After what's felt more like a 2 and a half month break than a 2 and a half week break, the Villa are nearly back in action. Whilst this winter break has been depriving us of watching them, it's been a good time for a pre-season esque reset. Gerrard and his staff will have had time to sit down with players to address their targets, time on the training pitch to get the play style embedded into the squad, and also give returning/new players time to get up to speed. Ahead of the second half of the season, I'm going to take a look at how we may utilise the returning/new players in the squad, what our aims should be, who i think will be vital to us for the possible run-in, and what tweaks we could see to make us less predictable.
Let's start with the players returning/new to the squad, for example Leon Bailey in particular. Bailey arrived somewhat surrounded by hype, but that was quickly diminished, Everton cameo aside, by niggly injuries. Injuries keeping him out made his form really struggle and you could see it massively affected his confidence, and we all know the importance of psychology in the game. That, and the poor form of the team when he did get back in, led to disappointment of his contribution so far. Bailey however, is far from being a flop, and has several ways he can fit into this squad. He predominantly likes to play on the right, cutting in from out wide. But he would have to play narrower in this Gerrard system. That might not be an issue though, his game is about speed and getting snapshots away quickly, so pitching him up closer to a centre back rather than a full back may see him run in behind and grab more chances. I think two other ways he can make an impact is either playing on the left, high and wide in games where it's quite an open affair, or similarly coming off the bench and playing in the centre forward role. His speed on transition can be ruthless, using either dribbling or fast interplay, it's an asset that can be hugely useful to us.
Afcon has been a type of rehabilitation phase for Bertrand Traore, getting him back up to match fitness and unleashing his creativity again. He's a bit of a marmite player i think, he has infinite ability on the ball with an unbelievably delicate touch, but can be caught lacking in terms of defensive output, aswell as sometimes devoid of consistency in performances. However, having to play in that narrow 10 role might help him, like it might Bailey, using him to drop a bit deeper and draw a defender with him, then allowing him to knock a pass round the corner and open up a lot of space. I also believe he would excel in a lone 10 role if the situation arose. Trezeguet also has benefitted from Afcon, but it seems a loan move is on the cards for him before the Turkish window closes on Tuesday. If he were to stay put though, he offers us intense pressing and good movement in and around the box. He faces very tough competition getting in that front line, but he was used a left sided 8 at times for Egypt, mostly, I'd guess, because of his natural ability to help cover the full back defensively, much like what Gerrard asks from his two number 8s. Although, again, he doesn't get in ahead of the likes of Ramsey, Luiz, Chukwuemeka, Sanson in that position, but an option nonetheless.
On to the new boys, and the arrivals of Coutinho and Chambers in particular give us options to change shape, or change the roles of some players. Initially when Chambers signed, my first thoughts were that he is obviously here as centre back/right back cover. However, delving deeper you uncover the fact he had a successful season at Fulham playing as a defensive midfielder (the lone 6 role to be precise) where he won player of the season. On average that season, Chambers made, per game, 2.3 blocks, 2.19 interceptions, 4.45 clearances, and 13.08 ball recoveries. These are handy numbers for someone who would be asked to play that almost throwback "centre half" role, that Arsenal invented in the 1930s, with him dropping in between the 2 central defenders while the full backs push up. His natural position being a centre back gives him that extra nous to play that position. With him playing as the number 6, this then frees up Luiz to play further forward and unlock that creative potential he has.
The arrival of Coutinho, in contrast, gives us more options in attack. His weight of pass, ball retention, vision, dribbling, and experience are priceless commodities in our attack. The left sided 10 role is pretty much perfect for him, as he has played as a left sided 8, left winger, and number 10 previously, thriving in those half spaces is his speciality, where he can unleash a powerful drive, or pick an angled through ball between the two centre backs for a striker to run on to. Once he's back fully fit, and gelled within this squad, i think he'll be the catalyst to this squads potential being reached. If we take a look at his comparitive stats below from his recent successful spell at Bayern, he excels in a possession based side, and extremely importantly, he ranks high for passes completed under pressure, something that our players have lacked a lot in recent times. If we manage to transition into the possession dominant side that Gerrard wants us to be, the likes of Coutinho and Buendia will be at the heart of it all.
