Well, Stephen, what do you think about Villa's midfield?
As discussed earlier today, Aston Villa's depth is something of a cause for concern at a few positions with striker being fairly close to the top of the list. Gabriel Agbonlahor is hurt to start the season and given his injury history it's unlikely that this will be an isolated incident. Andreas Weimann and Nathan Delfouneso are promising young players, but most would likely agree that they're currently better suited to being impact subs and spot-starters than full-time regulars. It's still entirely possible that the team will add another striker during the summer window, but that's far from a given, and if it comes down to adding another striker or a new left back I'd greatly prefer the latter option. The reality is that, despite heading in the right direction, this club is still in the early stages of the rebuilding process. That's going to require Paul Lambert to get creative in the use of his players.
And what better place to start than up top? With only one starting-quality forward available at the start of the season, leaving a talented midfield player out of the starting XI in order to make way for a player like Weimann or Delfouneso isn't the most efficient use of resources. In contrast to the relatively think striker corps, Villa have a pretty solid selection of creative attacking midfield players; Brett Holman, Stephen Ireland, and Charles N'Zogbia all figure to be regularly featured in the first team, and all three tend to be at their best in the more advanced portion of a two-band midfield. Marc Albrighton and Samir Carruthers provide some depth in that area, and though Barry Bannan seems his best as more a deep-lying creative type alongside a more traditional ball-winner like Karim El Ahmadi, he's certainly capable of playing higher up the pitch if need-be.
In a two-striker system, there's only room for four players in midfield (assuming Lambert isn't planning to go three at the back, which seems a safe bet.) Currently, Villa have at least five -and possibly six, depending on how the Jean Makoun situation plays out- starting-caliber midfielders on the squad, with another three or four good enough to merit some time in the rotation. On a team with better and deeper striker depth, that tradeoff might be acceptable, but at the moment that isn't the case with this team. Villa has some very obvious weaknesses, but the quality of their midfield doesn't appear to be one of them. The key is finding places for them to play without trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Moving to a lone-striker setup helps to facilitate that that, and though the mere mention of such a system may well cause some Villa fans to break out into a cold sweat upon remembering Alex McLeish's 4-5-1, it's important to keep in mind that formations are inherently neutral; just as there are teams in the world that play incredibly boring football despite employing a three striker system, plenty of sides find a way to be a great deal of fun to watch with just one out-and-out striker.
One of my favorite things about Gerard Houllier's tactical approach was the way in which he encouraged a great deal of movement amongst the second attacking band. The swapping of positions between Albrighton, Stewart Downing, and Ashley Young was an absolute joy to watch, and it was often incredibly effective. That kind of thing was never going to happen last year, owing not only to the loss of Downing and Young but also just as much to Alex McLeish's rigidity and lack of tactical innovation. But with Lambert's commitment to attacking football, the opportunity for that approach is there once again. And this group of midfielders is arguably even better suited to playing in a fluid attacking midfield system than the one at Houllier's disposal.
Holman and N'Zogbia are both nominally wide players, but both are quite adept at cutting inside and acting as central playmakers or attacking the goal. Ireland is something of the opposite; he's definitely a central player, but he's very comfortable sliding out wide and finding space to create down the flank. Put them all together and you have a very potent attacking midfield, perfectly well suited to slotting in ahead of KEA and Bannan/Makoun and unleashing holy hell on the opposition. And the versatility of those three makes it very easy for Villa to change their tactical approach on the fly; all three are very solid defenders, so if a particular game calls for a more negative approach it's quite simple to shift into a 4-5-1 to crowd out the midfield. Conversely, this kind of 4-2-3-1 can quite easily become a 4-3-3 or 4-2-4 if need be. That's one of the real advantages of a 4-2-3-1, and for the first time in a long time Villa has the players needed to run that kind of system effectively.
This isn't really outside-the-box thinking, but it's not the kind of thing we're used to seeing from Aston Villa. And even if this is the direction Lambert goes, an addition to the striker corps would be most welcome. But the team's current lack of a proven partner for Darren Bent doesn't in and of itself mean that it's going to continue struggling to score goals. There's a whole lot of attacking talent on this squad, even if a lot of the players don't have an ‘F' next to their name on the team sheet.