Having watched the proceedings once again, I feel like it is fair to say that Villa's failure to secure three points on Saturday had a great deal to do with their complete and total inability to control the midfield in any real sense. Yes, the finishing was poor, but a fair amount of that can be written off to chance and after the early period of domination Villa played with their backs far too much against the wall to have any real complaint about their inability to put the ball in the net as being an explanation for their failing to secure the win. Villa's edge in talent was evident for the first 45 minutes, but Bolton made the necessary adjustments at half to take real control of the proceedings and based on the way things played out, our boys were lucky to escape with a point.
Sound familiar? It should. Aside from the win against West Ham, the very same thing has happened in every match. Despite managing to hang on against Everton, Villa spent the majority of the second half in their own end and were beyond fortunate to escape with three points. Plenty has been made of the boost received by Stoke due to the halftime arrival of manager Tony Pulis, and while I do not wish to dismiss the emotional impact of his presence in such a circumstance, more easily explainable reasons for Stoke's second half dominance are available.
Villa's tendency to look like a completely different team in the second half than in the first is something that has led to a great deal of discussion so far this season, and rightfully so; aside from Newcastle, Villa has not only looked the better team but absolutely dominated the first half of every game to this point. That should be the expectation against the level of competition that Villa have faced to this point. There is a tremendous amount of talent on this squad, and that's why the results have been so frustrating; the potential is there and on display for all to see for 45 minutes at a time, and completely absent as soon as the second-half whistle is blown. And while youth has been an excuse in years past, the core of this team is approaching an age at which youth quickly bleeds into wasted potential. And truthfully, Young, Agbonlahor and Albrighton have been bright spots for Villa this season; reasons to feel positive rather than reasons to throw ones hand up in frustration. So what's the problem?Adjustments. Obviously there is more to it, but Villa have played, to this point, an utterly predictable style. The only divergence from a completely flat 4-4-2 has been Ashley Young's play as a withdrawn forward, a tactical innovation that would have felt right at home in the mid-1970s. With Stilyian Petrov looking like a player very much on the decline and still being asked to act as a center-spoke holding midfielder, Villa are at a severe disadvantage in attempting to build attacks through the center. The response has been to push the ball down the wings and resort to the cross, find Young in space or hit the opposite wing on a run through the center. This can work for a bit, as Downing and Albrighton are both pacey midfielders with a decent dribbling abilities. Once the opponent is given the chance to make significant adjustments, however, things get significantly less easy. Downing is a quality player, but he's simply not enough of a game-changer to deal with a full back that has been pushed into a more defensive position. When Villa are unable to take advantage through the middle once their preferred method of attack has been neutralized, the center backs can split a bit wider and effectively force the attack to come through Young and Agbonlahor.
There's enough talent between those two that this could work, but Petrov has been an absolute non-factor the entire season, Reo-Coker will never be confused for a playmaker and Ireland is something like Ashley Young without the ability to deliver the final ball or switch to the wing and deliver a deadly cross. There's simply no one on this team capable of being the holding midfielder that this formation requires to operate effectively. With someone to act as a midfield general, the 4-4-2 can still work, especially in the EPL. Even failing that, a quality target forward capable of holding up play, distributing and presenting a credible enough threat at goal that defenses are drawn to him can suffice. Without either, you're left with needing to beat the defense down the wing on the counter. As soon as that's neutralized, your only choice is to hope that your back line can survive the coming onslaught.
The shape is of course not in and of itself the problem. It's that Villa don't have anywhere near the personnel to carry it off. While I am a fairly open critic of the 4-4-2 and its shortcomings, it still works quite well for many teams. We've seen it work well at Villa. But it's not working now, and there are adequate reasons to explain why. So, either you believe that what we've seen from Villa to this point in terms of shape and tactics is the best that can be expected from the talent available, or you believe that there are adjustments that can be made that would lead to more favorable results. While the players and their performances are the most important thing, there's absolutely no sense in putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage from the start.
So, what's to be done? There are certainly numerous options; packing the midfield with a 4-5-1 and taking control of the center of the pitch is one, but it's a fairly negative strategy that Villa don't really have the personnel to carry out to its full effectiveness. A 4-3-3 is a slightly more attractive option, and while it could very well work you're also going to end up with one of your best eleven players sitting on the bench, a less than ideal use of resources in any context. Were Fabian Delph healthy a 4-2-3-1 might well be the ideal approach, but he's not and there's no telling for sure when he will be ready to contribute in a full-time role. The goals are simple; provide balance in the attack, compete for possession in the center of the pitch and maintain the ability to punish the opposition with speed down the wings.
One bright spot so far this season has been Luke Young's ability to get forward and make a nuisance of himself in the attack without it having much of an effect on his ability to get back into defensive position. While he's certainly not going to be mistaken Dani Alves any time soon (nor will Stephen Warnock be mistaken for Ashley Cole any time soon,) he's capable of providing width in the attack that wasn't an option for much of last season. With width coming from the back, the wide midfielders can move in a bit, giving more of a presence in the center. At that point you've got the base of a 4-3-2-1, with Petrov (or, if we are living in an ideal world, Reo-Coker) moving into a pure central defensive role. Young and Ireland function as the central attacking midfielders in this formation, taking some of the pressure off of Agbonlahor; Young is a known commodity and at the moment the best player on the team who has flourished in a similar role, while Ireland has displayed flashes of brilliance when allowed to concentrate on creating chances and providing service to his teammates. Ireland's struggles have come when trying to function box-top-box; if he's allowed to concentrate on making an impact in the opponent's half of the pitch, those flashes of brilliant could become more frequent.
No other formation takes as much advantage of Villa's strengths as a 4-3-2-1; it's easy to switch things up on the fly it's tactically malleable, it rewards speed out wide while encouraging attacks through the center and it gives the team employing it an advantage in the middle of the pitch. It's not without its weaknesses, but no formation is; the key is finding the best balance between a formation's weaknesses and those of your squad. Villa aren't going to beat anyone through strength and brute force. The most talented players on this team are small, fast, skillful and clever. And yet, Villa still play like a an English team of the 1960s. It's to their own detriment; there is too much talent on this squad to allow it to be wasted based on an idealized notion of how the game should be played. The game should be played in whatever honorable fashion that allows your team to outscore the opposition.
Villa can continue trying to compete with a declining and injury-prone central mid playing the most important role in their attack, or by wasting the abilities of a gifted but out-of-position player with severe confidence problems, or by send crosses high towards a box unpopulated by anyone over six feet tall, or by asking an undersized forward to run headlong into defenders over six inches taller than he is. Or they can recognize the foolishness of such a strategy and make the necessary changes. There's plenty of blame to go around so far and while things could be worse, this team should have taken more than seven points from their first five games. Yes, the defense has fallen apart, but fending off unending attacks for the entirety of a half is a less than ideal situation. Gerard Houllier has decisions to make, and while I don't expect him to make any drastic changes, I'd hope that he is at least capable of recognizing that the current system isn't working. Villa's first five games were one of the easier stretches of schedule that they will face this season; going in, seven points from the fifteen available would have seemed a disappointment. On the other side, they seem a relief. That's unacceptable, and complacency isn't going to make things any better.