Aston Villa: What We Learned from the Wins over FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo
Andreas Weimann, Charles N'Zogbia and Joe Bennett each scored a goal on the trip across the pond and although Villa did not dominate either match, they looked entirely comfortable throughout their games.
While it appears improbable that the club will be sold by the end of the summer and alleviate much of the discomfort surrounding Villa Park, Paul Lambert's team will be glad that their foray to the USA proved successful.
Here are some takeaways from Villa's wins over FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo.
Grealish and N'Zogbia Impress on the Flanks
The departure of Marc Albrighton on a free transfer to Leicester City left a gaping hole in Villa's squad for talented wingers to take on defenders, whip in a cross or to cut inside and draw the defence's attention.
While Lambert may still be interested in signing a wide player before the transfer window closes, the displays of young Jack Grealish and the recuperated and reincorporated Charles N'Zogbia suggest that Villa is not completely without options on the flanks.
Grealish, the crown jewel of Villa's youth academy, was seemingly everywhere against Dallas. His silky touch, willingness to cover ground and smart passing showed that he is ready to play a part in the Villa first team this year.
N'Zogbia marked his return from injury by showing why Villa signed him for a hefty fee three years ago. His perfect free kick ensured a Villa victory in Dallas and the guile and purpose he showed in both matches were encouraging to see.
If both men can build upon these friendlies, then Villa will have much greater tactical flexibility and will create more goal-scoring chances throughout the season.
Andi Weimann Is Regaining His Confidence
Many of Villa's players experienced disappointing seasons last year, but perhaps no player's stock fell further than Andreas Weimann's.
The Austrian forward and product of Villa's youth academy was a crucial figure in Lambert's first year in charge. He scored vital goals, was a tireless runner and showed a great understanding with teammates such as Christian Benteke and Matthew Lowton.
Unfortunately, virtually none of those qualities were on display last year and Weimann's overall performance on the pitch was unacceptable for a key member of the first team and a regular starter.
Weimann's play during the Texas tour, however, indicates that he may be rediscovering his form and finding the confidence that eluded him last year.
His powerful finish gave Villa the lead in Dallas and his well-placed cross to Joe Bennett led to the lone goal in Houston. There are still flaws in his game to overcome, but Weimann appears to be back on track to deliver better performances for Villa this season.
Mixed Results for the New Boys
Pre-season friendlies are arguably most exciting for giving the supporters a sneak peak at a club's new signings, suggesting which of the new boys may make a difference during the impending season.
For headline-signing Joe Cole, the Texas tour ended before it could truly begin when he picked up a thigh injury in training. Villa fans will be hoping that this is not a sign of things to come and that Cole can defy expectations by staying fit for Villa.
Philippe Senderos did little to stand out in either of Villa's matches, but as Villa kept two clean sheets and conceded few clear-cut opportunities, the Swiss defender cannot be judged too harshly. He certainly appeared more comfortable than the likes of Chris Herd and Nathan Baker.
Of the three, only Kieran Richardson had a visible impact on either game. Richardson was energetic, pacey and eager to be involved. It is far too soon to declare him a successful transfer, but Richardson was able to partially demonstrate how he can be a potential asset for Villa.
3-5-2 or 4-3-3?
With Villa fielding a completely different team in each half of both matches, it is difficult to infer too much about Lambert's tactical plans for the upcoming season. There were many times when the lack of structure and organization on the pitch made it tough to formally define what formation Villa were using.
Nonetheless, the player combinations used, evidence from the matches in Texas and Lambert's previous years in charge indicates that the Scotsman is deciding between a 3-5-2 system and a 4-3-3 system for Villa's default approach next season.
A 4-3-3 is the most logical formation as it is how Villa have lined up for the majority of their matches under Lambert. Packing the midfield areas with similarly skilled players, a counterattacking 4-3-3 has been especially effective when Christian Benteke has been fit to act as the focal point of the offence.
The 3-5-2 formation, however, could allow for Lambert to make up for his full-backs' defensive shortcomings by giving them attacking license and relying on the experience of Ron Vlaar to lead a three-man defence.
If Vlaar remains at Villa, then there is an understandable attraction to the idea of fielding three at the back. Otherwise, Lambert would be best served sticking with a more conventional defence while improving his team's ability to break down an organized defence.
The Midfield Needs Overhauled
Villa's greatest area of need was readily apparent again in Texas. Although facing a lower level of competition helped mask some of Villa's weaknesses, the lack of specialization or a defined role for many of Villa's midfielders is worrisome.
Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood are the pick of the bunch. The former is Villa's ball carrier and spark plug from midfield whose burst of pace and tricky dribbling have great value. Westwood is less beloved, but the Englishman keeps possession well and is a disciplined figure who sits just in front of the defence.
The places of the rest of the midfielders are less sure. Karim El Ahmadi is a jack-of-all-trades type that doesn't excel in any particular area and has a poor discipline record. Leandro Bacuna is a strong utility man that finishes well and is eager to get forward, but he is defensively suspect and is not a very good passer.
Gary Gardner is still attempting to fully break into the first-team picture and he has not seemed to do enough to improve Lambert's opinion of him through the pre-season. Finally, it is difficult to rely on Joe Cole to stay healthy or to retain the skill of his younger days in an advanced midfield role for Villa.
With a month left in the transfer window, Lambert would ideally sign two more midfielders, an attacking and holding player, to improve the situation. The Birmingham Mail's Mat Kendrick reports that there is still interest in signing Swansea's Ki Sung-Yueng, who would be a welcome addition to the claret and blue.