club's long-term plans. The question is, where does he fit? The wings seem to be mostly spoken for; even though one of Downing or Young seem more than likely to move elsewhere this summer that still leaves the remaining of the two as well as Albrighton and Agbonlahor (assuming he ever lays off the weights and tries being fast again, but more on that another time) vying for a place out wide. Likewise in the center of the pitch; Houllier's preference to this point has been to play two deep midfielders, one in a distributing/deep lying playmaker role and one as holding defensive mid. I think that most of us expected Jean Makoun to be used in the holding role, but he's actually acted far more as a distributor; while Makoun has excellent tactical sense and the vision required to intercept and disrupt the passing game his size prevents him from being the physical presence necessary to fill the defensive midfield position. To this point we've seen Stilyan Petrov get most of the time as the holding mid, though based on his performances of late it's not clear how long that will last. Nigel Reo-Coker is an excellent fit, but he may very well be gone as a free in the summer. Michael Bradley and Fabian Delph are also well suited for the role. Bannan, quite obviously, is not, and a midfield composed of two players of the stature of Makoun and Bazza would be a tough thing t manage in the Premier League.
What's clear from Gerard Houllier's lineup selection is that he places great importance in a central forward playmaker. He's tried to use Ashley Young in that role (with mixed results) and in Young's absence we saw Stewart Downing there as well. I don't believe that anyone would argue that either player is preferable in the center than on the wing; Young has the skill to develop in the position, but it's doubtful to me that he'll ever be more dangerous there than on the wing. His physical gifts are immense, but his creative abilities aren't quite what makes a player truly dangerous in that role. Young can worked there and has worked there, but it always feels somehow less than ideal. And in any case, planning on Ashley Young being around past the summer seems more than a bit optimistic.
Barry Bannan, on the other hand, is pretty much entirely composed of clever. He's not fast, he'll never have the long delivery of Young, Downing or Albrighton and though he'll score from time to time no one is likely to mistake him for Frank Lampard any time soon. His vision, guile and creativity, however, are unmatched by anyone currently on Villa's squad. He is in other words a natural born trequartista, not especially intimidating in any physical sense but smart enough and refined enough for it not to matter. Villa have all sorts of attacking weapons and in Jean Makoun they've finally found someone to link the defense and the attack; the missing piece has still been delivery in the final third, and unless he's swapped wings out wide Ashley Young hasn't much provided that.
Barry Bannan can, of that I have little doubt. If I understand what it is Gerard Houllier is trying to accomplish tactically (and I believe that I do) then Villa are going to need someone to fill the trequartista role. They could do so through the transfer market, but those players aren't cheap and to do so would be to give up on Barry Bannan far too easily. It's the role he was made to fill, and hopefully Gerard Houllier gives him the chance to do so.