Aston Villa's performances against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool offered moments of real promise and moments of concern, but the opening three games were far more positive than negative. I began my last post mentioning the likelihood of there being more bumps along the way for our young side, but I didn't expect such a bump so soon; Villa welcomed Newcastle and allowed them to take three points. The defeat and performance was bitterly disappointing. Even so, I think there has been an over-reaction to it, and I think the over-reaction is largely due to the two week break which heightened anticipation and expectation. Nevertheless, I want to try break it down.
After a two week break I expected us to close down Newcastle with the same gusto we saw for large parts of the first two games and the second part of the Liverpool game after we changed formation, but we didn't. The only reasons I can think of that pressure wasn't applied: the players suffer from nerves in front of the home support (possibly having read this,) or it was tactical choice.
The re-introduction of El Ahmadi, who was left out from the starting line-up against Liverpool, made perfect sense at the time. As it turned out, El Ahmadi didn't show the same level of performance and was easily dispossessed for Newcastle's opener (Lowton didn't cover himself in glory either). But it was El Ahmadi's defensive contribution that was most disappointing, having been a standout in the first two fixtures for interceptions and tackles, El Ahmadi completed 0 tackles and 0 interceptions in the 67 minutes he played, but he was not alone in disappointing (it'd be quicker to name those who didn't disappoint, which I do toward the end of the post, with one name.)
The tactical choice not to press as aggressively perhaps hints at Lambert attempting to manufacture a scenario at home, that would hopefully facilitate the effectiveness we often enjoy away from home. By choosing not to close down as aggressively we effectively invite opponents to come forward, hopefully in numbers, and then attempt to win the ball back before quickly releasing our forwards and hopefully capitalising on the space left by our opponents.
It was certainly noticeable how little Gabby and Weimann tracked back to help our fullbacks, who endured torrid times. Luna struggled against Ben Arfa, while Lowton made trouble for himself; Lowton has struggled for large periods of the season thus far, only showing brief glimpses of his importance and influence. Gabby and Weimann are two of the most willing runners, so I find it hard to believe they would not track back unless it was under orders.
As mentioned in my last post, stubborn and packed defences will always make life tough for us, so we must find ways to either get through those tight defences, or unpack those tight defences before attempting to attack. It is the latter which I feel we attempted against Newcastle.
In the final five minutes of the first half we saw an upside to this tactic of inviting the opposition forward, and also the ability to open up opponents. Having regained possession we launched a quick counter not with a long punt up-field, but with six one touch passes starting ~10 yards outside our box, resulting in Gabby and Weimann breaking two on one against Yanga-Mbiwa. The graphic below shows the passes and Weimann's shot; focus on the 5 dark blue lines following on from one another, culminating in the light blue line which was the through ball to Weimann; the light blue line points to the red "shot" line which trundles harmlessly wide.
Lowton was at the heart of it, one of the few positive moments he and we had. The move included El Ahmadi, Westwood, and Benteke, all of whom were stationary, while Lowton ran aggressively between them, seemingly following the ball, and as a result finding space to play the killer pass (light blue line.) Lowton starts the move with a short pass forward to El Ahmadi who quickly returns it, and then Lowton passes infield for Westwood while following the pass with his run. Westwood plays it into Benteke who lays it square to Lowton who hits a first time through ball. Quick, sharp passing which exposed Newcastle. Can we do similar against a packed defence? I think in time we can, but four games into the season there is still perhaps a bit of match rustiness.
The positioning of Gabby and Weimann in respect to Benteke is also of interest. Remembering those zones in which Benteke received passes vs Chelsea (here) and Arsenal (here), wide of centre and deep, it is a common occurrence against all our opponents thus far (although not as exaggerated against Liverpool and Newcastle, as we saw more of the ball). Benteke drops deep to receive the ball, Gabby and Weimann look to move forward past Benteke, hopefully looking to exploit any space created.
The Weimann chance was a perfect example of this (a crude image of the movement below), Benteke dropped deep to receive a pass from Westwood and as such Coloccini was drawn out of the centre of defence, choosing not to let the big man turn (Benteke & Coloccini are in the red circle with their movement shown by the red line.) Gabby and Weimann creep forward and once Benteke lays the ball off to the advancing Lowton, Coloccini is effectively out of the game. With a great first time ball Lowton releases Weimann and Gabby, who were now breaking against an isolated Yanga-Mbiwa-the ideal scenario for us. We couldn't capitalise.
Before equalising we had two superb chances, both from quick counters; the Weimann chance above, and about 10 minutes after half-time, Lowton played a ball up the line for Weimann who put in a superb cross only for Gabby to scuff his effort wide with the goal gaping. These were two great, great chances, and yet neither player hit the target. With the defence under pressure largely due to the tactic explained above of "inviting" Newcastle forward in order to create space for our fast counters, we must be more efficient at taking such clear chances.
The equaliser came from a corner, with Libor Kozak (just on as sub) and Ciaran Clark acting as a sort of screen (basketball-like, I'm loathe to say Stoke-like, but it sort of was) for Benteke. So we were back in the game, but the Kozak substitution still had me scratching my head; Libor Kozak for El Ahmadi. While El Ahmadi did not enjoy the best of games, taking off a midfielder for a forward left the defence under even more pressure than it already had been. With Gabby and Weimann still asked to maintain advanced positions in support of Kozak and Benteke, Westwood and Delph now had to contend with Newcastle's 3 man midfield as well as support the fullbacks who had struggled all game. It was too much for them to do.
