A lot of the talk the past year or so has centered on Villa's need for an impact player up front. I've been on the record for a while now with my opinion that while I wouldn't be opposed to improving the striker situation should the right opportunity present itself, it shouldn't at all be the only (or even primary) focus where transfers are concerned. It might seem odd to keep banging that drum given Villa's current striker situation, with Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey being hurt and John Carew being awful, but it's still true. Injuries happen and something that appeared at the start of the season to be an area of strength can quickly become something of a weakness. It was only a few months ago that both Carlos Cuellar and Richard Dunne were out injured remember, and now that they've both returned from injury and are both largely back in good form the center of defense is once again an embarrassment of riches for Villa.
Agbonlahor and Heskey will return from injury at some point, we still don't really know what we have in Nathan Delfouneso and as bad as John Carew has been chances are good his form will improve at least a bit . If it doesn't, most clubs that play with one striker are far worse off with their fourth choice. Coupled with the fact that quality strikers tend to fetch a much heftier sum on the transfer market and it seems quite apparent that perhaps there are more efficient ways to use Villa's (likely) limited transfer funds come January. If the worst happens and Heskey and Agbonlahor are still injured when the time comes, that certainly changes things but that's a bridge that will have to be crossed when we come to it but that seems rather unlikely despite Villa's poor luck where injuries are concerned so far this season. If Villa decide to move one of their forwards elsewhere when January comes around (full disclosure: I am talking about Carew again) that would also change things, and as I've said before I think that's a definite possibility. But so many things could happen between now and then that trying to prepare for all of the eventualities is futile. We are where we are and without inside knowledge of the club's plans or finances that's about all we can base our opinions on.
And where we are is not the best place in the world to be. The defense is solid but fragile and not especially deep out wide. The strikers are either hurt or unproven or ineffective. There's more talent than anywhere else on the wings but Villa's best wide player has moved into the center thanks to the inability of the team to make any real attacking threat from the middle. And then there is of course the center of the midfield, probably the source of more frustration than anything else this season. Stilyan Petrov was bad, and now he's ineffective. Stephen Ireland is bad, and now Gerard Houllier wants to send him to bed without supper. Steve Sidwell is an abomination before God. Nigel Reo-Coker has quite possibly been Villa's best player this season, but he's missed multiple open chances in crucial situations. Things are so dire that even Ciaran Clark has played there and when a 21 year old central defender starts a home game against your great rivals playing as a central-mid, there are problems.
I think all Villa supporters would love more creativity from the middle, as it's been more to blame for the lack of goals than any other single factor. It's why Stephen Ireland was brought it and since that hasn't really worked out it's why Ashley Young has continued to play as a withdrawn forward rather than shifting back out wide. It's a severe problem; Villa have shown to be no threat to score unless a cross, a counter or a set-piece are involved and it's reasonably simple to defend a team like that no matter how much talent or speed out wide.A true playmaker to pair with the raw athleticism up top (assuming Agbonlahor is playing) or on the wings would go a long way towards making Villa's attack more potent and most likely towards taking a lot of the pressure off of Stephen Ireland and allowing him to play more to his strengths and get comfortable in the team. The problem of course is that playmaking midfielders aren't exactly cheap or easy to come by either, and while it might be a better use of resources that doesn't make it likely to happen.
There's another spot that isn't as glamorous, isn't as often talked about and doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense as a means for making a more potent attack, but in realistic terms it might be the most meaningful upgrade Villa could make this season with the funds available to them. It's a key part of the 4-5-1 that Villa have tended towards playing this season. Defensive mids are typically undervalued players in football, and clubs with limited funds would do well to try and take advantage of that. What we've seen in terms of attacking strategy from Villa this season has been largely based on long-balls and counters. Possession has rarely built from the back, and when the team has tried to be a bit more methodical with their pace it's generally resulted in a lot of horizontal passes leading eventually to the ball being played back to the defenders and the long-ball towards Heskey winning out in the end. Counters have more often than not been the result of the opponent's set-pieces being turned around the other way or desperate clearances that have ended up in fortunate places. The most dangerous counters are those that result from thwarted counters by the opposition with defenders pushing forwards and out of position to stop the ball from coming back the other way.
Another issue for Villa has been their inability to stop the opponent from advancing largely unchecked through the midfield. A few diagonal passes and they're in the final third, putting a massive amount of pressure or the defense and keeping the fullbacks from really pushing forward in the attack. We tend to think of offense and defense separately when considering the struggles of each, but in many ways they are not. If an attack breaks down and the ball needs to be moved back to the defenders in order to allow the attacking players o move back into position, it's much harder to get things restarted when it's going three-quarters of the way back towards your own goal. And there's a case to be made that Villa's offensive struggles are at least partially to blame for their inability to hold onto leads earlier in the year; when the other team knows you aren't really capable of doing much, they're going to feel much more comfortable cheating forward a bit.
Adding a solid defensive mid isn't going to solve all of Villa's problems, but the right player could have a pretty tremendous impact on things. Someone who is capable of linking the defense and the attacking mids, someone who is capable of breaking up attacks and sending things back the other way with quickness, someone who allows Reo-Coker to spend a bit more time creating havoc with runs into the area and Ireland to never worry about playing even a bit of defense. Most importantly, someone who will insure that Steve Sidwell never sees the starting XI. At the start of the year I thought Reo-Coker might be that kind of player and while he's done an excellent job defensively this year it's when he's pushed forward that he's made the most lasting impression. In a system with a true defensive mid that plays between the defense and the traditional center mids, he'd still be able to make use of his defensive abilities while having the freedom to get into dangerous areas a bit more often. If Petrov is in the lineup he can play to his strengths as a center-spoke distributor rather than having to function in a box-to-box role for which he is ill suited. When you add a player that patches an area of weakness he doesn't only improve the team through his own merits, he improves the team by allowing the other players to focus more on their strengths.
Gerard Houllier has shown some willingness to play with a defensive mid, starting Ciaran Clark in the position against Birmingham City as previously mentioned. And while Clark performed admirably given the circumstances, it seems reasonable to say that he's not likely to play the position regularly going forward. If Villa has a player capable of acting as a defensive mid in-house then we haven't seen them playing the position. Fabian Delph might be that player but he's also quite strong going forward himself and he certainly can't be counted upon to return from injury full-strength. There's no way of knowing whether Villa have any plans to spend this January but it seems fair to say that most believe the budget will be modest. If that is in fact the case, going down this road could be their best bet for making an impact on the quality of the squad as a whole.