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Tactical depth – do Villa have it?

Paul Lambert had a reputation at Norwich as a tactical chameleon - so why haven't we seen that side of him at Aston Villa? Time to take a look at what options he has for this season.

What does he have to work with?
What does he have to work with?
Laurence Griffiths

I spent last week's column describing how Villa's tactical approach has arguably been the same for almost a decade now - counter-attacks at speed with the ever-present Gabriel Abgonlahor at the spearhead. This has arguably been a model with diminishing returns since our three successive 6th place finishes under Martin O'Neill and I think very few Villa fans wouldn't welcome a change. Paul Lambert acquired a reputation for counter-punching tactical flexibility at Norwich which he has arguably done little to display at Villa. But do Villa have what it takes to pull that off?

Tactical changes require a few things. Top of the list is a coherent plan and the players to pull it off. The two present something of a chicken-and-egg problem - do you choose the plan and fit the players around it, or look at the players and then design a plan to get the best out of them? Most fans would say the second but it runs the risk of trying to cram too many of the best players in with no possible plan- see the Lampard/Gerrard debates of the England team over the last decade or the question of Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. At the end of the day the two are probably inextricable and a compromise must be struck.

That said, let's look at Villa's recent history to see what compromises have been made. The major tactical change that has happened even under the counter-attack paradigm has been the shift from the wing-play seen with Young/Downing/Milner which often operated as a 4-4-2 to the current 4-5-1/4-3-3 (the formations easily switch between one another in and out of possession and  depending on how much pressing the wide men are assigned). This has to be seen as a change made due to personnel. Darren Bent never quite acted as a target man for crosses and the departure of Marc Albrighton saw the last of Villa's ‘down the line and cross it' wide players (Grealish may be a prospect for this and it will be interesting to see how Lambert works him into his plans).

Instead the wide positions have been increasingly occupied by Gabby and Andi who have been tasked both with pressing and providing attacking threat on the break. This is unlikely to change in the near future, even with Benteke providing a more traditional target man - Villa lack any natural sided right winger and Lambert enjoys the pace they provide. Kieran Richardson's current use as a wide man further reinforces the idea of pressing and utility wide men as opposed to classical flank players. This also relates to the issue of putting a two man central midfield pairing against the rising numbers of three men midfields in the Premier League.

The most striking tactical change Lambert has experimented with is a three-man defence. Its major showing was in 2012 where it had some good moments - the 3-1 victory over Liverpool at Anfield springs to mind - and at least one truly dreadful one, the 8-0 catastrophe against Chelsea. Again this seemed more like a personnel inspired change, after difficulties finding reliable full-backs. However Lambert has since consistently sought to find full-backs to establish a 4 at the back and with Cissokho and Hutton strong early performers, that is unlikely to change. From the experimental tactical view this is a shame;  if Vlaar, Okore and Senderos were all fully fit a very different back 3 might emerge. There are players capable of playing as wing-backs in the Villa squad such as Leandro Bacuna and Richardson, and it would open up options further up the field but it is surely too great a risk in terms of the defence's form and fitness.

So working within the idea of 4 at the back and with no return to truly wide play, what options are there for Villa? One option at the top of tactics discussion has been the diamond - especially in England where Brendan Rodgers' use of it at Liverpool has led to experimentation in the national team. It has some attractions for Villa - its narrowness would aid the compact defending, and its inclusion of a holding midfielder might stabilise the formation, protecting the back 4 and allowing other midfielders to push up the field. Paul Lambert also used the formation in Norwich's promotion campaigns in the lower leagues. However it is arguable whether Villa have a holding midfielder of sufficient quality to carry out the role - Carlos Sanchez would need to improve (though perhaps not being up against Ozil would help in that regard) or Ashley Westwood provide some hitherto unseen defensive discipline.

The obvious solution is the same as Liverpool have used when Gerrard has struggled at the base of a diamond - slot a player alongside him in a double pivot and play 4-2-3-1. Villa have already played this formation during the season, with Delph and Westwood as the double pivot and Weimann/Richardson/N'Zogbia in front of them, providing our best 45 minutes of the season so far against Hull. It would be surprising not to see this formation again and may well have been the idea against Chelsea but it collapsed with a lack of possession and a failure to control the flanks or properly fill in the space in front of the defenders (the flank issue happened against Hull as well where the left-back Robertson frequently charged past N'Zogbia). It would be interesting to see if Sanchez alongside Westwood might provide some more effective screening, leaving options for the three in front of them. Or Lambert may well return to what worked against Hull, shifting Delph back to that pairing. Crucially it would move away from the midfield 3 that has been a hallmark of Lambert's Villa and perhaps provide a more coherent structure with more defined midfield roles.

Other options might include the 4-4-1-1 with the intriguing option of Cleverley behind Benteke as the number 10, if Lambert were inclined to exploit his loan to the fullest. This might include the dropping of one (or both!) of Gabby and Andi if Villa sought an aerial threat from the flanks in. A  4-3-2-1 might preserve both the central trio and Gabby and Andi, while putting Benteke up top - sacrificing the cover on the flanks from the wide forwards for four bands of players that might more effectively fill gaps between the lines.

The answer would appear to be that Villa do have tactical flexibility- and considerably more so when Benteke's return provides a real threat up top. However while Villa play such possession light football and drop so deep to their own box, there is an inevitable tendency for all these formations to compress to nothing more than a line of 4 and a line of 5 in front of them with a stranded striker looking extremely lonely. Notional tactical flexibility can only be put into action with an ability to retain shape under pressure - let's see if Villa can achieve that against Manchester City.