The last time Emi Buendía and Emi Martínez tried to play a football match things veered into darkest Charlie Chaplin territory, so it would be reckless to make many predictions about what will happen when the Argentinian duo return to Aston Villa on Saturday. What can be said for sure is that Dean Smith hopes the players are passed fit in the morning after flying from Croatia, where they have been training for the past 10 days while in quarantine after an international assignment that concluded with their being bundled off a pitch by furious Brazilian health marshals. And if Martínez and Buendía are deemed to be available for selection against Everton, then Villa’s post-Jack Grealish era can truly begin.
Earning £100m from the sale of the club’s best player does not necessarily make a team richer. Villa’s plan for progressing despite the loss of their chief conductor involved growing more versatile by deepening their squad and widening Smith’s options. Last season it was quite easy to anticipate Villa’s selections and formation. Not so this term, when they have mixed things up in every match, with Smith even introducing a back three for the trip last weekend to Chelsea, where his team performed well despite losing 3-0.
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Smith’s alterations have come despite the fact that injuries, illness and tangential oddity have prevented him from picking as he pleased. If Buendía and Martínez get the all-clear, he will at last be able to choose from a full hand. It will be fascinating to see how Villa play.
“It’s nice to have a full healthy squad leading into a three-game week with Everton on Saturday, then Chelsea in the [Carabao] cup and Manchester United,” said Smith yesterday. “It’s very pleasing to be able to have a choice.”
Villa made it clear in the summer that no direct replacement was signed for Grealish; rather the team would evolve by integrating three new players: Buendía, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings. So far Smith has been able to deploy that trio together for 12 minutes. That came during the defeat at Watford on the opening day, when Ollie Watkins was missing through injury. Since Watkins is practically indispensable – because of his dynamism and intelligent pressing as well as his goal threat – Smith will be keen to keep him on the pitch as much as possible. How?
Watkins and Ings have the potential to form a fearsome partnership in which their different skills complement each other for the greater glory of the team. But understanding does not grow instantaneously, as was clear at Stamford Bridge, where Ings could not get involved as much as Villa would have liked. Familiarity should breed contentment on that front but Ings and Watkins performing as a duo also raises questions about the shape of the rest of the team: does it mean deploying Bailey as a left wing-back? A wide man in a 4-4-2? Or as a central thruster from a midfield that also includes Buendía?
Where do Bertrand Traoré, Ashley Young and the revitalised Anwar El Ghazi fit into all this? With the attacking talent at his disposal, Smith is going to spend much of this season resisting temptation as he strikes a balance between creativity and solidity. How many players should Villa use in central midfield, and which ones? At times last season they were too weak there, but John McGinn and Douglas Luiz have looked better this season and the 20-year-old Jacob Ramsey has staked a strong claim for regular action.
The calibre of the opposition will help Smith make up his mind: just because his team showed that they can function well in a 3-5-2 at Chelsea does not make it the ideal system to use at home to Everton.
The back three was made workable partly because of another summer signing, Axel Tuanzebe, who was hired from Manchester United to increase tactical adaptability and apply direct competition for places on Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings. If Smith reverts to a back four against Everton, will Tuanzebe be retained in place of Mings, whose mistake at Chelsea undid so much of Villa’s good work? That would be unduly severe on a player who has mostly excelled for Villa and whose influence earned him promotion to club captain after Grealish’s departure. But Smith has the option to be ruthless when he believes that is right.
The difference with Villa this season is exactly that – the ability to be different from game to game, and within games, in the quest for consistent performances and results. The only thing they are shorter of now is excuses.