Talking Tactics: How Gerrard can maximise Villa's midfield maestros
Emiliano Buendia and Philippe Coutinho have presented Steven Gerrard with a midfield dilemma.
The Aston Villa boss has two top-class playmakers in his ranks — but they are both having to compete for one spot in the Villans' starting XI.
How can he fit both creative maestros into the team to make the men from the Midlands more potent in attack?
As Villa host Burnley in their penultimate game of the season, we consider some potential solutions.
Signed from Norwich last summer for an initial £33million, Buendia arrived at Villa with a weighty price tag and big expectations.
But while it took the Argentina international a little time to live up to them, he has become Villa's key creative conduit — providing the joint-most assists (six) and fashioning more chances per 90 minutes (2.3) than any other player in the squad.
With a goal and an assist in his last start against Burnley, Buendia is now one away from 10 goal contributions for the campaign and had fans raving after his cameo in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace.
It felt like quite a coup when Villa pulled off the loan signing of Coutinho in January.
The dazzling dribbler wasted no time in endearing himself to the Villa Park faithful, scoring an equaliser against Manchester United just 13 minutes after coming on for his debut.
He would go on to score another three and supply three assists in his next seven appearances — before a dry spell in terms of goal contributions which has now lasted over two months.
But no one can deny that Coutinho is still a top-quality operator — and having just signed a four-year deal, the stage is set for him to become a legend in the Second City.
Lately, Gerrard has set his side up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with three central midfielders behind a No10.
But that tactical preference makes it impossible to accommodate both Buendia and Coutinho, leaving one having to make do with a place on the bench — and that simply is not going to be sustainable in the long run.
Gerrard will have to change things, especially with the permanent signing of Coutinho suggesting that he is central to their plans moving forward.
A simple solution?
It would appear that Gerrard may already have the answer to getting Buendia and Coutinho into his starting line-up.
After all, he has already done it in a number of matches following the latter's arrival, deploying both against Everton, Leeds, Newcastle, Watford and Arsenal.
And he has pulled it off without sacrificing any solidity in the centre of the park, with the duo operating just behind a central striker in a 4-3-2-1.
That does tend to mean leaving Danny Ings out — but if Gerrard can get Buendia and Coutinho firing on all cylinders simultaneously, they have got to be two of the first names on the team sheet.
A glimpse into the future?
Indeed, Buendia and Coutinho have already shown how dangerous they can be in tandem.
Former England midfielder Danny Murphy revealed as much when analysing Villa's 1-0 win at Everton back in January.
He said: "There was talk when Coutinho came in that he may be replacing Buendia, but together they are playing really narrow and close to [Ollie] Watkins.
"It was really good to watch, and it is going to cause teams problems."
We have yet to see that on a consistent basis — but with Gerrard about to have a whole summer to work on his optimum tactical set-up, watch this space.