What If: Aston Villa Edition

As most of you know already, Aston Villa have been searching for a new manager since the untimely resignation of Gerard Houllier for medical reasons. This piece will take a half-hearted (half-serious) look at the potential opening day starting XI’s if any one of the ever dwindling list of potential managers on Randy Lerner’s docket had taken over. A couple of notes: Yes, most of these managers have either said no to the position or have signed with someone else. This will be a hypothetical look at what would have happened had history been different. And yes, whereas I won’t be inserting Ashley Young into any of these line-ups, I’m going to assume we’ll sign Michael Bradley and keep everyone else we haven’t already released.

Carlo Ancelotti
Here’s how the line-up would have probably looked had he decided not to “take a year off.”[1] Although Ancelotti has played with a fair few formations in his time, I am choosing to use the one (4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid) he employed to such success during Chelsea’s title year last season. Clearly, Bent/Agbonlahor/Albrighton would be the front three. Albrighton is really only a winger, but he’s creative enough to manage the space well. Agbonlahor is more comfortable as a traditional striker, but Ancelotti would use his suave Italian charm to convince him to cut in from the left side. Some combination of Petrov, Makoun, Delph and Bradley would form the midfield three. Petrov has been a link man of sorts for the last few years for Villa, and would be comfortable sitting in front of defense. While neither Makoun or Bradley gives much attacking thrust, they both are hard working possession types. Barry Bannan would be a consistent super sub coming in for one of them. Who’d I forget? Oh yeah, Stewart Downing. Well, he’d be fine either in Albrighton’s role or in the center somewhere, but he’s a bit of square peg for this round hole system. That’s said he’d probably be starting.

Mark Hughes
Hughes would have a lot to prove once he made it to Villa Park. Opinions are divided over his time at City, but most would agree that his go-to formation of 4-4-2 just wasn’t flexible enough to the quality he had on his side. And yet, never one to learn from his mistakes (coughFulhamcough), he’d probably doggedly persist in maintaining what has often been a 4-4-2 over the last four years at Villa (Houllier tried to make us play 4-2-3-1, but it just didn’t stick for several reasons). Downing would certainly have a consistent place in this lineup, playing opposite Marc Albrighton on the wings. Gabby would partner Bent in the center (the fastest front line in the league?), trying to do his best Emile Heskey impression and play little through balls suited to Bent’s poaching instincts. Makoun and Petrov wouldn’t really inspire in the center, but there’d be Bannan on the bench to lend some creativity, and Michael Bradley would inevitably break in once Petrov injured himself. The back four would remain largely the same.

Steve McClaren
The much maligned former England manager managed to find a measure of success in the Eredivisie at Twente–winning the league (a first for an Englishman) with a fantastic record of 27 wings, five draws, and two losses. I’d probably have done the same in Football Manager. As Michael Cox notes, he got several things right with the team, but in addition to stability in formation and personnel, he employed a loose 4-3-3 that would consistently turn into a defensively more impressive 4-2-3-1 when Twente lost the ball. This, along with the lack of a true holding player, allowed Twente to press forward effectively when they had the ball without being vulnerable to counterattacks once possession was lost. At Villa, McClaren would try and implement a similar system, with Michael Bradley and Makoun as the two false holding players and Barry Bannan playing in the attacking midfielder role. Stewart Downing, Darren Bent, and Gabby Agbonlahor would form the front three, with Albrighton slotting in occasionally in a rotation/super-sub type role. Also, we’ll throw Warnock in there for Lichaj. Although the former Liverpool man spent the entirety of last season as a starting XI exile, McClaren is one to know about second chances.

Roberto Martinez
If Martinez came to Villa, he’d be faced with the new problem of having established talent to work with[2]. Generally, Wigan operates in underdog mode by playing on the counter and punting balls up to Rodallega to create scoring chances with. Last season they added Victor Moses and a few good loan players, which meant they relied a bit less on this method, but it will take a while for Martinez to break out of the lone striker/counterattack business. The silver lining is that Aston Villa have more or less played this style for four years despite concerted attempts not to, so it won’t be that much of a transition. He’d play 4-5-1 in an attempt to boost possession, Bent up top, Downing and Albrighton as wingers, Petrov, Bannan, and Makoun camping out in midfield. That actually wouldn’t be a bad shout at first, until Bannan develops further into a great creative midfielder and we can use him more appropriately.

Rafa Benitez
Other than McClaren, Benitez is easily the most controversial pick. I like to pretend he never went to Inter. In my game of Football Manager 2010, he’s still at Liverpool winning Champions Leauges, playing that old 4-2-3-1 that stood him in relatively good stead throughout the winning years at Liverpool. Of course, by this point, Liverpool have signed the likes of Ibrahim Afellay, Yaya Toure, and Franck Ribery, so its a slightly different situation. If he took over at Villa, in addition to scouting a bunch of young, talented Spanish prospects, he’d probably make use of our stocked midfield to implement the same 4-2-3-1. Bent would be the Torres of our team (not as creative, but still able to score at will). We don’t really have a Gerrard figure to play behind Bent, but I’d imagine he’d at least try Downing out there, as he’s our best offensive player other than Bent. On either side of Downing would be Albrighton and Agbonlahor, and the two holding mids would probably be Petrov and Makoun, at least to start. We’ll imagine that Benitez excludes and sells Warnock like he did at Liverpool and hopes that Lichaj works out.

[1] Is it just me, or did it feel like one of those “Oh, yeah, I mean, I’d love the Villa job in theory, but I’m just soooo tired from my duties at Chelsea…I really need some time to think about things…Yeah…Don’t call me I’ll call you” things? Cruel media.

[2] He’s obviously had talent at Wigan (see Santa Cruz, Valencia, Rodallega). Its just that not much of the talent he works with is established before it gets there.

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