The 22/23 season is nearly upon us, and only a trip to France stands in the way of Villa and the opening game away to Bournemouth. Just like the United game on the weekend, i expect us to see a very strong team (most likely very close to the team we will see against Bournemouth). So far this pre-season has been very successful in my opinion, and much smoother than last summer's.
As we all know, the main idea of pre-season is to gain the fitness and match sharpness back for the players. Doing intense drills, long sessions, and slowly giving players more minutes to the 'main players' in friendlies towards the back end of pre-season. So far we've seen some good fitness levels and sharpness within the squad, and most importantly, no big injuries to any of the main squad.
In terms of how our squad is shaping up, we have some very good competition amongst the group now, especially with the additions of our new recruits. We saw a few different lineups, a couple of different systems, and the players all had their shot at impressing.
Having said that pre-season results and performances aren't the main priority, i think we have learned a couple of things from each friendly played. Some of the more fringe players have made a point that they deserve a chance to start. Some of the youth proving themselves worthy of a place in the squad. And inevitably, some players proving they are probably not part of the future of the club.
Stand out players from pre-season in my opinion have been Archer, Carlos, Kamara, Kesler, Buendia, and last but certainly not least, Leon Bailey. Leon is looking like he is physically and mentally ready for the season ahead, and has put in some very sturdy showings in the past few weeks, with a couple of well taken goals to go with that.
If we're talking about players who don't look like they're part of the plans, the likes of Traoré, Guilbert, El Ghazi (who we didn't see in Australia due to family circumstances), Davis (injured), Hause (a loan move likely), and of course Carney Chukwuemeka, who is still at an impasse with the club over a new contract.
Business still to be done?
Before i get onto my aims, expectations, and thoughts ahead of the new season, I'm just going to touch on some possible incomings and outgoings, and who i would keep around the squad.
Let's start on the obvious incoming that even Steven Gerrard has eluded to happening, a new number 8. Midfield is a position now that we have quite a few, decent options. Kamara has come in and looks like he slots in seamlessly, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the Premier League. Marvelous Nakamba and Tim Iroegbunam provide able depth to Kamara.
In terms of the options we have in the 8 positions, we have Ramsey, McGinn, Luiz, Sanson, and Chukwuemeka (currently, but doubtful he'll be used at the moment). That's some very good competition, but one thing stands out to me amongst those players. None of them are really physical, ball winning players.
Yes, McGinn and Ramsey put themselves about, and Luiz and Sanson have a decent reading of the game. But none have a real stature, and steel when it comes to tackling, and then once winning the ball, progressing it forwards. So a new number 8 with real quality, and the abilities i mentioned, is something i expect.
One other position i think we might adapt in, and if so, likely upgrade on, is the striker position. We have Ings, Watkins, Archer, and Davis. Though i expect the latter to be moved on if possible in the next couple of weeks.
There is a bit of a divide currently on social media on whether we need a new striker. In my view, a new striker isn't necessary, but if we can get our hands on one with clear quality, who is an upgrade, and has a slightly different skillset to what we already have, then i think that can be a difference maker.
Obviously, one of our current options would most likely have to make way, and if it was me i would personally be trying to move Ings on in that scenario. Now to be clear, that's not because i don't rate him, but looking at age and what our current options offer, i think Watkins and Archer make more sense to keep around, but that's subjective.
If i had to give 2 options that i think are top quality, and would make a difference in those positions, right now I'd look no further than Memphis Depay and Gini Wijnaldum. Both fit the profile of what we need, and are upgrades on what we have, and can push us that step further. Both deals of course not easy, very ambitious, but they standout most to me, especially having that dutch connection between them.
One more thing that is splitting the fan base, is what to do with some of our youth players. If it was up to me, Archer, Tim, and Kesler would all be in the squad for the season. All have the qualities to succeed in the game time they're given, and i personally think those 3 would learn more around better players compared to being loaned out down the leagues. However, there are of course big advantages to playing regular game time somewhere else.
Aims and expectations
I'll start with my aims and expectations for the season. A realistic aim i think for the season is finishing firmly between 10th and 8th. That can very much be considered progress in my eyes. But this is football, who wants to just be realistic? Our ultimate aim will be Europe (7th more likely) i expect, disrupting that dynamic in the table of challenging for a form of European football. It's a very, very tough challenge, we're not the only team strengthening our side, and the league gets tougher each season. But, it's not impossible.
