As Kirsten spoke about earlier today, there is a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding Aston Villa's defense ahead of Saturday's clash with Wolves. Given Villa's still precarious standing in the table and the fact that the run of games that was supposed to save Villa from the relegation battle hasn't started out as well as many had hoped, it's reasonable to say that not taking all three points at home against a team currently sitting in 19th position would be an absolute disaster. I'm less concerned than many about the prospect of relegation, but if Villa don't win this game my anxiety would likely kick up a notch or two. And while I would prefer Villa to be weakened at the back against Wolves as opposed to a club like Everton or Newcastle, the reality is that having such a weakened defensive unit means that Villa are no longer strong favorites if they're even favorites at all.
Towards the end of the above-mentioned post, Kirsten throws out the idea of Villa playing a three-man defense comprised of Carlos Cuellar, Kyle Walker and Nathan Baker. I am an outspoken proponent of the three-man back line, but this sort of thing isn't exactly what I had in mind; ideally, a three-man defense is composed of quality center backs, at least one of whom is mobile enough to mimic the defensive responsibilities of an outside back. Villa have the players in-house to make that work; Cuellar and Clark are certainly nimble enough to split off wide when necessary and either of Collins or Dunne are the type of big, physical center-half that would make a formation such as this feasible in today's Premier League. Unfortunately, while Villa's options for Saturday might include two mobile center backs the third available defender isn't a big and powerful central defender but instead a young right back whose value is mostly derived from pressing forward rather than lock down opposing wingers.
As you might have guessed, I'm not exactly enamored with the idea of a Cuellar-Walker-Baker back line. The problem is, the alternatives have their shortcomings as well. The only left back physically capable of playing is Stephen Warnock, and though I don't have any way of knowing for sure I feel somewhat comfortable in thinking that his chances of playing are slim to none. Habib Beye can technically fill in at the position, but the less said about that the better. The wild card here is Fabian Delph; to be honest, Delph was my favored option at the position before Villa's newest 'injury' crisis presented itself. I think that Delph could realistically be a very good left back if given the time to learn the position and if there were ever a time for isolated experimentation it's now. Even if I wasn't a fan of making the switch permanent, I'd be in favor of Delph getting the nod; he's played well in his time at the position and without three true central defenders a back-three against Wolves (who, as Gareth pointed out, generate most of the danger in their attack from the wings) seems like an incredibly dicey proposition. My preference would be to see a defense of Walker-Cuellar-Baker-Delph, and were I to hazard a guess that's what I would expect to see.
But three at the back wouldn't necessarily surprise me either, and in any case this post isn't as much about what I expect to happen as what I would envision of the unexpected were to happen. And though the approach carries risk, there's some appeal there as well. Villa are absolutely loaded with attacking players and the thought of getting most of them on the pitch at once is intriguing. While a 3-5-2 is probably more well suited to the Premier League (especially given Villa's personnel) I think that in this instance, where the goal is to attack Wolves to death, a 3-4-3 makes a lot more sense. A 3-4-3 is not inherently an attacking formation (few formations are inherently anything) but it's used in that fashion more often than not at the moment and in this scenario it would be no different.
There are several combinations that would be interesting in this shape, but let's start with the obvious. The defense is of course set with Cuellar, Baker and Walker. Darren Bent is clearly the first choice at center forward; he's really Villa's only pure striker and the poaching opportunities presented by the shots coming from the wing would be mouth-watering to say the least. Gabriel Agbonlahor is a similarly obvious choice on the left wing; in a 3-4-3 the wingers have much more license to cut in and create havoc going towards goal and the complaints about Gabby's play out wide are largely related to his lack of crossing ability. In a 3-4-3 Gabby is much more of a left forward than a traditional winger but he still has more room to take advantage of his tremendous speed working down the touchline. Ashley Young is is equally at home on the other wing, with the added benefit of his danger on every phase (spreading play wide and delivering the cross, cutting in and opening up space for Bent, dropping deeper and acting as more of a playmaker.) Jean Makoun is a given at one of the central midfield spots; his ability to link the defense with the attack and disrupt the play of the opposition makes him a natural fit. With both wings being spoken for, Stewart Downing slides in at left wingback; he's far from a defensive liability and with Gabby being far more dangerous cutting in towards the middle Downing has space to create trouble from wide areas and given his ability to deliver dangerous balls from outside the box (not to mention his ability to uncork an absolute screamer on occasion) allows him to stay back a bit more than Young and create a bit of a counter-balance situation.
The remaining two outfield positions are slightly more difficult. First, the other central midfield spot. Stilyan Petrov is in my mind right out; he's not especially good defensively, his biggest asset is made somewhat irrelevant by Makoun and quite frankly he's really quite bad, at least in a starting role. The brings things down to Michael Bradley and Nigel Reo-Coker, and though Bradley has a place in this team (more on that later) it's NRC that had to be given the edge. Bradley had looked behind the pace in the midfield to this point, and a huge requirement of the central mids in this shape is the ability to react quickly and split out wide should the situation require it. Reo-Coker has that ability and I'm not sure that, at this current moment, that Bradley does. When you consider Nigel's strength in disrupting play and propensity for crashing the box should the situation call for it, he's the better choice.
That leaves the right wingback spot, and the decision is pretty clearly between Michael Bradley and Marc Albrighton. Albrighton is certainly the more dangerous attacking player and probably the more talented of the two overall, but in this role Bradley gets the nod. Bradley has experience at right back and has shown to be a solid defender in central midfield. With Young holding down every attacking phase on the right side, Villa could afford to drop Bradley back into defense when necessary. Bradley's biggest strengths are his his ability to run for days and an abundance of discipline, which in this role would be a tremendous benefit. For all that could be said of Michael Bradley, at least his creators programmed him well.
So, in this formation you have a very strong attack up the left with Walker and Bradley on the right and Cuellar in the middle able to command the back line and shift to the left in order to compensate if necessary. With Makoun linking up with the wings and Bent and solid dribblers throughout the top of the line, this Villa side would be adept at holding possession were they to exercise some patience. Positional discipline at the back would be key; that's not as big a concern with Cuelllar and Baker, but Walker is a marauder at right back (and he's been well trained to utilize those instincts) but with Bradley to cover on the wing that's less of a concern. I'm still not convinced that this is an optimal lineup, but given the constraints Villa could do far worse. Is it preferable to the more traditional Walker-Baker-Cuellar-Delph back line? Maybe not, but it's certainly one hell of a lot more interesting.