All the talk surrounding Saturday's fixture at Villa Park has been focused on dropping underperforming players and trying something new following Sunday's dreadful performance away to Newcastle United. Steven Gerrard has even alluded to this himself by saying..
"I believe there will be changes to the team. That's only normal after a performance like that and everyone needs to be ready next week."
Interpreting what Gerrard means when he says "changes" is what this discussion will centre around. Many Villa supporters have taken it to mean wholesale changes with nearly every underperforming player, of which there were many, being dropped while others believe a more conservative approach will be favoured by the manager. With all that in mind, let's jump into some changes that Gerrard and his coaching team could realistically make. Be sure to stick around until the end for a final starting eleven prediction.
With Ezri Konsa still suspended thanks to his second red card of the season, the back four will likely be the area of the pitch where we see the least changes. For this reason Calum Chambers is almost guaranteed to get another start alongside Captain Tyrone Mings who, although had a terrible outing against Leeds United, was arguably the best of a bad bunch against Newcastle on the weekend.
Two players who really didn't cover themselves in glory were both fullbacks - Matty Cash and Lucas Digne. Neither player can hand on heart say they deserve to still be in the squad come Saturday but given Villa's backup options, they may well be. Having loaned out Matt Targett, only Ashley Young remains as left back cover and although this is a realistic option, Lucas Digne at home to a relegation threatened Watford still feels like the more positive route to take. It's a similar story for Cash who, with Kesler-Hayden sent back out on loan, isn't under pressure by any player on the bench other than 18-year-old Ben Chrisene who could potentially fill either fullback position. As exciting a prospect as Chrisene is, an appearance off the bench would be a lot more likely than his first Premier League start coming this weekend.
Trying to figure out Villa's midfield must be giving one of the best Premier League midfielders of all time a right headache. The problem is clear for all to see but solving it is far from straight forward. Having Douglas Luiz sitting in the defensive midfield role behind John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey just isn't working and resulted in Luiz having one of his worst displays in an Aston Villa shirt to date on Sunday. It's not Luiz's natural position and nearly every time he gets on the ball, he looks lost and often ends with him playing the ball backwards or giving it away completely. Having still not signed a defensive midfielder in the last window, and with Marvelous Nakamba still being on the sideline, it's causing some real issues and means Gerrard has to make a tough decision before this Saturday.
The first option would be to just stick with the Brazilian but that feels highly unlikely as when mentioning changes, Luiz is one of the first players that comes to mind. The second option is a straight swap for either Morgan Sanson or the young and upcoming Tim Iroegbunam. Both players come with caveats though as Sanson is not a natural DM and Villa could easily run into the same issue we already have with Luiz. Tim Iroegbunam on the other hand is a proper DM but, much like Ben Chrisene, is severely lacking Premier League experience having not even made an appearance off the bench at this point. With that being said, if there's a game to make a statement by starting the youngster, it's this one.
This leads me to the third and more likely option which is that Gerrard decides to tweak the formation and double up in that position with John McGinn being the more likely to drop back, maybe alongside the inexperienced Iroegbunam. It's no secret that McGinn always feels handcuffed in this defensive role, but given his poor performance against Newcastle, it may be that his only options are this or the bench. In theory this would free up Ramsey (who has probably done enough previously to keep his spot) to play further up the pitch as the sole number 10. This may not be ideal as his best play has come from the midfield position but needs must and he can always drop back when required.
Looking at the attacking three, there's a strong chance that the only player who keeps his spot is the main man himself - Philippe Coutinho. Going off the theory that Villa might go with two defensive midfielders, the usual game plan of playing two number 10's might well go out the window, and with it, Buendia's place in the team. It feels harsh to drop Buendia after the player was in such a rich vein of form for so long, but if Gerrard wants a reaction then this is one way to get it from the Argentine. If Leon Bailey is fit enough to start then don't be surprised to see him take that attacking spot on the right hand side with both him and Coutinho maybe playing a little wider than we usually see under Gerrard.
The final position up for debate is of course the striker. Ollie Watkins has undoubtedly been on a poor run of form compared to last season but he'll know that, and for the record, the last thing he needs is moronic so called "supporters" sending him abuse on social media, so please don't be that person.
There's a large portion of the fan base who assume Danny Ings gets the start here but I'm not convinced. In some people's minds, players seem to some how get a lot better when we don't see them every week and that feels like the case for Ings. It's worth remembering that the few times we have seen him in recent months, he hasn't looked any better than Watkins. Sure, there's a fair argument to be made that Ings could get back to his best with a proper run in the team but don't be shocked (or abusive) if Watkins gets one more chance against Watford this weekend. This final position could honestly be a 50/50 call.
Admittedly all these changes do feel a bit extreme and some might even point to Gerrard completely ripping up the plan and starting again which is never a good look. Hopefully that isn't the case though, there's nothing wrong with mixing up formations and styles of play from time to time, especially in a season where midtable mediocrity feels almost unavoidable at this point. Having a second system that the coaching team can fall back on when days like last Sunday come about can only be a good thing. However
Villa line up on Saturday, a change of attitude and more energy will certainly be needed so let's get behind the team and give them all the encouragement they need. UTV.