Steve Bruce would have been a very nervous man when Aston Villa faced Championship strugglers Barnsley at Oakwell last weekend.
The pressure was beginning to mount on the Villa boss after the pre-season favourites for promotion won just one of their opening seven league fixtures of the campaign, and his team was also without an away win in the Championship since March.
With 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations failing to produce the results that Bruce wanted in the early stages of the season, the former Hull City manager decided to make a significant change for the clash against the Tykes.
He went back to basics with a 4-4-2 system which incorporated two wingers and two strikers – Keinan Davis and Jonathan Kodjia – up top, and it resulted in a 3-0 victory for the visitors.
While the return of the previously out-of-favour Albert Adomah to the starting line-up certainly helped after he scored a brace – Davis got the other with a fine header – Bruce would have left Yorkshire perhaps wondering why he hadn’t thought of using the system before.
With Adomah and new boy Robert Snodgrass in the ranks, backed up by the likes of Jack Grealish and Andre Green – when they return from injury – Birkir Bjarnason and Ahmed Elmohamady, Villa have a number of players in their squad that prefer to play out wide and love to get crosses into the box.
Added to those wingers, Bruce can pick from Kodjia, Davis, Gabby Agbonlahor, Scott Hogan, Ross McCormack and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy up top, and it would be mad not to use two strikers when he has those options to pick from at this level.
While Kodjia showed how good he can be as a lone striker when he scored 19 goals in 36 Championship appearances for the Midlands outfit last season, he would certainly benefit from having an extra foil and more support considering he is only just returning from injury and will be a marked man this term.
Davis may only be 19 years of age but he has proven to be one of the club’s best performers already this season, with his fine showing against Barnsley following on from his impressive first Football League start in the win against Norwich City last month.
With proven Championship scorers in Hogan and McCormack and experienced pros like Agbonlahor, there is plenty of competition for places and that should bring out the best in those players if they know there are two striker spots to fight for.
Some Villa supporters may be concerned about what that means for the middle of the park where Bruce has Glenn Whelan, Mile Jedinak, Conor Hourihane, Henri Lansbury and loanee Josh Onomah to choose from, but while one of the former two is probably a certainty in the starting line-up because of their defensive abilities, any of the latter three would be able to make a difference from an attacking point of view if partnered with the experienced duo.
While the 4-4-2 system was effective away from home Villa must convert that dominance to their home matches – they have already failed to find a breakthrough against Brentford and Middlesbrough at Villa Park this season – starting with their clash against Nottingham Forest this weekend.
The result against Barnsley was just the start, and now Bruce and his players must show that the 4-4-2 formation can be effective on a weekly basis if they are to pull themselves into the promotion race.