Aston Villa's pre-season got underway today with what was by all accounts an impressive display, Darren Bent nabbing a brace and Emile Heskey adding another before the half. Villa's second half team was largely composed of squad players and youngsters and Walsall were able to get one back, but Nathan Delfouneso was reportedly impressive and somewhat unlucky not to score a time or two himself. This game wasn't televised anywhere so those not lucky enough to attend had to make do with AVTV's audio-only webcast and eye-witness reports, so it's entirely possible that the Banks's Stadium water supply is contaminated and that the second hand relaying of information is inaccurate thanks to some sort of mass hallucination. But for our purposes I think it's fair to trust Occam's Razor on this one; Villa looked good even when playing the youngsters and fringe players, they showed plenty of attacking intent and the final score was probably quite flattering to Walsall.
Without video evidence, whether the positive reports about Stephen Ireland's play are down to the inferior competition or the result of a legitimate return to his form of old, just to give one example. And really you'd expect even the worst of Premier League sides to give a League One club like Walsall a pretty decent spanking just by virtue of superior talent and depth alone. Unless you saw the game live it's impossible to say whether Villa really did look all that impressive, and though the reports have been largely quite positive I'm just far too much of a pessimist to take the word of others when it comes to things like this.
We do know a few things for certain, however; for one, we know how the team lined up; At the back was Given in goal, Warnock at left back, Dunne and Collins in the center, Young (and no longer qualifying which Young I mean will be a tough habit to break) at right back. The midfield consisted of Makoun and Petrov in the central holding roles, Ireland as an advanced mid, Marc Albrighton on the right and Emile Heskey on the left. Darren Bent was up top alone. That's your standard 4-2-3-1, fairly similar to what we saw under Gerard Houllier for the most part, and though Emile Heskey is not likely to spend a lot of time as a wide player (at least from a tactical standpoint hur hur hur) it's fairly close to what Alex McLeish has implied would be a first choice squad. The new manager hasn't been shy in saying that he is going to give Stephens Ireland and Warnock the benefit of the doubt in earning back their starting roles, so one would think that had this game not been a friendly we would have seen the exact same starting XI.
I'm not a huge fan of the 4-4-2 as likely isn't a secret by now; it has its place and Villa were able to use it to some success last season when the matchups called for it but in general I think its day as a default shape has passed. In that sense it's encouraging to see the 4-2-3-1, probably my favored option given Villa's current personnel. With a defense that few are entirely comfortable with at this stage and the lack of a real destroyer, ball winner type in central midfield the use of two holding players allows the wide players to push forward with less risk of vulnerability to counter attacks and for a team playing just one striker it's vital that the wide midfielders push forward in attack if you've got much hope of scoring goals. I'd prefer we see Bannan in the attacking midfield role but I also understand McLeish's desire to both see what he has in Ireland and to not lean too heavily on younger players if it can be avoided. Let's be honest, the good version of Stephen Ireland would be a massive boost to this team and if he's done some maturing and can be an impact player for Villa, I'm not going to begrudge Bannan being brought along a bit more slowly. I still have my doubts, but I'm not going to be upset with the decision to give him a go at this stage.
If I'm not entirely convinced of Ireland's prospects of returning to form, I have even less faith that Stephen Warnock is going to turn it around any time soon either. Warnock fell off noticeably towards the end of the 2009-10 season and somehow got even worse before being banished to the reserves last year and while Ireland is young and there's not really any good explanation for his loss of quality, there are reasons to think Warnock is never going to be a decent Premier League player again. With that being said, it's not as though Villa are overwhelmed with options at full back at the moment; Ciaran Clark can cover left back but I don't think he's anyone's ideal solution and as much as I love Eric Lichaj, now isn't the time to move Luke Young to the left and hand him the starting job at right back. There just aren't any great options on the left and I think most would agree that the best outcome is for Warnock to regain his spot and perform well. There's no harm in trying to make that work before moving on to options with less desirable best-case scenarios.
So, how does that team look on paper? Shay Given ought to be tremendous, for starters. I've got my worries about the defense, but Collins and Dunne looked quite good towards the end of last season and Luke Young is a capable right back. Warnock scares the hell out of me, but with Cuellar, Clark and Lichaj all capable of proving decent cover at multiple positions I think the odds are it should be decent enough. Makoun is an excellent player and should he stay healthy I think he'll really justify the fee paid to bring him to Villa Park. Petrov really began to show signs of his advancing age last season, but he's still a decent enough player, not prone to making many mistakes and capable of providing a very good game from time to time. The lack of a real ball-winning destroyer type is a big concern for me and I still cannot fathom how the club allowed Nigel Reo-Coker to get away when his style is so desperately missing from the squad, but between Makoun, Petrov, Delph, Herd, Hogg and most likely the blooding in of Gary Gardner, things aren't really all that dire. If Ireland doesn't work out I'm more than comfortable with Barry Bannan sliding into his role, and it's of course possible we see Villa adopt a 4-3-3 and try to compensate for a lack of creativity in other ways should worst come to worst. Darren Bent is amazing and Gabriel Agbonlahor and Nathan Delfouneso are more than adequate cover. Replace Emile Heskey with an actual left midfielder of reasonable or better quality, and quite frankly, that's not a bad team at all.
I don't expect Villa to contend for Europe this season, but I also don't think it's reasonable to see this season as being about that. This is a transitional year (and unlike last season that was the plan all along, which is an important distinction.) But with a good winger brought in and perhaps a less splashy addition here or there, this isn't a team that looks to be in any real danger of fighting for their lives either. And seeing the way McLeish filled out the lineup card and seemed intent on going after it made me feel just that little bit better. We can't take a whole lot of anything from this game, but what we can take is almost universally positive. That's a pretty good start.