While Aston Villa have successfully stopped leaking goals at one end, Steven Gerrard is now presented with a fresh problem in the form of lack of goals scored.
After conceding nine in our opening five fixtures of the Premier League season, we’ve conceded just one in our last three outings, and so a big positive has certainly been the level of defensive organisation, commitment and team-work across the pitch to ensure we’re now harder to beat.
However, Villa haven’t found the right balance yet as while we’ve shored things up at the back, we’ve also managed to score to just two goals in those three most recent games, while we have six for the season in eight games.
That in itself isn’t good enough at this level as we need to be more prolific if we want to climb the standings, but when you consider the attacking quality in the squad, that is certainly not an acceptable return.
Naturally, that isn’t all on Gerrard as we saw Ollie Watkins spurn some big changes on Sunday at Leeds Utd, while Philippe Coutinho hasn’t yet registered a single goal or assist this season.
However, what the Villa boss is guilty of is persisting with the same players when he has alternative options on the bench, while there is also the option of tweaking his system slightly as a change in formation could still maintain our defensive solidity while giving our attacking players more freedom to make an impact in the final third.
Stick with a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1, or should Gerrard switch to a 4-2-3-1?
We’ve seen Gerrard use a variation of systems so far this season, as he went with more of a 4-3-3 this past weekend while we’ve used a 4-3-2-1 too and switched between them during games.
On top of that, we’ve also tried a 4-3-1-2 formation at times when going with both Watkins and Ings up front, and while that has delivered results on occasion, it hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant sticking with it for an extended period of time.
While that could still be an option depending on the opposition and circumstances of a specific game, as could the other two noted above, the one system we haven’t seen is a 4-2-3-1.
Now it could be argued that we’ve finally found some defensive stability on which we can build as a foundation, but as we still struggle to show any semblance of a style of play and an attacking rhythm and direction to our football, it should still be a serious conservation as to whether a formation change could unlock some of our potential.
Emiliano Martinez would naturally remain between the posts, while Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Ashley Young would form the backline, with the likes of Lucas Digne and Ludwig Augustinsson currently sidelined.
In the double pivot in front of them, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn would likely be Gerrard’s more realistic choice, but Leander Dendoncker, Morgan Sanson and Marvelous Nakamba all come into the equation as we look for a fundamental balance of defensive protection and technical quality to shift the ball quickly into the feet of our attacking players.
With one of Watkins or Ings playing up top, and there is a desire to also see Cameron Archer given more opportunities, Jacob Ramsey, Philippe Coutinho, Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendia would all be in contention to feature in a trident behind them.
This system would allow Gerrard to continue to place an emphasis on his full-backs pushing forward and offering width as well as an attacking outlet on the flanks, and it would be give us a solid base with two midfielders sitting in front of the defence but with the responsibly to transition us into attack.
We regularly struggle with controlling possession and the tempo of a game, particularly in midfield. This could give us more of a foothold and adopt a more possession-based style, something Gerrard wants, while putting more players further up the pitch to press higher and win the ball back in the opposition half, another feature of Gerrard’s ‘philosophy’.
Villa are badly lacking creative quality, inventiveness and flair in the final third. This system potentially accomodates both Coutinho and Buendia on the pitch at the same time, while we have the pace and penetration that one of Ramsey or Bailey can provide too.
With different dynamics to our attack and a threat out wide and through the middle, it gives us different ways to find Watkins or Ings up top, to play balls into their feet or play to their strengths by dragging the defence around the pitch and playing them in behind.
While they may not be in the best form, we have attacking talent at Gerrard’s disposal and a 4-2-3-1 system not only safeguards the defensive solidity we’ve established, but it potentially unlocks our attacking potential and makes us a more dangerous and creative side in the final third.