Kirsten mentioned something earlier this week that got me to thinking; what do you do when your club is built to play 4-4-2 but the rest of the game has evolved to the point that playing 4-4-2 puts you at a competitive disadvantage? Martin O'Neill quite clearly built the team to suit those purposes, and while he was largely successful there have certainly been times that it felt as though the shape was a hindrance to finding optimal results. We are where we are until January at the very least, and the odds of wholesale changes being made to the squad at that point seem slim. So how do we make it work?First we must discuss the personnel required to play the 4-4-2 to maximum effectiveness. There are of course the central defenders, and it’s probably not too much of an oversimplification to say that formation has little effect on center halves. In a system more geared towards building from the back and through the midfield with a bit more of a methodical pace you might prefer a player that can contribute a bit more in the short passing department while a standard 4-4-2 strategy will likely call for more usage of the long ball, but that’s fairly minor. Where full backs are concerned, the 4-4-2 values defensive contributions over offense in most cases, as the width is provided by the midfield to a greater extent than in, say, the 4-2-3-1 with two attacking mids or other narrow shapes. This would partially explain Martin O’Neill’s decision to favor Carlos Cuellar over Luke Young at right back last season. And while Stephen Warnock offers a bit more going forward than Cuellar, it’s fair to say that his defensive skills are more of an asset than what he brings to the attack.
Things begin to get slightly more interesting where the forwards are concerned. The traditional English 4-4-2 style favors the use of a target forward, a role that Emile Heskey defined in his prime; big, physical, good on the ball and possessing good vision. That’s the Emile Heskey we’ve seen so far this season, and when he’s on you can understand what Martin O’Neill and Gerard Houllier see in him. Teams with a target forward who are also prolific goal scorers will often pair them with a more creative playmaking type, while teams with a target forward that is not their primary goal scoring threat will often employ a smaller, faster striker to pair up top. One would generally consider this to be the style Villa play and with Gabby in the lineup that’s certainly the case; for as gifted as Ashley Young is however, he’s not shown himself to be a goalscorer in the traditional sense and has played more as a playmaking withdrawn forward than as a striker. This sort of strategy can work in a 4-4-2 however, as the wide midfielders play as wingers in the attack and provide additional scoring threats, as evidenced by Stewart Downing’s run of scoring this season.
In the midfield you’ll typically see two wide midfielders playing a bit advanced of the central mids. Typically one central mid will play box-to-box while the other is generally more defensive in nature. We saw this last year when James Milner was still on the team; Petrov played deep and was the engine in the midfield, while Milner was a threat from distance and a playmaker on the attack and a general nuisance to the opposition in the center of the pitch. Reo-Coker has tried to pick up where Milner left off, with less than stellar results. He’s a capable defensive presence and solid at the rear of the attacking third, but he’s not shown the ability to put the two together consistently. The lack of a true box-to-box force has been Villa’s biggest problem all season, as by attempting to play Reo-Coker and Ireland in that role their strengths are diminished.
It's the flatness of the 4-4-2 where the problems arise. Any club playing with more than two midfielders centrally create huge problems for a flat 4-4-2 defensively and do no favors to building up play through the center. Villa play to counter, and I think most would agree that such a strategy suits them. You’ve got to at least make people think about things coming through the center though, as it doesn’t matter how good you are at doing something if it’s the only thing you ever do. Teams will adjust. And when they do, a solid Plan B can punish them. Villa don’t have one and it’s apparent from the team’s tendency to fade in the second half.
This incarnation of Aston Villa are never going to be a possession-dominating, technically brilliant attacking side. It would be wasteful and foolish to attempt such a thing. But the shape they’re playing doesn’t do much to flatter them either. Yes, they’re built for a 4-4-2, but it’s not really working all that well. Time to mix things up a bit.
There are numerous things they could try, but two are intriguing to me. Let’s start with the simpler of the two. Have Ashley Young play a bit deeper, as a central attacking midfielder rather than a withdrawn forward. It’s a small change, but a significant one; if Ashley isn’t fully committed up-top he’s an extra midfielder that the opponent has to contend with when trying to build up from the back and, when Villa don’t break on a counter he’s the apex of a central midfield triangle with Reo-Coker and Petrov holding. With Heskey on he can still lead the counter and with Agbonlahor on he’s a second level of blazing speed to contend with. Villa would lose some danger in the attacking third but they’d also maintain more possession in the middle of the pitch, which is especially important late on in the game. How much likely would it have been that the leads would have held against Stoke and Bolton were Villa not constantly turning the ball over and being forced to play in their own end for the entirety of the second half?
The second option is preferable to me, but it also seems significantly less likely to ever be employed; a 4-3-3 with Downing and Agbonlahor on the wings, Heskey up top, Ashley playing as an attacking mid and Petrov and Reo-Coker as defensive mids. This is a strong attacking formation and it’s less likely to fix the problems of possession, but it would be hell for the opposition’s full backs and incredibly flexible. Gerard Houllier has spoken about the need to rotate the squad, and this formation allows you to do just that to a great degree. Agbonlahor, Young, Heskey and Carew can all play central forward. Agbonlahor, Young, Downing and Albrighton can all play the wing. There’s less flexibility in the middle, but that’s already an issue with this team and with Petrov and Reo-Coker be asked to concentrate mainly on the defensive aspect of things fatigue is less of an issue. And there’s always Steve Sidwell, though God forbid things ever get so dire. The full backs would need to provide some width in this formation, but they’re both capable of doing to so often enough that it’s worth the defense paying attention to.
Simply put, we’re not stuck with a flat 4-4-2 as our only option, and the advantages to exploring other options are undeniable. I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around the insistence of some that there’s nothing at all wrong with the shape itself; clearly there are. Many things, in fact. Most importantly that teams are quickly figuring out that it’s easy enough to stop if a few adjustments are made. Villa are proud of their history and tradition, and rightly so. But this is one they should abandon.
For more on this subject, please read this much better post.