With the arrival of the highly rated right back Matty Cash, Frederic Guilbert was put on high alert. With Cash arriving to the tune of 14 million pounds, the odds are that he’ll start sooner rather than later to justify the high spending price Villa have paid. The issues stands that Guilbert, while not a perfect right back, was a consistent performer over the last year for the squad and his replacement seems like an odd prioritization for the board to make. This incoming likely means that Guilbert, despite his performances will exit the club or be resigned to a bench position despite his consistency. However, this does not have to be the case, with a simple formation shift, Villa could feature both Guilbert and Cash while getting the best out of each of them.
Throughout the season Guilbert became well known amongst Villa supporters for his willingness to get his hands dirty and put in a defensive shift. This willingness to play defense was on full display during the clean sheet that Villa kept against Arsenal that lead to the 1-0 victory at Villa Park and was instrumental in staving off relegation. Over the course of the year Guilbert played in 25 games and was able to average 3 successful tackles a game with 2 interceptions to match.
Offensively, Guilbert failed to produce to the levels necessary in a Dean Smith system. Smith expects his full backs to provide the width in an attack so that wingers may drift inside to play directly off of the striker in the middle. For an example of this, Targett’s offensive stats over the course of the season show that he was good for an average of 1 Key Pass per game and much higher positioning up the pitch than his counterpart. Also, Ahmed El Mohamady and Ezri Konsa, who were both favored by Smith in the restart each had higher average offensive stats despite El Mohamady playing roughly half the minutes of Guilbert and Konsa being a natural center half.
Where Guilbert falls short in the offensive aspect of his game, Cash rises to the occasion. Converted from a winger roughly a year and a half ago, Cash excels at the offensive aspects of the right back position. For Nottingham Forrest last year he had 8 goal contributions and averaged at least 1 shot, dribble, and key pass per game. Cash’s offensive focus would allow Trezeguet or another unnamed right winger to drift inside and play like a right forward or a second striker in support of the man up top. These stats along with his positioning at times paint Cash to be more of a wingback similar to Targett.
For Dean Smith the issue is that although Guilbert is quality, he does not play to the philosophy that Smith is trying to install in the club. Also, Cash presents another problem for Smith, would playing another Targett style full back upset the defensive integrity that led the club to survival. To solve both of these issues, Dean Smith should switch his 433 formation that he favors to a 3 in the back formation which features the pair of full backs in the side. To do this, Guilbert would be playing in a RCB role and would feature Cash in a Matt Doherty style RWB role.
The side could realistically line up in two different ways: 352 or 343. The 352 formation is a possibility as it would allow Grealish to play in his preferred attacking midfielder role rather than playing on the wing and could minimize deficiencies out wide. The 343 is also an option that would see Grealish continue to play as a winger but Dean Smith would be able to keep much of the philosophy that he prefers.
Examples of the 352 and 343
These formations feature significant benefits to the shape and style of each phase of play. For starters this would allow the team to play the same shape against Top 6 sides and Mid Table sides, Smith’s instructions would not change radically for each opponent and would allow the manager to have a “Progressive” and “Conservative” set of instructions. This would help with the record against top sides and would keep the game plan more consistent from week to week. Also by putting another defender on the pitch, the defensive solidity of the squad can be preserved while taking advantage of both Cash and Targett’s abilities.
Defensively, the shape of 3 at the back would suit the players that Villa already have on roster. Center Halves in this shape would be expected to play with the ball at their feet and manage the wings along with the wingbacks. This profile already fits nearly every center half on the roster with exception to Bjorn Engles. This expectation of the center half would allow Guilbert to easily slip in as well, the converted full back would drop back into a defensive role in similar spacing to what is expected of him in a right full back position but without the expectation to bomb forward. The only concern with Guilbert transitioning to center half is the size and strength argument, however this can be easily pushed aside. Guilbert is 178 CM tall or 5’9”, which is short for a center half, however Guilbert is fantastic in the air and boasts a higher win percentage in the air than Konsa. Also, as a right sided center back, Guilbert won’t come up against true center forwards on his own often enough for concern.
