Aston Villa splashed out on Danny Ings, Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendia this past summer, now Dean Smith must try to fit them all into his side.
After a disrupted pre-season and key absentees for a variety of reasons during the opening weeks of the new Premier League campaign, Smith hasn’t had a full squad at his disposal.
Ings has been a constant for him though, with the 29-year-old scoring two goals and providing an assist in his four appearances for the club thus far.
However, with Bailey, Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore coming back from injury while Buendia is available again after his international commitments, Smith finds himself in a position where he has more options in the attacking third than he has places in his starting Villa XI.
The situation is further complicated, in a good way, by the form of Jacob Ramsey to start the season, as the 20-year-old has impressed to the extent that it would be a questionable decision to drop him. That in turn has a knock-on effect on our system, with that swaying Smith towards a three-man midfield and thus three in attack in a 4-3-3.
We saw the flexibility that the Villa boss now has having gone with a 3-5-2 at Chelsea, with both Watkins and Ings starting alongside each other. However, Bailey was on the bench and Buendia was absent, but against Everton this weekend, Smith has all his cards on the table.
Will Ings be the logical one to miss out?
Against Chelsea, Ings touched the ball just 14 times as he struggled to get into the game and failed to have a single shot on goal, with Watkins emerging as our most dangerous threat.
It’s worth reminding ourselves now that Villa paid £25m to sign Ings from Southampton in August, as per BBC Sport, and given his likely sizeable salary, there is no doubt that he will expect to start games consistently and Villa haven’t spent that much money just to improve the look of their bench.
With that in mind, Smith has to find a way and system that gets the best out of Ings and the rest of his players, but is his best formation and strategy one that doesn’t involve the England international?
Emiliano Martinez, Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Matt Targett will likely continue to form the preferred backline this season.
In front of them, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz offer an important balance in the side with their energy, tenacity and technical quality ensuring we get a foothold in games and control the tempo as much as possible, while Morgan Sanson will hope to insert himself into that conversation too sooner rather than later.
As noted above, Ramsey’s start to this season has been so impressive that it’s difficult to leave him out, and so we’re already moving towards a 4-3-3 system as the youngster has shone as that third man breaking forward from midfield and applying pressure up the pitch in the opposition’s half.
With three places up for grabs then, who gets the nod? Watkins is arguably our most dangerous threat up top, while his energy and tenacity is a major factor in our success when trying to put pressure on the opposing team high up the pitch as he acts as our first wave of defence, or attack, depending on interpretation.
That essentially leaves two places open. Ings, Bailey, Traore, Buendia, Anwar El Ghazi, Carney Chukwuemeka and Jaden Philogene-Bidace will all want a spot, so who gets it?
With Bailey and Buendia flanking Watkins, you have to say that looks an exciting and dangerous prospect, but one that needs to deliver on the pitch and not just on paper. That ultimately relegates Ings to the bench, while El Ghazi, Chukwuemeka and Philogene-Bidace are perhaps further down the pecking order with Traore in prime position to come in to change things.
It’s great having competition and depth in the squad, but Smith needs to keep all these players happy and importantly, find a winning formula and stick to it if it brings the best out of the team.
If Ings isn’t able to strike up a partnership with Watkins and prove that they can co-exist, it starts to ask the question whether or not he’ll have as prominent and consistent a role as we might have thought. Sure, it will still be an option in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2, or perhaps in a 4-3-3 with Ings in more of a support role, but there is a personal feeling that Buendia, Bailey and Watkins give us the right balance in terms of creativity and goals to get us firing.