English Premier League

Premier League Predictions: Villa could be this year's surprise package

Steven Gerrard
Gerrard's project had stalled, but could pick up again.

"Similarly Coutinho and Buendia, both crowded out at times by Villa’s narrow 4-3-2-1 and the reaction to it, are likely to benefit from a more typical formation."

Alex Keble suggests Aston Villa could look to break into Europe this season thanks to the appointment of Neil Critchley...

An in-work manager taking a step down to become an assistant elsewhere is virtually unheard of, and to the untrained eye would seem like an absurd thing to do.

That is what Neil Critchley did last month, leaving his first-ever head coach job after two hugely successful years at Blackpool to become Steven Gerrard's number two at Aston Villa. It was a move that baffled many, especially given that Critchley could easily have taken charge at a promotion-chasing club after taking Blackpool up to the Championship and keeping them there.

But it's a decision that begins to make sense when you understand being assistant to Gerrard goes way beyond the usual job description. His predecessor Michael Beale, who left Gerrard's side to become Queens Park Rangers manager, was responsible for the tactics and the training at both Rangers and Villa.

"It's the first time in my 14-15 year career that the assistant coach does all the talking," Emi Martinez has said of Beale. "He does all the training sessions, he takes all the important meetings. With Michael, we felt him and Stevie G were both managers."

And so as we approach the beginning of the 2022/23 campaign, we should think of Villa as having a new manager and a fresh start. Here's why Critchley might make Villa the surprise package of the season:

Attacking flexibility a significant shift

Villa quickly became too predictable in Beale's and Gerrard's Christmas Tree 4-3-2-1, an unusual shape that arguably piled too much of the attacking width onto Villa's full-backs. The narrowness of Villa's attacking midfielders meant a winger-less system and a square-shaped midfield, congesting the middle of the park in a way that opponents quickly understood how to limit.

At first, the system gave Villa a numerical advantage in the middle as Philippe Coutinho and Emiliano Buendia ghosted into the ten space, but the consistency of the 4-3-2-1 allowed teams to work it out - blocking the middle to limit Villa's creativity. That explains why Villa's form declined towards the end of the season.

Critchley largely deployed a 4-4-2 at Blackpool but has trialled many different formations and is certainly more flexible than Beale. What's more, he focuses on hard pressing and fast attacking football with many bodies committed to the final third - a move that should suit the abundance of talent Villa have up front.

Bailey, Buendia, Coutinho could thrive

The detail of his tactical battle plans, and the positional rotations of his forwards, is well-suited to the challenge of turning Villa into a top-ten team.

Coutinho.jpg

Perhaps even more significantly, Villa will play with wingers again. That means there is a place in the team for Leon Bailey, who struggled in his debut year in England partly because Gerrard and Dean Smith rarely played him in his favourite role - as an out-and-out winger, driving at the opposition full-back.

He has been performing very well in pre-season so far, winning plaudits for his displays against both Leeds United and Walsall as excited reporters suggest he could be 'like a new signing', as the cliché goes. Bailey was explosive in his first few games in a Villa shirt, hinting that he has a lot more to give.

Similarly Coutinho and Buendia, both crowded out at times by Villa's narrow 4-3-2-1 and the reaction to it, are likely to benefit from a more typical formation. Rather than falling over each other in similar spaces, a 4-2-3-1 formation will allow Coutinho to cut in from the left and Buendia to float as a ten, the former a perfect counter-balance to Bailey's directness on the outside right.

New signings plug important gaps

If that wasn't reason enough to assume Villa can start to challenge the likes of West Ham and Leicester City, then their summer signings should change minds. Arguably the main reason Villa are falling under the radar is that they got most of their business done early, signing Philippe Coutinho, Boubacar Kamara, and Diego Carlos practically before the window had opened.

The shock has faded on the Coutinho deal, but it remains an extraordinary coup, and now the Brazilian is committed to the project we are likely to see even more from him. Coutinho recorded eight goal contributions in 16 league games despite Villa struggling for much of that time; he should be a huge hit this season.

Kamara is a very highly-rated defensive midfielder who plugs the biggest gap in the Villa team, in turn releasing John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey in the eight positions, and Diego Carlos is a ready-made centre-back who will challenge the error-prone Tyrone Mings for a place in the starting 11. It is also plausible that more big names are still to come, given that a possible sale of Carney Chukwuemeka for £20 million would take Villa's net summer spend down to just £10 million.

But what really makes Villa an exciting prospect is the fact many of their signings from last summer are yet to settle, while the early promise of the Gerrard early began to fade. Under Critchley's coaching, Aston Villa should be ready to deliver.

They could be worth a small wager on a top-six finish at 6.05/1, while there is an #oddsonthat bet including Villa that looks smart: Man City and Chelsea both Top 4 Finish, Aston Villa Top Half Finish and Bournemouth to be Relegated at 4.03/1.

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