With new expectations of the center halves comes the new role of the wingback. This position is expected to play similar to a left or right sided midfielder but with the added responsibility of tracking all the way back to the defensive line and joining the center backs. The position works best with attacking fullbacks who enjoy getting forward and having the work rate to track back. Cash certainly fits this description from all the reports coming out of Nottingham and Targett showed during the restart that his back tracking has much improved over the course of the season. This role would also clearly fit within the current Dean Smith philosophy for full backs and allow both Targett and Cash to play to their strengths. During the past 2-3 years the wingback has been instrumental in philosophies held by Wolves, Sheffield United, Arsenal under Arteta, and Mourinho’s philosophy. Dean Smith would do well to learn from the managers higher up the table than him while putting his own spin on the concept, similar to how Chris Wilder has taken the 5 at the back system and revolutionized it.
In the higher areas of the pitch nothing revolutionary will be going on but the players could see benefits from the change in shape. In the 343, wingers will be under less pressure to track back so they could play the counter attack much more easily and drift inside to link up with the center forward and provide more goal threat. This clearly suits a player like Grealish as the captain would be able to drift around the pitch has he is known for. Also, this could give new life to Anwar El Ghazi and Trezeguet as both are more attacking minded players who consistently are looking to score, by allowing them more time in the box there are more opportunities for each to convert. The center forward role would be similar to Dean Smith’s current philosophy as well with the forward expected to link up play and poach the goals. This would fit Wesley and Keinan Davis nicely as both are good hold up players but Samatta will likely fall by the wayside as he plays like a second striker.
The midfield would also find more freedom under a 343. McGinn would have nothing between him and the striker and with 3 defenders behind him the Scot should feel free to run the channels between box to box. Douglas Luiz would be able to grow out of the defensive midfielder role into a more traditional central midfielder role in this system as well. This freedom would be allow the Brazilian to flash his skills in possessing and passing the ball more frequently along with the long shot ability that was on display against Bournemouth last year.
In the 352, things change a bit for the strikers and the wingbacks would be under a bit more pressure to provide the width. The largest change though would be placing Grealish in the center of the park in a preferred attacking midfielder role which would allow Villa to get him on the ball more and influence the game in a more meaningful way. This would also place the strikers in more defined roles with one playing the role of a target man and the other playing as a second striker. The target man role would be responsible for sitting in the box while poaching goals and playing in Grealish and the second striker would be utilizing the space created through the target man or Grealish’s passing. Currently, Villa have Wesley and Davis to fit the role of target man but as a second striker they are lacking with only Samatta able to play the role naturally. Due to this, the 352, relies on getting another striker in playing alongside Wesley or even two center forwards due to the Brazilian’s injury record.
The midfielders in the 352 also play a bit differently due to Grealish taking up real estate in the center of the park. With the Captain playing in front of McGinn and Douglas Luiz this puts less pressure on the pare to come forward and allows them to fall back a bit. For Douglas Luiz this may be beneficial as he has done well in the defensive mid role for the club and could play similarly in this system and provide cover for the defense behind him or just provide more solidity in the midfield in general. McGinn’s role as a box to box midfielder may be more dramatically impacted though as the Scot may not be instructed or allowed to go beyond Grealish in an effort to keep the shape.
The 3 at the back system is not traditional English football but has been used over the last few years to great success in the Premier League. Wolves and Sheffield United were able to utilize the system to engineer top half finishes and Arsenal recently used the system while a dramatic uptick in form occurred and launched them to the FA Cup Final and subsequent victory. A change to 3 at the back wont all of the sudden make Villa world beaters, but it would allow them to utilize their current talent more often and to enforce the identity that Dean Smith used during the restart: Defensive Stability.