With this season effectively over for Villa, naturally us fans are looking ahead to what appears to be a defining transfer window and pre-season. We don't know the ins and outs of the transfer plans of course, but piecing together the bits we are being fed through various media outlets, we get a good gist of what to expect. But as important as the recruitment will be; what we become from it through a solid pre-season is just as important.
I was speaking to someone recently, who's opinion i respect, about transfer dealings this summer and what the plans could be when it comes to deploying the new recruits. He made a point that so far Gerrard has not been wedded to a specific style, and hasn't really eluded to having a preference in the future. I believe there maybe something in this. In fact, in his interview on the Overlap with Gary Neville, he was repetitively stating that the type of player he wants has a winning mentality, and that they need belief and adaptability.
This idea of adaptability has already shone through in his time here, as he has tried a variety of setups, with differing personnel in each one. At Rangers, he used a couple of different formations (4231 being one, to bring stability) before settling on his 433 with two number 10s. The adaptability in that situation then came from the plethora of different 10s he signed. So perhaps the observation that tactics are almost a secondary, after his desirable targets have been brought in, has some merit.
Now, onto the main point of the article, but with the idea of tying into the intro. It's not a secret that Villa need a proper defensive midfielder, it's been something we've lacked for a couple of seasons now. That may sound harsh on Nakamba, but as solid as he has been this season, he has his limitations. Those limitations lie within his ball playing abilities, as he hasn't shown as of yet that he has the range of pass. He can be handy in laying the ball off, or making a short line breaking pass, but hasn't yet displayed the ability to carry the ball forward, or play a long switch ball.
When it comes to already touted transfer targets, the likes of Kondogbia, Kamara, and Sangare are all exciting names to be hearing about. All extremely talented, and ideal for our team. Personally, i think Kamara is the most suited for us, as he can drop into defence when we're in possession, sweep up and intercept, and can also step further into midfield and play a precise progressive pass. Sangare is slightly different, but equally capable defensively. He likes to press aggressively in this PSV side, and carry the ball forward before playing into a teammate.
Kondogbia is a truly solid defensive midfielder, but has the gift of being tidy on the ball too, even under high pressure. The difference between Kondogbia and the other two, is his age. Kondogbia is already in his prime at 29 years old, and won't be getting any better, as much as he would thoroughly improve our midfield. Apart from those 3, and the constant cropping up of the name Kalvin Phillips, other targets are unknown to us.
If i were to suggest some more slightly left field options (maybe not left field for some, but definitely for others), the likes of Zambo Anguissa, Maxence Caqueret, Cheick Doucoure, and Kouadio Kone would all be suitable targets for defensive midfield.
Now, as much as a defensive midfielder is a necessity this summer, i don't think it will be the only midfield signing we see. Steven Gerrard has mentioned the need for more stature in that area of the pitch, and he would undoubtedly love to have more control on the ball in that area too, so i believe we will see Villa going back in for Yves Bissouma.
There was a bit of a false narrative on Twitter not too long ago that Bissouma is a 6, and the man we needed to play in defensive midfield. Recently people have woken up to the fact that he is a ball winning, box-to-box number 8. With a new defensive midfielder, and someone like Bissouma just in front, Villa would finally have some true athleticism, stature, and control in midfield.
Obviously with Bissouma coming in, we would be quite saturated with players in that position, so 1 or 2 current players would probably be on the way out. The likely candidates, in my opinion anyway, would be Morgan Sanson, Douglas Luiz, and possibly Carney Chukwuemeka, who just like Luiz, is entering his final year of his contract soon.
For me, Douglas Luiz would be the one i really want to keep, purely because i believe he's one of our only current midfield players who is comfortable receiving the ball under pressure, and playing through a press. Dougie as an 8 would be able to dictate play in the whole midfield third, and look to push us more towards a possession dominant team.
Obviously to be a possession dominant team, our press needs to be much higher, and much more aggressive. I think the addition of 2 midfielders, alongside what we already possess, would make our ability to press a lot easier. That being said, we would have to play a higher line in defence, with both centre backs able to be handy on the ball. So perhaps we may see a centre back being brought in too.
So, with new midfielders being brought in, let's contemplate what style we may choose next season. Let's keep in mind the idea of adaptability that Gerrard has requested, and realise that players may be utilised in a couple of different ways dependant on opposition.
Let's make a comparison to a top side (I'm doing this because we're aiming to compete amongst them), using two possible signings we may make. The obvious comparison is of course Liverpool, with Gerrard's growth as a coach there, and their use of the 433. The focus here is the midfield. Let's say we sign Sangare and Bissouma (most likely outcome for me), and use a 433 with two 10s.
In my opinion, Liverpool's current best midfield 3 is Fabinho, Thiago, and Naby Keita. Sangare has the ability to sweep up, win the ball back, and play forward whilst under pressure, like Fabinho would. Bissouma would press opponents aggressively, win possession, carry the ball, and link play, like Keita would. And Luiz, if he was to stay (ideally), would have the Thiago role of pressing, being a high volume passer, whilst also making progressive, line breaking passes.
Now, let me stress, i am NOT suggesting our midfield would be of the same calibre with those 3 in it, it's just a stylistic comparison. And i believe that is a fair comparison. I tweeted not too long ago that i think Villa Park responds to a higher press much more positively than sitting back and countering, much like Anfield does for Liverpool. We're an emotional crowd and need positive football to feed off.
I imagine at this point you may be thinking where the likes of Ramsey, McGinn, Iroegbunam etc. fit into this, but again, that's all about adaptability and how we set up for different challenges. For me, both JJ and McGinn are exemplary conventional 8s. But i also believe they could play as one of the two 10s. With JJ's tendency to link with another creative player, and make late runs into the box; and McGinn's energetic press, coupled with his ability to pick a brilliant pass - i think we have Gerrard's craving for, you guessed it, adaptability.
As for Tim, it's early days in his career, but he's top class. And with the plan to stay in both domestic cup competitions, plus the reintroduction of 5 substitutes next season, he is brilliant development depth next season.
All in all, what I'm getting at is: with a strong midfield, not just defensively, but on the ball too, we could hope to see more control over games. That fall back/safety blanket of a solid midfield may give us the freedom of being as expansive as Gerrard wants us to be, and therefore perhaps able to see Buendia and Coutinho in the starting 11 together. However, it remains to be seen whether that is possible, but let's hold out slight hope on that.
With the mention of domestic competitions, let's round up this article with what my personal expectations for next season would be. If we manage to recruit the players we want, and those that have been speculated upon, our aim in the league simply has to be making the top 7. That's obviously so much easier said than done, this isn't Fifa, and numerous other clubs will have the same aspirations. However the point still stands, that is what the fans and, after the financial outlay, the owners will want.
That being said, a cup run and maybe even winning a domestic cup, would go a long way to soothing the clamour within our fanbase of being a successful club again. Both the league cup and the FA cup need to be taken seriously, it has been far too long since this majestic club has been graced with a major honour.
If i were to create a summary for this piece, I'd simply say - reinforce the midfield; and define our identity on the pitch. Get our summer business done as early as possible, and really utilise this pre-season to progress Gerrard's ideology of how football at Aston Villa should be played. Let's shoot for the moon, and if we miss, we'll still end up amongst the stars. Or at least that's what i hope.
If you enjoyed reading this, be sure to give Dan's article on the future of Villa's midfield a read.