Expectation wise, firstly i want to see the basics. Focused, solid defending. Our forwards getting goals. And our midfielders being the shuttle between, pitching in with both sides of the game. Not only these things, but the minimum expectation we have as fans is that the players give everything in every game.
If i was to delve into a little more detail on my expectations, i want to see a clear identity in place, and preferably one where we use the ball on the deck, and not so direct into the channels at times. And also, the thing that is key to success; consistency. Last season we had too many good and bad patches of performances, i just want to see us put in more complete performances more regularly.
How will we shape up? And what patterns of play could we see?
In pre-season, we saw the 433 used again as expected, but also the diamond shape made a return against Manchester United last weekend. Both can work for us if we use the right personnel, and play the right way befitting of the players on the pitch, and those players playing with confidence and composure.
I would like to say, however, formations are an arbitrary thing we use in football to simplify what we see on the pitch. In reality, shapes are quite really rigid, and the positions players take up are pretty flexible.
Effectively a 4231 is a variation of a 433, and the 433 can morph into a diamond shape too. It is then about adopting tactics that suit the ability of the players you put out on the pitch. In our case, the majority of our players like the ball at their feet, and like to make runs in behind defences. We have a lot of creativity and goal threat in our side, we have to utilise that.
If i had to hazard a guess at what main shape we see against Bournemouth, I'd have to say i think we'll see the 433. Then there's some tough calls to make personnel wise. Which 2 out of Bailey, Buendia, and Coutinho start? Who are the two 8s? Who starts as the lone striker?
With McGinn now being captain, he will start the season as the main 8, if we're playing 433. Now, Gerrard's go-to partner for McGinn in midfield has regularly been Ramsey, but i don't think we strike the balance needed in midfield with both of them, so maybe JJ might take the hit when it comes to starting, and we could see a Luiz or Sanson coming in.
Now, Jacob Ramsey is an important player to our future i believe, but has so much improvement still to be done. He would be part of my starting 11 (providing he's performing), but i can understand the idea of being patient with him too, like Pep was with Foden. Using him in the right games, protecting him, and helping him develop.
One other thing that's crossed my mind recently, and been suggested to me aswell, is a slight position shift of JJ. We all know his best characteristics are driving runs with the ball, close control, and his finishing. I wonder whether he would flourish even more if he followed the same path as Jack Grealish, moving slightly wider, allowing him to pick the ball up further forward and carry it into the box, linking with his teammates around him along the way.
Last season, Jacob Ramsey ranked amongst the top 8% of players in the top 5 leagues for carries into the penalty area. Partner that alongside the fact he found his shooting boots last season, pitching in with 6 goals, i think we would see him go up another level if his positioning on the pitch was adapted. Of course, he has competition on the left hand side too, with any one of Bailey, Buendia, or Coutinho able to play there. But it is something that interests me in the long term for Ramsey.
Moving on to styles of play, i want to see a much less direct style this season, and being more consistently expressive with our link up in passing. When you have the likes of Buendia, Coutinho, Watkins, Bailey, McGinn, Ramsey, Luiz; you have the perfect mix of players to be dragging the opposition around, creating space for 3rd man runs into the area. Bypassing those players with a long ball into the channel is just criminal.
Another thing I'd like to see, is the use of the switch of play more often. It works in different ways too. Kamara lifting a ball out to Digne , for example, makes the other defence have to shift out quickly, and can create big gaps as they do, or even allow Digne to volley a quick cross, across the face of goal. Another way it can be used, which we saw last season, could see Matty Cash become a bit of a goalscorer from full back.
Our play, i expect, will be more focused down the left, with the creativity of Digne and Coutinho/Buendia, and whoever is playing as the left sided 8. That overload on the left can create huge space on the opposite side for Cash to exploit with a switch of play, like he did against Leeds for example (pictured below). I think that could be a route to goal we see relatively often.
A word on the new captain
John McGinn was announced as Aston Villa captain last night, and after taking it in for the night, i can only say I reserve judgement on it. That's not a negative POV from me, i just see no need to do anything other than see how it plays out. Having said that, i am behind John from the off, support is what all the players need.
This 'extra responsibility' could be what makes McGinn recapture his best form, and allows Mings to focus on his own game. The only thing i care about on the whole, is the whole squad being consistent, and putting in the hard work it takes. The captaincy doesn't mean everything, we need a whole team of leaders.
The new season is just 9 days away, so everyone prepare yourselves for the usual Aston Villa roller coaster for the season. It'll be great at times, tough at times, but we'll be together throughout it, getting behind the lads, and enjoying the ride. Up the Villa.