Newcastle's winner showed how stretched we were. Ben Arfa, Newcastle's most dangerous player (this week and every other week), was in about 40 yards of space and free to run at Luna, while our front 4 were all stood on the halfway-line ready to counter should we win the ball back. Even prior to the change, Ben Arfa had enjoyed the same space and opportunity when drawing a save from Guzan which went out for a corner. This should have been warning enough so that Lambert might ask Gabby and/or Weimann to drop just a little deeper to support the over-run midfield and struggling fullbacks.
Luna perhaps could have tried to show Ben Arfa down the outside onto his weaker foot, although his weaker foot isn't that weak-remember the right foot rocket he scored last year against us-so instead Luna let him come inside, hopefully into traffic. However, Delph was only just tracking across having been contending with Newcastle's midfield 3, Ben Arfa fired his shot, Guzan perhaps could have done better, and Lowton summed up his lack of form by napping for the rebound.
The fullbacks playing on the back foot and inviting pressure as opposed to pressing for large periods also meant we often lacked width in attacking areas. Interceptions from our fullbacks have been a good platform for attacks, but they made just three interceptions (front foot defending) against Newcastle while making nine tackles between them (five for Luna, four for Lowton). Even so, a couple of the brighter moments heavily involved our fullbacks; Weimann's chance which saw Lowton at the heart of it, and Luna being released by Delph inside Newcastle's box only for the Spaniard to attempt a cross rather than shoot.
As highlighted in my previous post, Lambert's fullbacks will have to go through a lot of miles and neither had the best of games despite working very hard. Luna was restricted somewhat by the presence and threat of Ben Arfa, while Lowton struggled to link up effectively with teammates (he and Weimann are both struggling which makes matters worse for one another.) It all meant we were very narrow and congested. Even after the addition of Kozak (who touched the ball four times in 25 minutes) we lacked real width in attacking areas, as Gabby and Weimann still looked to come inside. It was all too similar to the game against Bradford, which is most disappointing given the regret Lambert has shown for that performance.
The only player to emerge with a degree of credit was Delph who was again very busy, making seven out of eight tackles and completing three interceptions. A good article about his performances can be found on WhoScored.com. He also carried the ball forward aggressively with a couple of dribbles, one at the heart of Newcastle's midfield, the other ferrying the ball some 70 yards up the left touchline which relieved some pressure and got us deep into Newcastle territory. He did endure the usual criticism following his yellow card, but if a player is making five tackles per game then he is maybe more likely to pick up a yellow. Comparing Delph to Westwood and El Ahmadi, both have been booked twice, but complete 1.3 and 2.5 tackles per game respectively. (Delph's yellow against Rotherham was the only stupid/reckless booking that could have been avoided, borne out of frustration at his performance as he alluded to in his post match interview on AVTV).
Another small positive was the improvement shown by the centre backs. Thus far all of our centre backs, have performed well for the most part when called upon. A few wobbles, but considering we have been forced into making a change in three of our four games, I think a few wobbles would be expected. If we can have some stability back there, then it should help. In that regard the injury to Okore is a crushing blow to the competition for the role. All the best to Jores as nine months is a crushing blow, but he should find excellent support from players and staff at VP as we have had to deal with similar injuries to Delph and Gardner (twice).
The home form is certainly a worry, but it is far too early in the season to be making doomsday predictions. Lambert and the team have a number of issues that they need to work through however, in order of importance:
Finding the right balance at home so that our forwards effectiveness is maximised whilst maintaining a level of control. Teams are far more aware/fearful of our front three now making life tougher for us, especially at Villa Park.
A number of influential players under-performing; Lowton, Westwood, and Weimann have not hit the form they showed last year, while Benteke, despite scoring five-in-five, has not had the same all-round impact.
When we have fashioned great chances (with only the keeper to beat) we've not taken them (Weimann twice against Chelsea, Weimann against Newcastle, and Gabby against Newcastle).
The piece I linked to earlier about nerves at home is worth thinking about. It paints a rather unhealthy picture; audible groans meeting backward passes. I don't want to write more than a few words about this as the piece does a good job highlighting the stupidity, so I'll try to keep it brief.
It's good to keep possession of the ball, and sometimes to do this it is necessary to play a backward pass rather than a risky forward pass. One reason why it's good is that it means your opponents don't have the ball, so it can be thought of as a form of defence. A secondary reason why keeping possession by playing it backwards can be beneficial, especially for us, is that it may draw opponents forward, thus creating space so forward passes will not be into as much traffic. As most of us are aware, we don't have a creative #10 and our forwards aren't the best in tight areas, so playing backwards may just open up a bit more space for them.
However, if players hear groans every time they play a backward pass it hardly encourages them to do it again. It may even discourage players from even looking for the ball, just in case they can't find a forward pass that 35,000 fans would approve of. Players may begin to shy away from taking the ball off our centre backs/Guzan, and the last thing young players need is to be fearful in front of their own fans. Lambert has, at every opportunity, praised the support the fans have shown our young squad, with a number of players struggling for form as we search for performances at home. It's important not to desert them now.