In hindsight, Aston Villa’s 2021 summer transfer window looks a bit cracked and blurry: The men’s side spent over £90 million on Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendía, and Leon Bailey. That recruitment drive left obvious gaps in the midfield that meant no more than two of those players appeared in the same starting line-up. The side went on to underwhelm, finishing in 14th. While Ings and Buendía have played sufficient minutes in Steven Gerrard’s side to suggest they have a future in claret and blue, it is unclear if that future will be in Villa’s best eleven next year.
Bailey, however, was recruited for Dean Smith’s counter attacking style which heavily utilised wingers, something his pace and close ball control are well suited to. Gerrard’s preferred systems so far forego wingers for narrow 10s or two strikers. Likely exiting winger Anwar El Ghazi was quoted as saying, “The style of play introduced by new manager Steven Gerrard leaves no room for wingers like me.” Nevertheless, the club has invested heavily in the Jamaican, and Bailey’s explosive attacking talent is difficult to ignore. This begs the question, is there a way to use Bailey’s talents as an asset to this squad?
The permanent signing of guaranteed starter Coutinho adds another problem for Bailey, the Brazilian playmaker is not known for his defensive contribution. Bailey’s own defensive shortcomings mean that playing the pair together would leave Villa exposed; in fact, the pair have not impressed when starting together. A good example of that weakness is West Ham’s second goal during Villa’s visit to the London Stadium.
The introduction of Gerrard’s wingerless systems and Coutinho suggest Bailey is unlikely to be promoted to a starting role going forward. But his positive cameo in the loss against Arsenal suggest the winger might have a future for the Villans as an attacking ‘plan B.’
In this era of financial fair play, capped squads and data analysis, traditional Plan B’s seem to have fallen by the wayside. Bringing on a big striker to nick a late goal is a tactic of yesteryear, as better understanding of data has revealed crosses from the wing to be a poor creator of good goalscoring opportunities. FFP and squad caps have limited the resources for clubs outside the European elite, and teams now choose to spend those resources on improving plan A rather than an effective plan B.
However, the introduction of five substitutes to the Premier League may spark a resurgence in this type of Plan B tactic for clubs that can afford it. In Villa’s case, last year’s summer recruitment scheme could now be viewed as a forward thinking plan for the future.
As Villa are not in the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ they do not have the resources to just leave expensive signings like Bailey and Ings on the bench to lose their value in the transfer market next season. They need to be able to offer meaningful minutes to attract younger understudies to the club like the host of left backs the club are linked with. They also need to find ways to include exciting youth prospects like Kaine Kesler Hayden, and those who may not be suit to the narrow system like winger Jaden Philogene-Bidace. In short, they will need to provide productive gametime to players who are not ideally suited to playing narrowly—and do so in a way that can impact results. Implementing a modern Plan B utilising the strengths of the Villa bench players and taking advantage of the greater tactical flexibility five substitutes provides is an ideal solution.
Gerrard’s preferred 4-3-2-1 has places for both Emiliano Buendía and Coutinho, with Emiliano Buendía’s defensive work able to balance out Coutinho’s lack of it. Obviously, though, it uses just one striker. So far, this has left Danny Ings sitting on the bench while Ollie Watkins plays, and given Villa’s increasing use of counter-pressing this looks likely to remain the case. The alternative 4-3-1-2 diamond allows Ings into the side, but relinquishes some control of the ball in the final third and so is better suited to a counter-attacking performance.
An issue going forward is both these systems lack the natural width to stretch defences, which is why the full backs are expected to move upfield to provide it. Several of Bailey’s substitute appearances may provide a possible solution, as he as revealed his natural ability to widen play when functioning as the left footed winger playing in a more orthodox left sided winger role. On more than one occasion, this has created more space in the middle as the overload on the wing moves the opposition’s defenders out of their positions. This is something Manchester City did with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Raheem Sterling during the last match of the season to turn Villa’s 2-0 lead.
Gone may be the days of a dedicated target man, but in players like Bailey the side have the ability switch the match when opposition defenses set up to deal with Villa’s narrow system. Mimicking Manchester City’s wide front three using underlapping full backs or advanced 8s is one such way to use a Plan B. It would look like this in attack:
While defending in a 4-3-3, most top sides use the 2-3-5 structure with a back four to attack as it fills all the major attacking spaces (wing, central and half space), while having 5 players in a rest defense defending potential counter attacks. In this structure Bailey is in the orthodox winger position, this uses his excellent one on one talent to isolate him with an opposition full back and beat them with pace while giving him inside passing options. On the right side Philogene-Bidace, a young winger introduced last season, could play on his natural side; a position from which he gained an assist during an excellent performance against Barrow for Villa’s League Cup opener. Building play up from the right could allow for quick switches of play to Bailey in space on the left, something used to devastating effect against Everton. In this system Ings’ ability to play a false 9 role to link play with long passes could be used; delaying his arrival in the box would give the lethal finisher time to shoot. Returning loanee Kesler Hayden often uses underlapping runs into the half spaces, while starting right back Matty Cash has been using that space to great effect under Gerrard. Opening these spaces space also suits Villa’s 8s like John McGinn, Jacob Ramsey, and Carney Chukwuemeka.
No formation is invulnerable. This system leaves the players exposed to opposition counter attacks on the wings, particularly if the full backs join the attack, and so would require at least two of Villa’s midfielders to fill holding roles. As with many of Villa’s potential systems a defensively active 6 would be necessary, and the club have prioritised that in Boubacar Kamara.
With the five-substitution rule making its way to the Premier League, failing to prepare a Plan B would make the men’s squad weaker overall, and far less able to adapt to changing in game circumstances. Villa risk losing potent attacking options as well as vital points in the push for top eight places if they do not have a plan to include players like Leon Bailey.