Aston Villa: 5 Changes to Expect in 2013-14
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Aston Villa fans learned this the hard way during the course of the 2012-13 Premier League season. New manager Paul Lambert embarked on a much publicized makeover of the storied club, casting off veteran players paid high wages to give young and hungry talents a chance to shine.
Thanks to the emergence of academy players, such as Andreas Weimann and Nathan Baker, as well as impactful new signings like Matthew Lowton, Ashley Westwood and Christian Benteke, Lambert slowly molded Villa into a steadily improving team.
Despite many rocky moments, the young group survived their debut campaign. But will Lambert continue his commitment to building a team out of unproven, affordable talent?
Premier League fans can expect several crucial changes to Lambert’s Lions.
A Divergence from 4-3-3
The 4-3-3 was Villa’s primary formation during the 2012-13 season. After experimenting with other formations early in the season, including briefly attempting to play with three at the back, Lambert finally settled on the 4-3-3 formation as his preferred plan of attack.
While the 4-3-3 formation proved successful, an influx of new talent during the summer gives Lambert more tactical options in how to line up his attackers. The addition of Danish forward Nicklas Helenius provides the option of pairing the tall Dane with Benteke in a dual striker formation.
Utilizing the two aerially dominant players together could be supported by wing play from new signings Leandro Bacuna, Aleksandar Tonev or the returning Marc Albrighton. The versatile Bacuna could also find himself playing a centrally creative role that Villa lacked last season, perhaps in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
In either case, Lambert’s summer signings ensure much greater attacking flexibility.
The Return of Albrighton and Gardner
As exciting and potentially invigorating as new signings can be for a team, it is often easy to overlook the impact of players returning from injury. Marc Albrighton and Gary Gardner, two prized products of the Villa youth academy, missed significant portions of the 2012-13 season due to injury.
Albrighton, who was hailed as "a new David Beckham" not too long ago, provides the wide threat that Villa sorely missed at times last season while Gardner is a talented midfielder whose combination of creativity and industry would have been welcome to a midfield that was rarely capable of producing a goal during 2012-13.
With both players entering the new season healthy and eager to impress, Paul Lambert will have greater depth and some challenging decisions make.
Greater Use of Width
As touched upon earlier, one area that Aston Villa lacked in during the 2012-13 campaign was crossing. According to WhoScored, Villa were tied for the lowest crosses per game last season, attempting just 18 per game.
This statistic is quite surprising given the aerial prowess of Christian Benteke. This lack of a threat from wide areas is more potentially troublesome given the arrival of Nicklas Helenius, whose 6’5” height makes him a natural target for crossed balls.
Paul Lambert has shown an awareness of this offensive deficiency and the signing of Aleksandar Tonev, and to a lesser extent Leandro Bacuna, demonstrate a commitment to improve in this area.
Tonev is a traditional winger who will be naturally inclined to attack down the flanks while Bacuna is a versatile attacker capable of being deployed out wide, if necessary. Joined by a healthy Marc Albrighton, expect to see Villa’s crossing numbers increase dramatically from last season.
Improvement in Central Defense
While Aston Villa often looked capable of scoring goals last season, their leaky defense was quite troublesome. Due to both long-term and short-term injuries, Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker struggled to keep goals out.
This inconsistency at the back was evidenced by the 69 total goals conceded by Villa during 2012-13, the third worst in the Premier League. Nonetheless, there is much cause for optimism for Villa fans entering the 2013-14 season.
The signing of Jores Okore was a major coup for the club, as they acquired the services of a bright young talent with both physical and technical gifts. Fellow youngsters Clark and Baker have both signed new contracts at the club, demonstrating that Paul Lambert has great faith that both young players are improving with experience.
With the talent and potential of these youngsters, alongside the experience of Vlaar, Villa’s central defense only has room to grow and improve based on the lessons learned during last season’s relegation fight.
Solving the Left-Back Problem
Perhaps the most apparent weakness that Aston Villa chronically displayed last season was a lack of quality at left-back. Joe Bennett had little success in his maiden Premier League campaign. While confident on the ball, Bennett was constantly exposed at the back where his over-eagerness to get forward and his brashness in tackling were frequent issues.
Eric Lichaj and Enda Stevens similarly failed to impress on the left, with the former having left the club for Nottingham Forest. Enter Antonio Luna, the 22-year-old Spaniard purchased from Sevilla. In just a few quick months Luna, already affectionately nicknamed Tony Moon, has shown great promise during Villa’s preseason matches.
Luna possesses quick feet, skill on the ball and a demonstrated eagerness to get forward. Should he prove capable of defending against the lethal right-sided attackers at the Premier League level, Luna could be the missing link at left-back.