It may not seem the best time to say it, given Aston Villa just suffered a 5-0 thrashing at Manchester City which saw them drop into the relegation zone, but Paul Lambert seems to have found something close to a settled, cohesive starting XI.
Lambert, of course, was a serial formation switcher at Norwich last season. This year, heÃ¢ÂÂs played either a diamond midfield or a 4-2-3-1, and seems to have decided on the latter. The same starting XI was used in consecutive games against the two Manchester clubs, and although the heavy defeat to City was a setback, the narrow 3-2 defeat to United showed evidence of progress.
LambertÃ¢ÂÂs most significant decision has been to drop Darren Bent, who started the season as captain. While Bent has been a consistent goalscorer throughout his Premier League career, Lambert doesnÃ¢ÂÂt believe he contributes enough to the side as a whole.
Instead, heÃ¢ÂÂs decided that Christian Benteke is more suitable for leading VillaÃ¢ÂÂs attack. The Belgian is yet to prove himself a reliable scorer Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂs hit two goals in seven starts, a decent record, but both came after terrible opposition defending. HeÃ¢ÂÂs a stronger physical presence, though, and acts as the target for long balls, challenging in the air with the opposition centre-backs Ã¢ÂÂ often with great success. HeÃ¢ÂÂs simply a more reliable outlet than Bent.
In wide positions, VillaÃ¢ÂÂs shape is interesting. Lambert uses two converted forwards on the flanks, illustrating his attacking intent, but Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann play in different roles. Agbonlahor is more central and provides Benteke with support, while Wiemann stays wider and deeper, stretching the play and providing a different option. Against Manchester United, the Austrian got into the penalty box to score from two left-wing crosses Ã¢ÂÂ exactly what you what from a right-sided player Ã¢ÂÂ but he generally stayed closer to the touchline than Agbonlahor.
A knock-on effect of their positioning is the roles of the full-backs. On the right, Matthew Lowton finds it easier to overlap and combine with Wiemann, and is constantly involved in the play. However, left-back Enda Stevens advances forward very sporadically, and concentrates on defensive duties.
Behind the trio of Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann, Lambert has used Stephen Ireland as his creative spark, attempting to provide the link between midfield and attack. But although Ireland started the season promisingly, he struggled to create chances for Villa against the two Manchester clubs, providing just one key pass in the two games combined.
When the Irishman is having little impact upon the game, Barry Bannan has to become more of a creative influence from a deep-lying midfield position. He has an excellent passing range, but needs forward options to exert his influence Ã¢ÂÂ which makes it particularly important that BentekeÃ¢ÂÂs hold-up play is good, pushing Villa up the pitch.
TomorrowÃ¢ÂÂs match against Arsenal should be an interesting tactical duel Ã¢ÂÂ Benteke will battle with the centre-backs, while Bannan might get time on the ball in midfield. Villa havenÃ¢ÂÂt yet clicked, but LamberttÃ¢ÂÂs plan is slowly coming together Ã¢ÂÂ and a good run of form is imminent.
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