At Anfield on Monday, the manager deployed Gabriel Agbonlahor in attack, supported by wingers Ashley Young and James Milner. Against a team with weak fullbacks such as Liverpool, the move worked perfectly. Milner ran Emiliano Insua into the ground and Young, despite a good battle with Glen Johnson, prevailed in that matchup as well.
From there, Villa had only to rely on the two factors they used with such success last season: set-pieces and lethal counterattacking from the wide positions. When they stick to those strengths, they’re a very difficult team to handle. But don’t count on it happening.
O’Neill, as everyone knows, has a fetish for big, burly forwards and will insert Emile Heskey or John Carew, or both, into the lineup at his first opportunity. Nevermind the fact that he got a superb result without either of them on Monday. His mind is made up. Whenever possible, O’Neill will play a 4-4-2 this season. That’s just a fact.
It’s also a pity, because Villa’s strongest players happen to play on the flanks. They created very little through the middle at Anfield; everything tended to go through Young and Milner. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It only becomes a problem when the manager tries time and again to twist the team into an unnatural formation. And 4-4-2 is unnatural for this group of players. There is no playmaker to distribute the ball from the centre, and Heskey, as most Villa fans will admit, has been a bust since arriving from Wigan in January.
If the manager fully intends to revert back to 4-4-2, his best bet would be to buy a pure playmaker to operate alongside one of Stiliyan Petrov and Steve Sidwell. Standard Liege captain Steven Defour would fit the role nicely, as would CSKA Moscow maestro Alan Dzagoev. As it stands, O’Neill’s 4-4-2 is doomed to fail because he doesn’t have the personnel to carry it out.
Of course, he may have taken the 3-1 defeat of Liverpool as a wakeup call. Although Agbonlahor didn’t provide the offensive spearhead that he loves, everything else came off perfectly. And as astute a tactician as O’Neill is, even he must admit that the 4-3-2-1 gives each of his players their best chance to make themselves useful.
We’ll find out for sure on Sunday.