4 Questions for Aston Villa to Answer on Their Preseason Tour of Texas
Aston Villa's preseason preparations formally began last week with the team's 3-1 win over Mansfield Town. Although the Villans capitulated first, Darren Bent's brace and Gary Gardner's calm finish gave Villa the win in their first match of the summer.
It is dangerous to gleam too much information from the first few friendlies of the preseason. Many players are not fully fit, new signings are adjusting to a new atmosphere and the manager often fields unusual combinations of players who are unfamiliar playing with one another.
Nonetheless, dismissing preseason matches altogether is foolish. These games can offer glimpses of what to expect from the upcoming season, as well as answer lingering questions through the manager's actions in regards to certain players.
The Birmingham club's preseason campaign will continue this week with a pair of matches against MLS sides FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo. These encounters will pick up where the Mansfield clash left off by attempting to address some aspects of Paul Lambert's plans for this season.
Here are four questions for Aston Villa to answer during their preseason tour of Texas.
Is the Bomb Squad Back for Good?
When Villa resumed first-team training ahead of the new season, the return to the fold of the infamous "Bomb Squad" was one of the major talking points. This group consisted of veteran players who had been exiled by Lambert to train away from the first team, leaving their high wages on the books.
Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia and Alan Hutton were the primary members of this outfit and all three featured impressively against Mansfield. Bent scored a pair of goals while N'Zogbia and Hutton contributed well to Villa's build-up play.
All three men have made the trip to Texas as well and it seems their exile has ended. Still, Lambert has an interesting choice to make. Will he reincorporate them into the team despite their high wages and his past issues with them, or are they being put on display for potential buyers?
N'Zogbia seems the most likely to stay and play. Lambert has previously insisted N'Zogbia was sidelined as a part of his recovery from injury rather than personal reasons. Given Villa's lack of wide players and N'Zogbia's mercurial talents, it is unlikely the Frenchman leaves soon.
Hutton's situation is less certain. Villa turned down a bid from West Bromwich Albion for the right-back's services, indicating Lambert wants to field him this season. This is very surprising given Hutton has not featured for Villa since Lambert arrived as manager two seasons ago.
Finally, there is the curious case of Bent. Villa's record signing played for Fulham on loan last season after being deemed surplus to requirements. With Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak still sidelined with injuries, however, Bent may be needed for the beginning of the season to lead Villa's attack in their absences.
The future of the three players will probably remain unclear until the transfer window formally closes, but if the trio continues to perform well during the preseason matches then Villa and Lambert have a series of challenging decisions to make.
Can Three at the Back Work?
In his two years at Villa Park, Lambert has not often diversified his tactics or formations. One of the few experiments he has tried, however, has been to field a three-man defence. This is not dissimilar to the approach taken this summer by the Dutch national team, which was among many teams that found success using this strategy at the 2014 World Cup.
At the centre of this Dutch defence was Villa's own Ron Vlaar, who was one of the tournament's standouts. This has raised the question if Lambert will attempt a three-man defence again, a presumption that was given credence during the second half of the friendly against Mansfield when Villa lined up in such a fashion.
Although Vlaar is taking a well-deserved break and will not be with the team for the matches in Texas, these warm-up games could see the a three-man back line used again, and this would all but confirm Lambert will attempt to use the formation again in the upcoming season.
There are a few reasons to believe a three-man defence could be more successful this year for Villa than it has in the past, leading Lambert to make another attempt to make the formation work.
First, Vlaar has previously lined up on the right side of the defensive trio for Villa with Nathan Baker playing in the middle. Vlaar's success anchoring the Netherlands' defence could convince Lambert to move Vlaar to the middle and replace Baker with the returning Jores Okore.
Second, the signing of Kieran Richardson gives Villa a more experienced player in the left wing-back position. Richardson began his career as a winger, but he made his Villa debut against Mansfield from the wing-back position where he will likely be preferred over Joe Bennett.
How Will Joe Cole Fit into the Starting XI?
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of preseason matches is that they offer an opportunity to get an early look at a team's latest acquisitions in action. Of Villa's new signings, Joe Cole will have the most eyes on him for several reasons.
Cole has proven talent and experience playing elite football at Chelsea and for England. What is troubling, however, is that Cole is roughly four years past his best, has long struggled with injuries and is fresh off of an uninspiring campaign for a lackluster West Ham team.
Nonetheless, if Cole can harness some of the ability of his younger years then Villa will be substantially better off. Having often lacked a creative influence in the midfield, a fit and motivated Cole would be a boon for Lambert's team.
The matches with Houston and Dallas will help to determine both if Cole looks up for this task and, if so, where specifically he will most often feature for Villa.
He could be feasibly deployed as a central attacking midfielder or as a winger, and either position would likely mean a divergence from the 4-3-3 system Lambert has most commonly employed during his two years in charge.
What Lies in Store for Luna and Tonev?
In addition to answering questions on the pitch, Lambert's selection of squad members to make the trip to Texas offers insight into the potential fate of a few players who have not excelled in a Villa shirt and who could find themselves on the move to a new club.
Antonio Luna and Aleksandar Tonev were both signed last summer to address pressing needs at left-back and on the wing. Neither man has been able to do so, and by leaving Luna and Tonev at home, it strongly implies they may not start the season with the team.
Although he started his Villa career brightly, notching a memorable goal against Arsenal in his debut, Luna's performances worsened as the season progressed. The signing of Ryan Bertrand on loan in January ended Luna's first-team run, with Joe Bennett also preferred ahead of the Spaniard once he regained fitness.
Furthermore, the addition of Kieran Richardson, as well as the inclusion of Enda Stevens on Villa's traveling roster, seemingly confirms Luna has one foot out the door. Reports of a potential move to Hellas Verona could come to fruition to end Luna's spell for Villa.
Tonev's situation is slightly less clear, but he also seems destined to leave Villa Park. The Bulgarian was a complete disaster in his maiden season in a claret and blue shirt, failing miserably to make an impact. Although he did play in the warm-up against Mansfield, Lambert's actions suggest Tonev is on his way out as well.
Neither man will be greatly missed by the fans, and their departures will trim the club's wage bill, benefiting Villa in a small but not insignificant manner.