I recently wrote an article about the returning Stewart Downing and what a boost it will give the Aston Villa side and it is a topic that still greatly interests me. In a period where injuries come thick and fast (as Arsenal will testify) it is a huge benefit to have strength in depth and quality in a range of positions. This something that Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa side have in their midfield department, yet although O’Neill is spoilt with an abundance of quality, he is also presented with a midfield headache. The Irishman has three talented wingers at his disposal in Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing, therefore the Villa gaffer has a question to ask himself; how do I get three into two?
Downing remained an unused substitute in last weekend’s Premier League encounter with top four rivals Tottenham Hotspur, with O’Neill favouring the tried and tested combination of Young and Milner. I believe that Downing may find it hard to displace either of these two as despite undoubtedly possessing talent, he has to replace not only two proven players, but also two players who I am led to believe are very popular with the Villa Park faithful.
Ashley Young offers a dimension that O’Neill’s Villa side clearly base their game on; pace. The winger’s acceleration is one of the best in the league and he makes Aston Villa a threat in standard attacks and especially counter attacks. You only have to look at the away fixture against Everton last season to see the value of Young to the Villa side. In addition to this he has a good partnership with the Aston Villa strike force of John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Carew’s size means that he benefits from Young’s deliveries, whereas Agbonlahor and Young possess the ability to overlap and their pace will cause problems to any defence.
I therefore believe that O’Neill cannot afford to replace Young in his wing role, at least not on a regular basis. Downing’s role in the side may come from Milner’s versatility. Although Villa may be very strong in the wing department, in my opinion their central midfield is not of the same quality. O’Neill may well consider the possibility of shifting Milner into a more central role in place of Steve Sidwell or Nigel Reo-coker, enabling the Irishman to utilise Downing in his natural left hand side position, with Young on the right. Milner is no stranger to playing in a range of roles and would no doubt excel in a central position. His work rate is extremely high and above all he is reliable – it is a role that I can certainly see him performing in.
For the time being I cannot see Downing breaking into the starting eleven and holding down a regular place unless Villa suffer injuries or O’Neill opts to shift his midfield around. However this does not mean that the former Middlesbrough man will be left on the bench constantly. The relentless pace of the Premier League means that squad rotation is essential for success, you only have to look at the midfields of teams like Chelsea and Manchester United to see that players must be given a certain amount of rest in order to perform their best and this means that the returning Downing will still have an important part to play in Aston Villa’s season.