The 4-3-3 rides again
I have previously harshly criticized Paul Lambert's attachment to the 4-3-3 and considering our players, found it difficult to know what he was hoping for.
Against Leicester we finally got some sense of what Lambert might imagine the 4-3-3 to be. Outnumbering Leicester's 4-4-2 in central areas, Ashley Westwood began to control the game. At the same time, the two full-backs enjoyed the freedom to run, with Cissokho putting in his most dangerous crosses of the season so far. And of course, Alan Hutton came flying up the wing for his goal.
Some of its weaknesses were still apparent - for example Westwood was the deepest lying midfielder, enjoying possession but this also entails a defensive responsibility that he's not naturally ready for. For Leicester's goal, the moment Cissokho was turned he should have been denying Mahrez the space to run but instead let him come across. Leicester's entire attacking intent came from their forays down the flanks which they failed to maximise.
However the transformative attacking aspect came with the role of Benteke and the improved fluidity between the lines. Alex made an interesting suggestion that he was essentially playing the No.10 role as well as the centre forward in his match report, and it's certainly true that many other players surged forward around him - Hutton's goal and Cleverley's similar chance were the most obvious, but Abgonlahor looked revitalised with someone in the middle to play off, facing towards the Leicester goal. That fluidity was enough to overwhelm Leicester, with the aid of a very good set-piece
Lambert's assessment of the attacking potential of his formation proved to be just about correct. Whether that degree of reliance on Benteke is wise remains to be seen, but the 4-3-3 seems to be a viable option in order to maximise attacking opportunities against weaker teams.
Villa adapt well to injuries
In the middle of a dominating performance, there were several moments where Villa could have been derailed. Westwood had been the most influential Villa player before his injury, picking the ball up from the back four and finding Benteke.
When Westwood went off, Sanchez dropped into his space, offering defensive solidity but more limited distribution. For a little while the lines began to look too spread apart, but Benteke dropped deeper to pick up the balls Guzan was sending his way and Sanchez and Cleverley managed to keep the passing going. That Leicester never really took any measures to pressure Sanchez was an amazing oversight but he used the space well.
Another shift was required when Cleverley came off. At this point two of the original midfield trio were off, and Villa's two tidiest passers. Lambert correctly decided that a central trio of Grealish/Sanchez/Richardson was unbalanced and shifted to a 4-4-2 with N´Zogbia dropping off to the right wing (to be replaced by Bacuna when he proved too careless in possession) and Grealish going out left, with Sanchez and Richardson combative presences in the middle. It was a good decision to maximise Grealish's crossing potential and exert more control over the flanks.
Westwood's injury and Lambert's options
For all the good news of two wins in a row, the bad news was Ashley Westwood's injury from Vardy's very poor tackle. With the news that he will be out until January, Lambert is faced with some tough choices.
Westwood has been by some distance Villa's best midfield performer in the absence of Fabian Delph, the distributor at the heart of the midfield, with the highest number of passes nearly every match and a higher proportion of incisive, attacking passes. He and Sanchez finally established some sort of defensive solidity and structure in front of the back four.
The Villans will inevitably be a poorer side without him, both in attack and defence. Whether Sanchez is ready to play both distributor and destroyer at the heart of the Villa midfield is unclear and Cleverley will need to show something better than the tidiness we've seen so far to convince that he should be wearing Claret and Blue for the rest of the season. Joe Cole has shown quality but also fragility, Richardson looks little more than competent and N´Zogbia not even that.
Lambert has the option then to turn to his wide men and the 4-4-2. Grealish and Bacuna did their jobs well enough against Leicester, Grealish's delivery to Benteke catching the eye most of all. Villa have been largely toothless in crossing and set-pieces so far this year and Grealish must figure in Lambert's thoughts - possibly as part of a front three or the flanks of a 4-2-3-1 if Lambert is unwilling to abandon three central midfielders.
Villa have the potential to end the year on a high, but must use what squad depth they have if they want to truly leave the spectre of the relegation battle behind. It will be a useful test of the Lions' progress under Lambert.
Adam's Formation of the (next) Week
In a new addition to the column, I feel I should be putting my money where my mouth is next week and suggesting a formation. Rather taken by Alex's idea of Benteke as playmaker, and keen to see Grealish's deliveries for the whole 90, here's my Formation of the Week for West Brom, to blow them off the park with attacking power, while maintaining a solid defence.
Let me know if you think I'm a genius or an idiot and your own ideas in the comments!