The summer period for Aston Villa has been eventful to say the least – from winding up orders and threats of administration to new owners, potential managerial replacements and rumours (highly suspect) of £20m signings.
For those accustomed to life as a Villa fan, there is no shortage of affairs to be discussed. With such happenings down at Villa Park, the team’s pre-season schedule has become quite the dichotomy – it has been overshadowed by our financial woes. In the next breath, it is the medium in which we have found our escape from the club’s turmoil, thus drowning out the noise from the overshadowing figure.
Taking Inspiration from an ex-Villan?
As most are aware, and if you aren’t, where were you all summer? The England national team rekindled the pride in the ‘Three Lions’ after making it to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia. A huge part of that is down to ex-Villa centre-back, Gareth Southgate as he implemented a 3-5-2, possession based style of football, a relatively un-English playing style.
It’s successes have been well noted across the football world and now it seems our manager, Steve Bruce, has bucked the trend and may divert to the system as he bids to get Villa promoted.
Our first, serious pre-season game came against Walsall as is familiar with our summer routine, comfortably beating them 4-1 thanks to a hattrick from talismanic midfielder, Conor Hourihane.
A back three of James Chester, Tommy Elphick and Alan Hutton has become commonplace with the returning Ritchie De Laet featuring at wing-back. With three wins and a loss in four proper fixtures, the signs seem to be good – for the record I don’t consider Telford or Kidderminster to be fully-fledged first team games.
What has been apparent, despite the level of opposition, has been our ability to retain possession and playing out from the back, traits that has been lacking, especially away from home. This playing from the back can help build attacks by committing more men as an extra defender is there to cover; with the versatility of Jonathan Kodjia and Albert Adomah, the system could be used well to overload both central areas and the flanks.
My only worry with the 3-5-2 system in general is that without versatile players, the final product can be somewhat abject due to the rigidity, a problem that England may well have suffered from in the World Cup.
Our four pre-season results:
Vs Walsall: 4-1 W
Vs Burton Albion: 4-0 W
Vs West Ham Utd: 3-1 L
Vs Dynamo Dresden: 2-1 W
Fresh Legs and Old Heads
Whether dictated by a lack of spending funds or an eventual new found common sense, Steve Bruce has surprisingly given game time to the ‘youngsters’ such as Mitchell Clark and Jake Doyle-Hayes.
The return of Andre Green has been welcomed and with three goals in the four games, his exploits have put him in a position to start on Monday night’s league opener against Hull.
Ritchie De Laet is another returning man after a loan spell at Belgian club Royal Antwerp and apart from the usual names of Jack Grealish and James Chester, he would be one of the first names on the team sheet. His attacking ability is extremely understated as well as offering good cover without the ball.
After a rather disappointing last couple of months of the season in my humble opinion, Albert Adomah has looked revitalised and shown he can offer an impact in a number of roles. What goes overlooked is his ability when defending, also in transition from both attack and defence – a start at left wing-back may not be such a surprise.
Overall, considering the state we were in a mere two months ago and the loss of players we have endured, pre-season has been welcome break and a good experience for the upcoming names from the U23 squad.
A Trip to the East Coast
Steve Bruce knows the KC stadium and surrounding areas rather well having been manager there before but an outing there last season produced a drab 0-0 stalemate.
Villa have failed to beat the ‘Tigers’ in their last three meetings but with an overall record of 18 wins, 9 draws and 6 losses, the signs are good for an opening day win.
The advantage may be in Villa’s favour and despite numerous losses of our own, Hull have lost the likes of Michael Dawson, Allan McGregor, Sebastien Larsson and their star-man Abel Hernandez.
We may have gone throughout pre-season adopting a 3-5-2 formation, without a natural left-footed wing-back, I believe reverting to a version of a 4-1-4-1 may be the best approach.
Jed Steer will start in goal despite the arrival of Andre Moreira from Atletico Madrid. Chester and Elphick get the nod at the centre of the back four with De Laet and Hutton occupying the right and left-back roles respectively.
Birkir Bjarnason, a seemingly forgotten and undeservedly so man will act as the pivot for the midfield in the holding role he played so well in, in a stretch after the Forest away game last season.
Jack Grealish obviously starts being possibly the best talent in the league but the place beside him is one for grabs in my opinion. Both Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury can be guilty of drifting by in games; both can have their moments but with a hat-trick in pre-season, I think Hourihane will edge it.
Andre Green on the left and Albert Adomah on the right wing are obvious choices for me, both have impressed and their pace makes them extremely dangerous. Both have accrued numerous goals during the warm ups and they can both play wing-back if in-game tactics dictate to moving to the 3-5-2.
Jonathan Kodjia will likely start despite only scoring once in the four aforementioned pre-season games. His versatility and movement coupled with injuries in our striking options leaves him as a shoe-in.
My starting XI: Steer; De Laet, Chester, Elphick, Hutton; Bjarnason, Lansbury/Hourhane, Grealish, Green, Adomah; Kodjia.
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By Jack Cudworth