Moving on now to something I've been mulling over a lot recently, and that is what 'Plan B' Gerrard has up his sleeve in terms of shape against certain opponents. We've already seen him adapt in game via substitutions, like bringing on Chukwuemeka and Coutinho for Ings and Sanson against United, and we've seen him throw on Tuanzebe to give us 5 at the back to see out a game. But this isn't quite a 'Plan B', or alternative set up. At Rangers he was known to use 4231 at times, most notably in a 1-0 win against Celtic in his first season there. He used Scott Arfield as a 10, who's role was to support the centre forward, Morelos, whilst also man marking Scott Brown out the game. This is a role I see Emi Buendia thriving in against tougher opposition, harrying players like Fabinho and Rodri who set the tone for their team, whilst also sticking close to Watkins or Ings whilst on the attack, looking to provide a 1-2 option. The sticky issue if we do use a 4231, is which 2 players play in the double pivot. McGinn being shackled in that role hinders his game, and Nakamba being still out means we're slightly short. Possibly a pivot of Luiz and Chambers could work, with Chambers experience as a full back and centre back, he could zonally mark the half spaces well, and Luiz can be the one to bring the ball further into the opposition half. Could we then see McGinn being used on the right? Not his natural position of course, but his pressing and defensive work rate would either back up Cash, or pin back the opponent's left back. On attack then he would draw in narrower, with Cash bombing on as our width. Just hypothetical thinking on my behalf of course, but changing the shape to help solidify us against some opponents must be on Gerrard's mind at the moment, as if we truly are still pushing for Europe this season, we need to find more than one way of managing games.
On the subject of Europe then, i think we can universally agree that whilst it is an outside chance this season, it is still the ultimate goal for us. Our next 5 fixtures are Leeds, Newcastle, Watford, Brighton, Southampton, and whilst all of those pose a tough fixture in different ways, you would have to say that is a more favorable block of fixtures where we can look to build consistency. I would pinpoint these next 5 as make or break for this season, with a minimum of 12 points, in my opinion, needed to seriously entertain challenging the top 7. After these next 5 fixtures, we have West Ham, Arsenal, Wolves, Spurs, and Liverpool. A much, much harder run of fixtures, but if we hit form before then, and the players are settled into the blueprint that Gerrard has laid down in front of them, we still have hope.
In terms of important players for the second half of this season, quite simply every single player in the squad needs to be ready to give everything for the cause. But, in particular for me, i think that Digne, Ramsey, Buendia, Coutinho, Konsa, and McGinn are key. Ramsey has grown and grown throughout this season, and feels like a shoo-in for the starting 11 nowadays, with his driving runs, fast feet, smart positioning, and pressing. As seen in the images below, he's found a new trait of bursting past our forward line, giving them either an option to pass or space to operate in, and also finds himself ghosting into the box and finding pockets of space where the ball might fall to him. Terrific development in his game at such a young age. Buendia himself is now doing those same things too, but is also adding more control over our tempo. He tends to drop deep and collect the ball in midfield, before either rolling his man, or knocking a pass round the corner to a team mate, helping us out of tight situations and providing an overload in midfield. His performances recently earned him a much deserved January player of the month award at the club, and it's clear to see he's vital to Gerrard's game plan.
Digne since he has come into the club has put in two solid performances, giving us defensive solidity down the flanks, and a brilliant source of creativity in attack. His delivery from out wide is a new avenue for the team to explore, and his mobility means that he's an ideal fit at left back in a Steven Gerrard set up. Konsa has long since been heralded by Villa fans for his classy defending ability. His athleticism, pace, reading of the game, and composure make him perfect to play the aggressive sweeper role whilst Mings plays the role of the ball player. However we have seen Konsa use his full back experience more recently, and carry the ball into midfield, beating players and laying it off to a teammate. This is something I'd like to see more of as it's a valuable component to have a centre back capable of opening up space against a team deploying a low block. I've already stated what Coutinho offers this team when he's back up to full match fitness, but to reiterate it, the experience of a world class, proven winner amongst this set of players is key to any sort of European push we embark on.
John McGinn is a bit of a stalwart in this squad now, but continues to improve his game every season. He has energy in bundles, matched with ability. His trademark switch of play into then wide areas is going to unlock teams that we're struggling to break down, and his range of passing will exploit the high lines that the best teams use. Gerrard plans to build a team around Super John McGinn and it's clear to see why, he's a leader by example. Surround this guy with even more talent and you'll see him hit even higher levels that we couldn't imagine seeing.
To summarise, the second half of the season could be huge for the club, but also could fizzle out fast. It's key that in this winter break that's coming to an end, the coaching staff have got every players minds focused and on the same page as each other. We have a deep squad that can be utilised, and should be to it's fullest potential, and if it is, we should see the run-in bear fruit.