In January after the transfers for Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane had come through, I remember sitting down to set a lineup of who I hoped to see take the pitch prior to a match that almost certainly ended in a frustrating draw. I’d get the team set up just right and then notice a name I’d wanted to feature being left out. If recollection serves, after three or four dozen instances of this, frustration forced me to practice my coping skills and with knuckles white I would calmly shut the laptop and go outside to enjoy a cool winters day raking leaves.
Nearly eight months later, Aston Villa is in much the same situation. Though not opening the checkbook in a similar manner to the 2016-2017 season—or even as much as Ritchie de Laet for that matter—this summer Villa have continued to add experienced and talented players while seeing fewer to the exits. With the grind of the Championship season and what appears to be an expectation of automatic promotion this season it certainly makes sense to have a squad that can weather fatigue and/or nagging injuries.
We’ve already seen the necessity with our once-and-future-King Jack Grealish. He hadn’t even been awarded his crisp new number 10 before succumbing to a very unfortunate kidney injury which will sideline him for an indefinite amount of time. Having literally a dozen midfielders who should be seeing the pitch softens the blow, however.
As we start to take a look at our depth, we should start in the places where it’s simplest: Keepers and Forwards.
Our keeper for this season is Sam Johnstone. That’s pretty clear. Steve Bruce is impressed with him, making him the first player acquired in his tenure back in January and then taking him back on loan this summer. Johnstone acclimated himself nicely throughout last season on his eighth loan from Manchester United, and as Dan Hayes pointed out in his piece yesterday, which this is a gentle reminder to go read again, he played a number of great balls down the right side toward new winger Ahmed Elmohamady in our first outing against Hull. Even if he misplayed the equalizing goal from Hull’s Jarrod Bowen, good luck finding someone else in the highlight reel who didn’t do at least one thing incorrectly. Jed Steer will make a fine backup and may even find himself between the sticks throughout the Carabao Cup campaign, especially so after a decent performance in the first round. Finally, with an injury to Mark Bunn, Matija Sarkic is around as third keeper, but if Bunn’s condition improves and Johnstone comes out clean, a loan spell for any of Sarkic, Steer or Bunn wouldn’t be outlandish.
1. Sam Johnstone
2. Jed Steer
3. Mark Bunn
4. Matija Sarkic
Moving on to forwards, it’s simple to say that Jonathan Kodjia tops the chart when he is healthy, and he will, but he and Scott Hogan shared the pitch quite often last season and in starting formations Kodjia often slid back to a left wing in 4-2-3-1. This would make sense as the left wing is where Villa struggled pushing the ball forward against Hull initially in the opener. Hogan works hard, moves brilliantly without the ball and often finds himself in the right place. If he can create openings and space for himself (which he can) while Kodjia works his defender, he could wind up dealing with Kodjias caroms in the box, or making brilliant runs down center to score or create havoc for defenders. Jimmy Danger, creating his own chaos amongst defenders, might even be able to display some more of his passing skills to spring Hogan for goal. Regardless, whether they’re a tandem or playing as the lone strikers, we should expect big things from both Kodjia and Hogan as this offseason has seen even more talented supporting players all around them looking to set them up.
I’m not sure my opinion of where Gabby Agbonlahor fits on the depth chart particularly matters. Bruce is enamored with his large adult football playing son and though it seemed his day ended before he even left the pitch, his game against Hull was quite good. Bruce probably keeps him as the third in line behind Hogan and Kodjia, whereas many would prefer him behind the next two.
Keinan Davis and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy should push Gabby for more appearances this year and as has often been discussed, though he’s been more regarded, Hepburn-Murphy missing time due to contractual issues last year allowed Davis the opportunity to perform and gain confidence of the staff and put in some really solid work from the 19-year-old. Certainly good to have competition amongst talented young men who both look to be making strides.
Ross McCormack is, at press time, still employed with Aston Villa.
1. Jonathan Kodjia
2. Scott Hogan
3. Gabby Agbonlahor
4. Keinan Davis
5. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy
6. Ross McCormack