BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Barry Bannan of Aston Villa challenges Marouane Fellaini of Everton during the Barclays Premier league match between Aston Villa and Everton at Villa Park on August 25, 2012 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
One of the recurring themes so far in this young season has been Aston Villa's inability to create much of anything from wide areas. Paul Lambert's decision to run with a narrow midfield formation has certainly contributed to some extent, but that's likely more of a symptom than the cause; put simply, Villa just don't really have a whole lot to work with where wingers are concerned. Charles N'Zogbia is the only natural wide player available for selection at the moment, and he's at his most effective (or was, back when he was a good) taking on players and cutting inside as opposed to stay out on the flanks and getting dangerous balls into the box.
In Villa's 3-1 loss to Everton, Chris Herd played on the right side of Villa's midfield triangle, and though I'm a big Herd fan "creative" isn't the first word that comes to mind. Against West Ham, it was Brett Holman on the left with N'Zogbia on the right, and it became clear pretty early on the Holman was inclined to drift back inside which created a bit of a logjam in the center. Without a whole lot support from the fullbacks, you end up with the kind of horrible crossing statistics we've seen in the first two teams. It's entirely possible to play very effective attacking football without being effective in the crossing game, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that this team isn't likely to be all that good without presenting something of a credible threat from wide areas.
So, what to do? Obviously, the first choice of many would be to make an addition via the transfer market. With just under two days left until the close of the window that's still a possibility, but given the names to which Villa have been connected and the typical expense of quality wingers, it seems unlikely. Marc Albrighton will be back relatively soon and that will give Lambert another option, but it's still going to be at least a month until he's back to form, not to mention that there are lingering questions over his ability to be an impact player at the Premier League level. Gabby Agbonlahor is on a similar recovery schedule, but if it's crossing ability Villa is after he's not likely to offer much of a solution. It's not a great situation, to be sure.
So, how about Barry Bannan?
This is a pivotal season for Bannan, and despite his shortcomings he offers some things that are quite lacking in this Villa side. Right now Paul Lambert is facing something of a dilemma; is the creativity and vision that Bannan provides worth the risk that he'll be out-muscled and exposed as a defensive liability? It's an issue given the system Lambert is trying to implement and the personnel with which he has to work. So, if Bannan is a mixed-blessing (at best) in the middle and Villa need a bit more creativity from wide areas, what's the harm at giving it a try? It isn't as though he hasn't played there before, and with Nathan Baker seemingly the first-choice left back at the moment (though that could change with the signing of Joe Bennett) the need for defensive cover from left midfield on that side is less important than it otherwise would be.
Bannan isn't the speediest player you'll ever see, but with Bent and N'Zogbia on the pitch to stretch the defense on the counter and Villa placing a higher priority on possession that's not so much of an issue. He's a fine dribbler which is certainly something you look for in a winger, and there's little question that he's more than capable of sending in a dangerous ball; in fact, his most dangerous passes are the kind you'd like to see coming from the flanks a bit more often in this team.
Is it the perfect solution? Certainly not, and I'm not even suggesting that Bannan ought to make the switch to becoming a wide player full-time. But with Paul Lambert still tinkering with the squad and looking for answers, it's an idea that has merit. More to the point, there aren't really any perfect solutions to the problems this team is facing right now. But part of the exciting thing about having a team full of young players still finding their place in the league is that you aren't really sure what they're capable of doing. Plenty of once-disappointing prospects have turned their careers around upon switching positions. I like a lot of what Bannan can do from a central position, but if ever there were a time to experiment, this would be it. He's got the tools to at least make it worth a try; maybe he'll show us something new.