South East Goals
Gardner’s return to fitness is going well considering that he has scored two goals and created an assist whilst not being fully fit. Brighton have experimented with their midfield formation under Hypia but the manager has struggled to find a consistent formula. Throughout these experiments Gardner has enjoyed a consistent run of games and seems to have earned his place in the starting eleven. Sometimes Brighton have played without a defensive midfielder, such as Rohan Ince, which has forced Gardner to play a deeper role or wider, but in recent games he has been given more freedom to play the box-to-box role.
Gardner explained that the manager’s tweak in formation against Wigan (a game in which he scored) and the following fixture Blackburn (where he also scored) allowed him more freedom to get into the box and have a shot. The Villa youngster’s goal against Wigan was a typical goal by him as he arrived late into the box with a run from midfield and slotted home.
I haven’t seen any Aston Villa midfielder’s make that sort of run this season and the effectiveness of having a player making runs from midfield was evident in the England U-19’s game this week where Ruben Loftus-Cheek was regularly driving forward into the box for England against Italy U-19’s. Villa’s current midfielders are far too static.
Gardner is the only Villa midfielder this season who is averaging over two shots per game. Aston Villa, as a team, are currently struggling to register one shot on target per game and only Benteke has had more shots per game than Gardner. It is accepted that Gardner is currently playing at a lower level but his style of play is something that is missing in the first team. Tom Cleverley was meant to add more penetration from midfield, but he has so far registered zero goals or assists and contributes little by way of key passes.
Gardner certainly has more verticality to his game than players such as Westwood and Cleverley and he is always keen to move forward and have a shot. Gardner scored a hat-trick against Ajax in the inaugural Next Gen Series competition and he emerged as the competition’s joint leading scorer alongside Sporting’s Betinho (a striker). The youngster also scored twice for England U-21’s against Iceland and he scored twice and created two assists against Arsenal during a 10–1 demolition for the academy.
In the same way that a ‘ball-playing’ centre back is asked to dribble into midfield to commit an opponent and open up space for others, Villa currently lack a midfielder who can drive into the box and commit an opposition defender. Delph is able to do so occasionally but his runs rarely result in a shot or key pass and most of his dribbles take place further back on the pitch.
Westwood, Cleverley, Sanchez and Delph have their role in the team but Gardner is a different type of midfielder to those currently at the club and he could really add something extra to the team in the future if he stays fit which is why fans needs to be patient.
Not So Cleverley?
Right now I am not seeing what Cleverley adds to the team. Cleverley keeps possession well, he hassles opponents and works hard for the team but he is not too dissimilar to Ashley Westwood. Villa really needed a player this summer to add something in the final third of the pitch and Cleverley’s two attempted crosses against QPR where he lashed both attempts into the ankles of a QPR defender were a particular low point.
Gardner, Westwood and Cleverley are similar is some ways in that they can switch play from side to side during the build up in an attempt to open up space. However, a lot of this good work goes unnoticed without a number ten in the team. Xavi and Iniesta formed a deadly relationship together over the years primarily because Xavi moved teams around with relentless passes, whilst Iniesta and Messi exploited the space created by Xavi to dribble or play an incisive pass. Villa currently have no player to exploit that spaces created by Cleverley or Westwood and in the past 13 years, the club have chosen to rely on two number ten players who are long past their prime in Paul Merson and Joe Cole.
I am not suggesting therefore that Gardner is the ‘saviour’ of Villa’s current problems, but I am suggesting that the manager hasn’t really added much to the midfield offensive play in the summer transfer window. With or without Gardner the team still needs a number ten and another winger.
Fans often mock those who enjoy the performances of academy players, but I think there is a ‘Gary Cahill’ moment in a lot of the club’s treatment of its academy players.
We will see in the next few seasons whether Grealish and Gardner are afforded the same nurturing patience as the academy players developed at Southampton.
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