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Aston Villa v Wolves: Dean Smith still looking to find right blend

The dilemma facing Villa boss Dean Smith ahead of tomorrow’s derby is whether to stick or twist.

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith
Aston Villa manager Dean Smith

Does he stay with the system which yielded generally decent performances over the past month, or shift to a formation which might provide more opportunities for the creative talents in his squad?

In truth his decision will likely be determined by how many of those flair players are fit and available. Arguably the biggest headache for Smith, moving forward, is how to get the best from strike duo Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins.

Switching to a three-man defence at the start of September had the added benefit of allowing Ings and Watkins to be paired up front but the returns to this point have been less than were anticipated when the former arrived during the summer for a £25million fee.

In four matches together they have registered only one goal between them and there has been little sign of a natural understanding.

“It is a conundrum. At the moment it just doesn’t look right,” says Garry Thompson, the former Villa striker turned radio pundit. Like many observers, Thompson rated Villa’s surprise capture of Ings from Southampton as among the best deals of the summer window. “To be honest, I thought Villa won the transfer window with that, particularly the way it was done with nobody having a sniff of it until it was announced,” he says.

“You’ve got Ings, who is consistently among the league’s top scorers, joining Watkins, who scored 14 in his first season.

“They’re both excellent, intelligent players and I’ve no doubt they should be able to play together but so far it has not quite clicked. If you’re Dean Smith, then you’ve got to keep persevering with it because when it does start to work, Villa will be a very dangerous team.”

Thompson believes the key to a successful strike partnership is for both players to have accepted and defined roles. He explained: “It is all about communication. You’ve got to keep talking.

“Watkins is excellent at stretching defences but for me, Ings is my centre-forward. I’ve been hugely impressed with his work-rate but you don’t always want to see him tracking back to make tackles in his own half. Sometimes you’ve got to be more selfish. Maybe it will require one to play just behind the other because so far they have looked like two players trying to do the same job and getting in each other’s way.”

One thing Smith isn’t short on is options but though the arrival of Ings, Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey has helped increase competition for places, there is a fresh challenge in finding the correct formula from week to week.

Bailey remains a doubt for tomorrow having missed nearly a month with a hamstring injury sustained in the 3-0 win over Everton. Fellow winger Bertrand Traore has also been assessed after picking up a knock while away with Burkina Faso on international duty.

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