Is 4-2-3-1 the way forward? - Chris Boden’s match verdict

Jay Rodriguez scores Burnleys first equaliser at Villa Park
Jay Rodriguez scores Burnleys first equaliser at Villa Park

Aston Villa boss Dean Smith was clearly a frustrated man after Burnley claimed a 2-2 draw at Villa Park, leaving his newly-promoted side still in the bottom three.

“Burnley will go home with what they came for, you seen that with how long they were taking with goal kicks.”

Now, I wasn’t alone in finding that statement odd, especially considering the Clarets ended the game with three strikers on the pitch, to Villa’s one.

It is becoming a weekly gripe, Burnley take points off a side - cue the moans and groans about style of play, apparent time-wasting, physicality...the old ‘anti-football’ argument.

But, as Sean Dyche often points out, he isn’t a zealot to style, he likes to employ a mixed brand of football, capable of hurting teams in as many ways as possible.

He is unfairly pigeonholed as purely an old-school, Mike Bassett: England Manager “We are playing four-four-********- two” tactician.

That is ignorant of the nuances of his side in that familiar system, which, without switching personnel, can be, at different times, any number of different shapes, 3-5-2, 4-5-1, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1...

He has enjoyed success in the Premier League in a 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, and while the 3-5-2 and 5-4-1 didn’t bring results last season at a tough time, performances at Spurs and Arsenal were not far away from doing so.

At half-time at Villa, trailing to a counter attack finished by Anwar El Ghazi, Dyche made a bold tactical switch which altered the course of the game for his side.

Jack Cork picked up a shoulder injury in the first half, but Dyche was already pondering tweaks: “The change of shape was tactical, but the injury helped us think like that, we thought it needed changing in the first half.”

He went with the 4-2-3-1 utilised briefly in pre-season in the thumping win over Nice, bringing on Jay Rodriguez to play from the right, moving Ashley Barnes to the left, and allowing Dwight McNeil and Jeff Hendrick to get on the ball and support the attack, while Ashley Westwood dropped deeper to pick passes.

And it worked well.

After a first half where the sides traded good headed chances and both hit the woodwork from free kicks, Villa gradually got the upper hand, having a McGinn goal ruled out by VAR before El Ghazi’s opener, the Clarets gained more control of possession initially in the second half.

They equalised through Rodriguez, who came in off the right to beat left back Neil Taylor and emphatically head home a cross from Erik Pieters, following good work on the left from Barnes.

Rodriguez played all across the front in his first spell with Burnley, cutting in from the left, playing down the middle or from the right, and he often played in a front three with Southampton, where he was close to playing himself into England’s 2014 World Cup squad before cruelly suffering a bad knee injury.

Barnes was also often deployed on the left of a three at Brighton before joining the Clarets, and played on the left in a 4-4-2 late in the season in 2041/15 as Burnley were ultimately unable to avoid the drop.

Villa may have regained the initiative, after Burnley had calmed their attacking intentions, with Pieters couldn’t stop the cross from substitute Trezeguet, before the outstanding John McGinn got a clean contact at the far post to fire in off the shins of Nick Pope.

But 92 seconds later, Matt Lowton’s precise cross demanded a goal, and Chris Wood delivered, heading down and past former Clarets skipper Tom Heaton.

The Clarets had to see out seven minutes of injury time, caused not by their supposed time wasting, but predominantly by phantom injuries to Villa players - notably to £22m record signing Wesley, who suffered the sickening blow of a ball to the nose, before recovering like Tyson Fury against Deontay Wilder.

A point was deserved over the piece, but would it have come without the tactical change? It’s doubtful.

So could that system be the way forward? 4-4-2 has been so effective for Dyche and Burnley in the Premier League, but the 4-2-3-1 answers a number of conundrums.

It effectively means Burnley are not outnumbered in midfield, as they usually are every week - which is credit to Westwood and Cork for the work they put in to mitigate that.

But it also allows McNeil to roam and Hendrick to get on the ball and break forward, while Westwood can play as something of a quarterback, in a role where former Villa boss Tim Sherwood said of him: He’s the sort of footballer I like.

“He's not going to score you a bag full of goals but if you analyse him, he passes the ball forward more than most. He slides it in between the midfield, gets the No 10 on the ball.

“He passes it so quick the commentator does not have time to say his name. That's what I like. He's the Michael Carrick mould of a player.

“He's one of my favourite players.”

It also enables Dyche, who loves playing with two strikers, to play with even more threat, with three, and while that means moving Barnes or Rodriguez out of the box and into wider roles, as Rodriguez’s goal showed, that means they are deadly coming off the line.

The pair are also diligent in their tracking back, supporting their full backs.

It’s an interesting option to have, but will we see it against Everton on Saturday?