Any excuse to use this again. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
With just a single day off since Saturday's 1-1 draw at Anfield, Villa are back in action, hosting Stoke City. No rest for the wicked and all that. Or the weary, and one would be forgiven for assuming that fatigue will be a factor; an already thin Villa squad has been decimated by injury, and Alex McLeish will not have the option of making very many changes in order to keep the team fresh. While it's true that Stoke are going to be playing on an identically short turn-around, Tony Pulis has a whole lot more flexibility than the Villa boss to put a less fatigues team on the pitch. While that's certainly not the only factor at play-and the relative youth of the Villa squad may well make it less of an issue than would be expected-against a big, physical team like Stoke it's all but guaranteed to have an impact, even if it's only in a tactical sense.
Playing deep and looking to counter is a fairly standard approach to counter-acting fatigue, but unfortunately that's not necessarily the best way to handle Stoke (especially if your goal is not to bore the supporters to death.) The occasional Peter Crouchinho wonder-strike aside, the Potters aren't exactly know for fluid possession and their ability to break down defenses. Stoke's attacking plan is functionally organized chaos, and against what is likely to be an inexperienced defense that has a demonstrated difficulty handling set plays, putting an emphasis on the prevention of open-play goals seems a sub-optimal strategy.
Of course, Stoke's high-pressure defensive style and Villa's likely personnel make it a stretch to believe that the home side will find it easy to dominate both possession and the game's tempo. It's really a tough position for Alex McLeish to be in, and unless he gets things pitch-perfect, he's going to get raked over the coals no matter what he does. (Not that he's done a whole lot to earn the benefit of the doubt, mind; it's just that this would be a difficult situation for any manager.) But realistically, Villa should be looking to go on the offensive early on. Good things can happen out of nothing when you're in the opponent's final third (see Chris Herd's goal against Liverpool) and presuming Villa would be happy with a point from this game (and they probably should be) then getting an early lead ought to be the primary goal.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Stoke is the better team (yes, that was painful to type, but it's true) and with the players Villa are forced to do without the gap is even larger. Even someone with a great deal of belief in the youngsters such as myself has to be practical in their expectations, and in a game like this, from a purely practical standpoint, I'd far rather have some of Villa's ailing old guard than the next generation of (hopefully) stars. At the same time, there's an excitement that goes along with knowing the kids will be getting another run-out. A youth-heavy Villa lineup has yet to put together a genuinely complete game, but the flashes have been there and you get the feeling it's going to happen before the year is out. Maybe this is the one. And if it is, there's that whole added bonus of safety being all but guaranteed.