With the EFL Championship season nearly upon us I thought I would take a look at what Steve Bruce may have in his mind, formation and tactics wise, going into the season opener away at Hull City on Monday.
Starting with a diamond shape and some quick fire notes on some of the players, I wanted to see how some of these Aston Villa players could affect the structure and tactics of the starting eleven.
Preseason and the Jack Grealish conundrum
At the time of writing Aston Villa fans are still unsure whether Jack Grealish will be staying especially with the news Spurs are looking to make a bid for Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook. Jack Grealish has been heavily involved in pre season and has looked sharp and raring to go but whether that will be at Villa Park remains to be seen.
The Scottish Cafu
Alan Hutton, especially at left back, would still be a safer option over Taylor as I believe his contribution in the playoff semi final games against Middlesbrough alone showed exactly the qualities and toughness needed in the Championship. A new contract shows the faith Bruce has in the Scotsman and his aggression and tough tackling and the balance he brings to the back four seems to work. But with the news Joe Bryan of Bristol City maybe a transfer target this could be even better attacking wise.
Two up top
Now is the time I feel to play two up front. Jonathan Kodija struggles when being a lone front man as does Scott Hogan and the two would work well together with Jonathan Kodija preferring to drop deeper and Scott Hogan loving the timed runs in behind. I would hope for a 20-25 goal haul between these two at least especially with Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah supplying good service.
Last year, although getting to the playoffs, going forward wasn’t much of a problem but in key games the finishing let Villa down with games at Derby County, Millwall and Middlesbrough all getting away from Villa with them failing to score a goal in two of those games all toward the business end of the season and in all three games they played with a sole central striker in Lewis Grabban.
Back to the diamond shape above and in my opinion this is Jack Grealish’s most suited role. His dribbling ability in these areas means in attacking phases he can play between the lines but also be able to do his defensive work as well.
This shape can also be easily tweaked slightly to make the flat 4-4-2 with Jack on the left hand side of midfield but this is not ideal of course.
To Thor or not to Thor?
Birkir Bjarnason, affectionately know as Thor to some fans, has possibly shown enough in pre season to be in the starting eleven ahead of Mile Jedinak and Glenn Whelan although either of the three have the defensive ability but can be limiting forward thinking wise but overall Birkir Bjarnason is the more mobile of the three. The only issue with this set up is that it could leave Ahmed El Mohamady and Alan Hutton exposed at full back but there should be enough defensive know how in this 11 to cope with that.
Hit the road Jack
It is clear Jack Grealish is the most vital cog in the Aston Villa’s mechanism and is somewhat of a talisman but can Villa still function without him? The simple answer is of course is that they will have to and there are alternatives.
This flat 4-4-2, omitting Jack Grealish in the starting eleven, could well be a good option for Villa should he leave the club.
The full backs can still get forward knowing Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury are able to cover the respective defensive third areas on either flank should there be a turnover in possession by the opposition. The former still has the role of backing up the left hand side with the pace of Andre Green who often opts to dart inside the opposition midfield and defensive line.
Jonathan Kodija, as mentioned before, likes to drop deeper to receive the ball which means runs from Albert Adomah and Andre Green can be found by balls laid off to Conor Hourihane or Henri Lansbury.
The favored shape of last season, the 4-1-4-1
Within this system Aston Villa found there niche and it brought them relative success given that when Steve Bruce switched to this shape in early November the charge for the playoffs really began and his team picked up momentum bar a few stumbling blocks.
Glenn Whelan was usually deployed as the holding midfielder along with Mile Jedinak on occasion and it worked well.
Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury will have more freedom to go forward meaning Aston Villa will have a type of front five but with added pace in Andre Green instead of the more reserved earlier crosser and West Ham loanee Robert Snodgrass.
Full backs will still have a license to support Green and Albert Adomah down the flanks and overall this is a more solid, albeit defensively, formation.
One issue is that Aston Villa would have that lone front man but this time it will be a more mobile center forward in Jonathan Kodija who does have the ability to hold the ball up and has pace unlike Lewis Grabban who was on loan from Bournemouth last season.
The typical 4-2-3-1 was only employed on a handful of occasions last season by Steve Bruce possibly due to Robert Snodgrass and his defensive limitations in covering his full back but this shouldn’t be a problem in Andre Green who being young and hungry has the energy to do what Snodgrass wouldn’t always do.
Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane again will be allowed to support Jonathan Kodija or Scott Hogan whichever would be selected as either in this shape could do the job given that they would be guaranteed support from the attacking central midfield position which could be filled by Henri Lansbury or better still, but whisper it, Jack Grealish.
Service and support would be plentiful to the striker from Andre Green and Albert Adomah both not only having pace and crossing ability but also both can play on either flank for differing deliveries in to the box. When attacking, the pair can afford to be much more direct and cut in field more to open up shooting opportunities for themselves.
Two of Conor Hourihane, Birkir Bjarnason, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak will be deployed in the two holding midfield positions and if the mixture of the two is right and the double pivot (one defensively minded) is used in the attacking phase this shape could prove fruitful.
4-3-3? probably not
This brings me on to the shape Steve Bruce favored against Dynamo Dresden in the last pre season game and one I haven’t covered yet, the 4-3-3 (apart from the awful 3-5-2, Bruce doesn’t yet have three center backs in his squad). For this I have used some positional data to show the average positions taken up by Aston Villa players during the game.
In the first image we have the first half which was the majority of the game where the eleven on the pitch stayed the same and in the following two images show some positions after some of the changes but throughout the game the same 4-3-3 shape remained. Bruce didn’t play this shape bar on two occasions last year so it was refreshing to see this happen.
I know, it’s a pre season game and I could have picked from a few but I chose the Dynamo Dresden game because of the shape Aston Villa set up in and although it being obvious from these graphics Aston Villa took advantage of Dynamo Dresden’s weaker left hand side the numbers were better pass wise than we have seen last year especially from Glenn Whelan who made 64 passes in the game (he made an average of 43 per game last year) this meant Whelan was much more of an outlet. Jack Grealish received 16 passes off Whelan and Hutton 14 so could this mean Steve Bruce sees Whelan as the first choice CDM? Has he got the energy that Bjarnason possesses? Only time will tell.