If one thing is true in the Championship, it’s that you don’t get promoted by being the same old team. You need something different - whether it’s a 25 goal-a-season striker, a brick wall of a keeper or your ability to make the best of what you’ve got. We’ve seen the latter succeed through Chris Hughton at Brighton (one of the most criminally underrated managers in recent history) and David Wagner at Huddersfield, so maybe it’s time for Aston Villa to make the best out of what they have? In actual fact, Villa have a number of striker capable of blowing away the opposition, and they might be on the verge of signing a quality goalkeeper. If Villa can make the best of what they have, then on paper - they should be the top shout for the Championship title. Should.
How does Steve Bruce go about making the best of what he has? Simple - he starts to look at his team, and he starts off by looking at Villa’s defensive line. James Chester and Nathan Baker have a great partnership and you could quite easily pick one of the pair out on their day and say “well, he’s Villa’s best player right now.”
The trouble is, that is going to be disrupted by the arrival of a marquee signing. John Terry is a player who should have twice the ability of Nathan Baker. Regardless of questions about his physical attributes, he’s John Terry - one of England’s most decorated centre-halves. John Terry will be the first name on Villa’s team-sheet because he is John Terry.
That means that Nathan Baker is rather unfairly dispatched to the bench - despite having a hell of a season. That’s life - that’s football, but it’s not the best place for Baker. Oh no. Bruce said that one of the key reasons as to why Baker and Chester worked so well, is because Baker is left-footed and plays on the left, while Chester is right footed and plays on the right. Bruce said that this gives Villa a ‘bit of balance’ at the back. You can be good at heading the ball, and good at tackling, but if you’re on your arse when Chris Wood is leading the Leeds counter-attack; well, what good are you? Balance is key to defense, because balance brings calm heads - it’s one of the things that Remi Garde tried to implement, but Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott (quite rightly, if you’re that bad) kept punting the ball as far as they could. Garde’s Villa were a lost cause - Bruce’s Villa are not, and balance and serenity is one thing that always stems from Villa’s back two. Thus - it’d be a shame to punt Baker to the bench after such a good year, even with the presence of all-star defenders like John Terry.
That’s why Steve Bruce is thinking about playing with 3 defenders, whether that’s a 3-4-3, 3-5-2 or any other formation with 3 central defenders.
The problem? The last time Villa tried to play with three central defenders, they got beat up on. Ipswich, Nottingham Forest and Fulham put Villa to the sword when they tried a tactical change. The formation isn’t to blame though - you don’t simply lose a game because of formation. There’s a lot of factors to take into account, and the fact that Steve Bruce tried a new formation without bedding it in is likely one of those factors. That shouldn’t be an issue though this time around - Villa will deploy the formation throughout their pre-season, which should give everyone time to bed in, win-lose-draw.
The big question is this: is this the way forward for Villa?
Adam Clark went into a great amount of detail in this article on the 3-5-2, and like every formation, there are a great amount of pros and cons.
The big pro? You get to match the 4-4-2. You get three big defenders at the back, and two forwards. You get a lot of width with rampaging wing-backs, and you get a lot of stability through the general shape of the squad. The big con? If the opposition have a great manager, he’ll dupe you with a deep-lying forward and bring your defenders out and ruin your shape. What’s more, you’ll need your centre-backs to be the best defenders around, knowing when to close down, and when to stand off - as Adam said, you either risk ruining your shape, or allowing the opposition to dominate the midfield.
We’ll have to bet on Bruce being smarter than the rest. We’ll also have to bet on Nathan Baker, John Terry and James Chester being the best trio in the league. We know two of those defenders can be, and when John Terry, of all people, is the question mark in the back-three, you’ve got it good. Really good.
How could Villa line up in the 3-5-2? Well, they’ve got a lot of options, which is encouraging.
For me, this is an incredibly encouraging formation. You’ve got the balance of Nathan Baker and James Chester - with John Terry holding it together. There’s also enormous flexibility here as well - when Villa are under the cosh, you’ll see the wing-backs drop back and then you’ve got a back five, but also, you might see Jedinak drop in as well - creating a formidable back line ready to burst forward on the counter. If you’re feeling the attack, you might play Adomah as the right wing-back, with even Andre Green on the left. If you want defensive options, you’ll go with De-Laet and Taylor. There’s a lot you can do without sacrificing your defensive abilities. As long as Jedinak is there, you can do what you will - he’s shown that he can play a bit.
Ideally, you’d want someone like Jordan Veretout - who can have a similar effect to Jedinak off-the-ball, while being a better all-round midfielder. However, he’s not likely to be a Villan for long.
If Villa want to play to their strengths, this is the formation to use - simply because it offers Villa a lot, and a way to use their defensive players. If you want the best from De Laet, Micah Richards and Alan Hutton - this is the formation you’d use.
Nathan Baker and James Chester were arguably Villa’s best players last season, and if Villa want to do well this season, they could do a lot worse than build a formation around them.