How Aston Villa employ their most potent threats, such as Ashley Young, will go a long way towards determining how their season ends up playing out. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
We've talked a lot today about the squad; if you weren't aware of some of these players before, you should be know. You'll also have a fairly reasonable grasp of this team's strengths and weaknesses, players to keep an eye on, players whose performances are of heightened importance, and so on. This is clearly of vital importance, but it certainly does not tell us the entire story. At the highest levels of the game, tactical sophistication if exceedingly important. While the gulf in talent between the elite teams and the relegation candidates is enormous, there are no truly bad teams in the English Premier League (when the context of their direct competition is removed, obviously) and every team employs at least one or two truly special players. If a manager is able to use his personnel in as effective a manner as possible, neutralize the opponent's strengths and exploit their weaknesses, seemingly slanted playing fields can find themselves immediately leveled.
That brings us to several questions then; what tactics will Kevin MacDonald employ come Saturday and, if applicable, into the future? What types of formations would be ideal given Villa's talent? What adjustments might be necessary against opponents with specific strengths and weaknesses? The first question is quite simple to (kind of) answer; I don't know. With Martin' O'Neill, this was easy; he's going to put four of the meanest dudes in the English Premier League at the back and then he's going to try to outrun you. If that doesn't work he's going to have Ashley Young pound cross after cross towards the hulking giant in the middle of the box. He's been largely the same tactical manager his entire career, so there's little guesswork involved.
With Kevin MacDonald, well, who knows? I've never seen Villa's reserve team in action, though I would imagine that they're tactically similar to the big club for obvious reasons. I've seen the lineups plenty of times, but that really tells us little about the formation and role of the players on the pitch; generally Villa were said to be playing a 4-4-2 last season, and while that's technically accurate it often behaved in a manner not generally expected of the shape. The starting XI is nice, but it doesn't tell you all that much. I can make educated guesses, of course. It seems likely that Villa will play in something close to the shape we saw much of last season, or perhaps something closer to what we've seen in the pre-season, with Ashley Young playing a sort of hybrid withdrawn forward/center attacking mid type of role. It's also possible that Villa will come out tomorrow playing in a traditional pyramid, with Richard Dunne playing center forward. MacDonald is an unknown quantity, and it's largely pointless to speculate. We'll see in the morning.
The other questions are a different matter. We know how the players are, what types of things they are capable of, what holes exist in their all-around game and so forth. Given what we know, we can think about shape, space, style and approach. The defense is fairly straightforward; in most situations, a fairly flat back four will be the most effective use of Villa's defensive talent. With Luke Young or Eric Lichaj in the mix, you can push the fullbacks forward a bit and use their runs to provide some width from the back, allowing the more explosive players to move towards the center of the defense in an attempt to create some confusion. That strategy isn't always ideal, however; teams with strong defensive midfielders playing wide can thwart attacking play from the likes of Stephen Warnock and Luke Young fairly easily, allowing the opposing fullbacks to channel the wide attacking players towards the touchline. If things break down in the attack, you're left with your wide defenders advanced and an opportunity for a defensive mismatch on the counter. This was, in fact, a strategy that Aston Villa were fond of employing last season, with some fairly explosive results. This isn't to say that attacking play from the fullbacks should be discouraged; far from it in fact, as I would love to see more attacking intent from those positions. But such a strategy does involve a certain amount of risk, and that's something that must be acknowledged.
The midfield is where things get slightly more interesting. There's a fair amount of talent here and a comparable amount of flexibility. In almost every scenario, Stilyan Petrov will be the pivot. He is an accurate passer with excellent vision even on his worst days, and it's really the only role he is capable of playing. Nigel Reo-Coker would make a strong pairing as a defensive midfielder (as Gareth alluded to earlier,) and if he is utilized in such a way then Villa's defensive presence becomes even more imposing. Things change if Stephen Ireland comes aboard; Ireland is very much an attacking midfielder, and though he can play box to box he gives you nowhere near the contribution defensively that Nigel Reo-Coker can provide. Ireland isn't necessarily a bad defensive player, however, and his creative abilities make him the better choice in nearly every situation. There is an argument to be made that Reo-Coker and Ireland would be the ideal midfield partnership given their respective skillsets, but as long as the team are under the watch of a caretaker manager it seems implausible that Villa's captain will be asked to take on a reduced role.
Venture out wide and the real possibilities begin to open up. Ashley Young has spent most of his time with Aston Villa on the wing, but with the seeming emergence of Marc Albrighton as a legitimate Premier League-caliber player, the team suddenly find themselves with a few more options. Downing and Young are certainly a formidable pair to have to contend with, and the club could certainly choose to go that route, employing Albrighton as a substitute should the need arise. They could also shift Young towards the middle and use Albrighton and Downing as wide midfielders. This scenario would involve a lone striker up top (ideally Agbonlahor, but Carew or Delfouneso would work as well) with Young playing as a withdrawn forward on one side and Ireland as an attacking midfielder on the other. This type of formation certainly concedes some defensive capability in the midfield, but if anyone can handle the added pressure it would be Villa's back line, and the attacking implications are frankly mouth-watering. It's not a strategy that I would employ against a side with a wealth of dangerous attackers, such as Chelsea or Manchester City, but against a team whose game is typically based on a slow buildup it could be quite dangerous indeed.
The 4-3-3 is also an option, although I'd almost prefer to see Young and Agbonlahor on the wings with Carew in the center in such a scenario. It's a relatively fun formation to watch, but it's not really an efficient use of talent as Villa are long on attack oriented midfielders and somewhat short on holding midfielders. You want your best players on the pitch, and with a 4-3-3 you're either sitting or playing out of position at least one of Ireland or Downing. Put Agbonlahor in the middle and you're losing one of the main weapons of the 4-3-3, the cross from the wing towards the big man in the center of the area.
And of course, there's the 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 has been around for as long as it has for a few very simple reasons; it's balanced, it possesses no glaring weaknesses, it's adaptable and it works. Of course, the problem is that while all of these things are true on paper, most of them aren't all that true in practice. The 4-4-2 is legitimately adaptable, and for a team in flux such as Villa it might be the most sensible option. The sad fact of the matter, however, is that the 4-4-2 is kind of boring, and everyone knows how to defend it. By playing a straight 4-4-2 you're largely ceding any tactical advantage you might have had. Martin O'Neill was capable of changing the team's shape on the fly, and it's a big part of the reason that his use of the formation didn't bother me as much as it bothered others. Most managers aren't as good at in-game management as Martin O'Neill, however, and I'd prefer to see it abandoned once a new manager is brought in.
Villa have plenty of options, and while I have my preferences I'd say that more than anything I'd like to see them adapt to their opposition. There's far too much chance involved to pass up the opportunity to take any possible competitive edge, and there's little that is more frustrating than watching your team employ a style that plays right into the hands of the opposition. The team's strengths are the speed of their attacking players and the strength of their backline; how they take advantage of those strengths will differ based on their opponent. That more than anything else will define Aston Villa's season.
(Note: This is a fairly unsophisticated bit of thinking out loud. For a more thorough and analytical look at Villa's tactical options, see Dan's excellent post at Aston Villa Central.)