Aston Villa host Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday in search of their fourth Premier League win of the campaign.
Villa remain unbeaten on home soil after wins against Newcastle United and Everton and a draw against Thomas Frank’s newly-promoted Brentford.
While Bruno Lage’s Wolves have been beaten on the road this term – on the opening day of the season against Leicester City – away wins at Watford and Southampton have lifted the mood at Molineux after a tough start to the league campaign.
Villa themselves come into this weekend’s clash in indifferent form, having blitzed Everton 3-0 at Villa Park, beaten Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford, but also lost 2-1 to a Tottenham Hotspur side who hadn’t won in their last three before facing Dean Smith’s Villa before the international break.
With only a few more days to go before Villa return to Premier League action with a clash against Wolves on Saturday (3pm), BirminghamLive takes a look at the issues still to be resolved by Smith and Co…
Villa head coach Smith has fielded two very different-looking teams this season. There’s the 4-3-3 shape which has allowed John McGinn the licence to break lines and become the box-to-box threat he seems to become on every international break with Scotland, or the more rigid 3-5-2 approach which has seen youngster Jacob Ramsey play some of his best football to date.
Following Villa’s slow start to the season, with one win in three against two newly promoted teams and Newcastle, Smith’s 4-3-3 or indeed a variation of a 4-2-3-1 system was working as you’d expect, but without key players Leon Bailey, Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Buendia, Tyrone Mings, Ramsey or McGinn for at least some part of Villa’s opening month to the new season, Smith hasn’t been allowed to play what his best XI would look like on paper.
That draw to the Bees caused a change of tack for the visit to Stamford Bridge after the September international break as Smith reverted to a a 3-5-2 shape which saw Danny Ings and Watkins form a partnership at the top of the pitch and Ramsey slot back into the side in a three-man midfield alongside McGinn and Douglas Luiz.
While the 3-0 scoreline against Chelsea wasn’t totally reflective of Villa’s impressive display at the Bridge, the following week against Everton laid down a marker to Premier League rivals as Bailey’s 20 minute cameo helped Smith’s side get over the line in emphatic style.
The wing-back shape worked a treat – it just needed some Jamaican flair to take the game away from an otherwise unbeaten Rafa Benitez team. Next up was Old Trafford and Smith’s new-look Villa team banished the Man United hoodoo to claim a significant three points.
Yet, despite some cracking results both home and away which have altered the complexion of Villa’s start to the new season, last season’s top scorer Watkins and the club’s £95million worth of summer signings Bailey, Ings, and Buendia are all still yet to play a single minute of football together on the same pitch.
Ahead of Villa’s tie with Wolves, Smith will want to start all four if he can, but how?
In a wing-back shape, neither Buendia or Bailey can start without disrupting the natural balance of the team with Matt Targett flanking Matty Cash and Watkins and Ings spearheading the attack. In midfield, while Luiz is a doubt to start at the weekend, three combative, all-action midfielders will be required to get in the faces of Wolves’ creative duo Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, so perhaps Smith might opt for a change of formation once more to retain defensive solidity but also field some exciting attacking, creative talent in form of club record signing Buendia and hopefully Bailey – who could make a timely return from injury.
Martinez and Luiz’s returns
Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and midfielder Luiz will both face a race against time to make it back to England for the Premier League encounter against Wolves on Saturday afternoon.
While the South American duo are not now forced to miss any games after the next week’s international break, both will have a quick turnaround in order to make it back to the UK in time for the start of the weekend.
Argentina’s final match of the break against Peru kicks-off at 12:30am on Friday in the UK, with the game against Bruno Lage’s side at Villa Park coming just 36 hours later at 3pm on Saturday.
Martinez and Luiz would be expected to jump on private flights straight after the full-time whistle in order to make it back in time to start for Villa game against Wolves, but that could be a tall order and Smith will have to assess whether or not to start Jed Steer instead of Martinez and Marvelous Nakamba in place of Brazilian international Luiz.
Ings and Watkins have started as a pair in all of Villa’s last four Premier League games against Chelsea, Everton, Man United and Tottenham, but have only scored one goal between them in that time.
In the 2-1 defeat against Spurs last time out, Watkins’ goal got Villa back on level terms before Nuno Espirito Santo’s side regained the lead to inflict defeat on Smith’s side before the October international break.
Ings, who joined Villa from Southampton during the summer, has now gone five matches without a goal and the £48million-rated duo will need time to strike a partnership.
Against Wolves it is expected that both Watkins and Ings will continue working each other out and forming that bond which will prove so vital to the club’s aspirations of securing European football come May.
Who’s got Traore?
It would be very naive of Villa not to have more than one eye on the counter attacking threat that Wolves pose to most teams in the division. Villa were caught out on the break by Tottenham and Heung min-Son last time out and with the speed and attacking threat of Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez and new signing Hwang Hee-chan, Villa’s defence has its work cut out.
Surprisingly, former Villa winger Traore hasn’t started in Wolves’ last two games, with the Barcelona loanee Francisco Trincao being given the nod by Lage instead. Though, the silky Portuguese returned a positive Covid-19 test last week and is a doubt to start at Villa Park this Saturday.
That would mean Villa’s left-back, Targett or Ashley Young, would be facing a speedster in the form of either Traore or Daniel Podence, who offer two very different, but serious threats in wide areas.