There’s been a lot of talk about Steve Bruce potentially playing 3-5-2 this upcoming season, or a variation including three centre-backs. The signings of both John Terry and Chris Samba certainly were potentially pointing that way.
As well as Bruce playing the formation before, the thinking was it would potentially preserve and get the most out of John Terry’s old bones over a long season.
The signing of Ahemed Elmohamady had some declaring that this was the final proof of Bruce’s intentions. The ex-Hull City player would be one of the wing-backs playing with the three centre-backs.
Elmohamady was something of a red herring though.
The Irish Twist
Judging from his first preseason game and against Watford, Bruce signed Elmohamady principally as an out-and-out right-winger. Obviously, he has wing-back potential, but the Villa boss had other plans for him, which became more clear with another one of his signings.
The signing of Stoke midfielder Glenn Whelan, as MOMS discusses in the upcoming podcast episode, seemed to signal some other formation set-up was on Bruce’s mind.
Also, letting Nathan Baker go, suggested he didn’t need that many centre-backs after all.
Some Villa fans seem to think that Whelan was brought in as Mile Jedinak’s back-up. What they failed to do was look at it from the player’s point of view.
Why would the Irish international drop from the Premier League to sit on the bench, after being a regular at Stoke in the top tier?
Burnley had strong interest in Whelan a week up until he signed for Villa. So obviously Bruce had sold the player some vision of being pivotal to the way forward for Villa.
Unless Jedinak is going to be sold off, then something else was afoot. Namely Bruce was going to play with two deep sitting midfield players in a 4-2-3-1. There’s where the Elmohamady also fitted in.
With Whelan, Jedinak or Lansbury taking up the two deeper midfield berths to solidify the base of the Villa team, and connecting up to the ball-playing centre-backs in James Chester and John Terry, Villa would have a strong foundation to play from the back.
With Whelan giving more of a licence to room from his defensive berth, it certainly would suit his game.
The set up would also give the team a solid basis to play with two out-and-out wingers. Andre Green on the left and the newly acquired Elmohamady on the right. The Egyptian is a much more direct and a traditional all-action type of winger than Albert Adomah, hence why Bruce got him in.
Then in the central attacking midfielder role, you could have either Conor Hourihane or Jack Grealish, with Johnathan Kodjia, as the lone striker.
The formation certainly would suit Kodjia’s style very well (and it also suits Agbonlahor, if you want to go there, after his time playing as a lone striker under Martin O’Neill).
Beating Away Blues
With the clearly defined roles the system manifests and the balance it brings, it could be a sensible option for Bruce to use, especially on the team’s travels. It offers a firm defensive formation, yet offers potential for fluid counter-attacking.
With mass improvement on Villa’s away form needed before we even start thinking about promotion, this formation is certainly a way forward.
Against Watford, in the first half, it looked pretty good. With both full-backs linking up with the wide midfielders on both flanks better and more constructively than they did last season.
Whelan also was effective in recycling the ball back into play, when it came out from Villa’s corners or set pieces. In fact, Whelan certainly played beyond most supporter’s early expectations of him.
Likewise, Elmohamady was a throwback to Villa wingers of old, and was very eager to get down the line and deliver a cross. This takes the need away for Hutton to venture too far forward down the right, which was never a strong point of his game.
The main reservations about the 4-2-3-1 is the lone striker needs to be very much on point, in terms of his finishing and his ability to bring players into play.
Hopefully, Kodjia will carry on where he left off in terms of finishing, but hopefully his team play will improve. Scott Hogan perhaps also could play the system well, if everyone is on the same wavelength.
But perhaps the key role to making everything work in this formation is that Grealish or Hourihane (or even Lansbury) needs to step up in terms of being the pivot for attacks in that middle advanced midfield role. To support the lone striker with runs into the box, when the ball is wide, and also to chip in with the goals too.
If Grealish is the player everyone wants him to be, it’s a formation made for him.
Finally, for the system to work, Andre Green’s decision-making perhaps needs to improve, with his final ball sometimes letting him down in preseason. He’s young and will learn, but lets hope there is a big improvement quickly once the season begins.
Of course, this may not be the formation for every game, it might only be Bruce’s Plan B, but the fact it looks to be an option is a big progression on the dysfunctional dross we were watching last season.
It worked well in the first half against Watford, unsettling their backline and creating chances. It is also one substitution away (a striker on for the central AM) from cleanly switching to a proper 4-4-2, Bruce’s confessed favourite formation.
However, having said all of this, despite three central backs not featuring in preseason, do not be surprised to suddenly see Bruce using a trio at the back against Hull City in the first day of the season. It would be typical Bruce Almighty behaviour!
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