All the talk surrounding Aston Villa last week was about the changes Steven Gerrard would make, and just how extreme they would be. Aided by comments made to the media by Gerrard, changes to the team weren't just predicted, they were expected. As 2 o'clock on Saturday afternoon drew closer, Villa fans across the globe were getting ready to discuss all these supposed big changes. It was surprising, then, when the packed train carriage I was in towards Witton began to fill with moans and groans from supporters as news broke about the team. Aside from a straight swap that saw Ollie Watkins drop to the bench and Danny Ings take his place, the starting eleven was the exact same team which lost in embarrassing fashion to Newcastle United the week prior.
The majority of Villa fans did not seem happy and the result which followed did little to ease tensions either. Boo's rang around Villa Park as Watford were able to escape B6 with all three points, a rare feeling for their supporters but one which is beginning to feel a little too familiar to the home support. So, here we are again, asking the same question - Will there be any big changes this time around? In this article, much like last week, I'm going to attempt to predict the changes we might see this Saturday as well as predicting a full starting eleven at the end.
A stubborn formation
One of the biggest takeaways from Saturday's lack of changes is Gerrard's stance on his formation. With different line-up predictions came many suggestions of different formations. Once again though, Villa played a narrow 4-3-2-1 with Coutinho and Buendia acting as the two "number 10's", and both full backs bombing forward whenever possible which would often result in too much space behind, especially if McGinn or Ramsey failed to get back. Despite the fact this formation feels like it's been figured out already, it appears as if Gerrard and his coaching staff want to plough ahead with it regardless, so don't be surprised to see it implemented once again against Brighton.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Many people over the past few days have pointed to an old Michael Owen video (I know, I know) where he brings up just how poor Liverpool were under Jürgen Klopp in the early days of his very attacking 4-3-3 formation. The Liverpool manager of course would stick to his guns and we all know how that story ended. Not for one second am I, or anybody else sharing that video for that matter, suggesting that Gerrard's Villa will end up being as successful as Klopp's Liverpool. The point remains however, that persisting might just weed out the weaker members of the team and give the backroom staff a clearer idea of positions to improve upon in the summer.
It's also worth noting that in the second half against Watford, Gerrard did test out a couple of new tactics which appeared to reflect a diamond formation, which saw John McGinn fill in at defensive midfield after Douglas Luiz was hooked for Ollie Watkins. If anything, Villa only got worse after the change and even looked to go 4-4-2 at one point, once again showcasing the complete lack of chemistry between Watkins and Ings. That disasterous experiment in the second half would have only cemented the manager's faith in the original set up, so for better or for worse, I wouldn't expect major changes to the formation at the Amex.
Who's up for the chop?
With that being said, it will still be shocking to many if we don't see some personnel changes within that well worn set-up. So what can we expect? The most obvious addition will be the returning Ezri Konsa who will be available for selection again following his two game ban. As awful as Konsa was against Leeds, he still has more than enough goodwill in the bank to walk straight back into this team. Calum Chambers has certainly split opinion between the Villa faithful, with some believing he's been clumsy and full of mistakes, while others sympathise with the defender having to deal with the amount of space opposition players get thanks to our attacking fullbacks. Whichever side of the fence you land on, it's hard not to argue for the return of arguably the most underrated centre back in the league.
This doesn't necessarily mean Chambers will return to the bench however.. Looking towards the three players Gerrard was keen to sub off early against Watford may give us a slight indication as to who might be up for the chop against Brighton. Two of the three hooked players (Cash and Luiz) both play in positions which Chambers has succeeded in before. Given how fast and energetic the fullbacks need to be in this system, and how well Matty Cash has played earlier in the season, he looks the more likely of the two to keep his spot.
If Luiz does indeed lose his spot then it's not out the realms of possibility to see Chambers step into that role. Granted he hasn't done it regularly since his loan spell at Fulham, but there were reports of him playing there in Villa's behind closed doors friendly games so I wouldn't rule this one out. He would likely perform the defensive duties better than Morgan Sanson potentially could and this would also avoid the headache of playing McGinn in one of his least favoured positions. The other option is of course the young Tim Iroegbunam, but given he never got any minutes at home to relegation threatened Watford, a start away to Brighton feels even less likely.
Elsewhere there's an argument to be made that the third subbed player, Emi Buendia, may also be fighting for his spot. Luckily for him though his potential replacement, Leon Bailey, still looks miles off the pace while Bertrand Traore still recovers from injury, so Buendia will likely get the nod once again. The final decision Gerrard and his coaching team will need to make is the classic debate of Watkins vs. Ings. Although he faded towards the end, Danny Ings probably did just enough to hold onto the shirt after Watkins came off the bench and barely affected the game. Watkins on for Ings around the 60 minute mark will probably be the right play for this game, depending how the match plays out of course.
If we've learned anything from this past weekend, aside from Villa will always ruin your weekend no matter who we play, it's that drastic wholesale changes will not be made in response to a terrible performance. So needless to say, we can probably expect a similar line-up once again this Saturday. After the failed experiment that was the second half against Watford, we're very unlikely to see a change in formation and given this season is already a write-off, maybe that's a sensible decision. Villa are nine points above the drop zone (with five teams between us and Watford) and a whopping thirteen points from seventh place, so with this in mind, why not use the remaining fixtures to perfect the formation Gerrard clearly wants to persist with? The same goes for personnel, if Villa are determined to make this system work then it needs to be drilled into the players who are more likely to play in it next season.
The only change I can really predict is Konsa in for Luiz, even if it's only temporary to take Luiz out of the firing line. Konsa will of course slot back into his familiar centre back partnership with Mings while I envision Chambers stepping into the defensive midfield role for extra cover. There's always a chance Watkins gets in ahead of Ings or Bailey makes his first start for a long time, but it's probably more likely we see that pair come off the bench. No matter what the line-up is against the Seagulls, a complete uplift of energy is needed by Steven Gerrard's claret and blue army to get Villa's season back on track.