It has been a tough few weeks for Aston Villa. There have been a number of disappointing results, but what has caused more frustration has been the quality of the performances. There have been a few rays of sunshine breaking through the grey-the first hour vs. Everton was very promising, for example-but more often than not it has been a pretty bleak month at the club.
Against Cardiff City it was another stuttering performance but the result was certainly welcomed at Villa Park, giving the home crowd a rare victory and scoring for the first time in over seven hours. There are certainly some things that need to be improved upon, but the defence is much stronger and is helping us grind out results (or at least keeping us in the game so we can hope to grind out results).
Lambert looked to play 4-3-1-2, with Libor Kozak alongside Christian Benteke and Aleksandar Tonev in support, drifting wide left regularly. Illness to Fabian Delph saw Yacouba Sylla kept his place. Ciaran Clark was moved to left back and Leandro Bacuna returned to right back meaning Matthew Lowton, who had shown a few bright moments vs West Ham, returned to the bench.
Villa started fairly brightly, passing and retaining possession and creating a few half chances, notably Karim El Ahmadi with a couple of shots from distance after making two bursts forward from midfield. However, after the opening 15-20 minutes, the passing became wayward which allowed Cardiff to have the majority of the ball. The passing stats shown in the table below make for grim reading; the players have been ordered by the number of passes they attempted:
(KP = Key Pass, Pass = # of Passes; PA% = % of successful passes; C = Crosses; AC = Accurate Crosses; LB = Long Ball; ALB = Accurate Long Ball)
Three of the four most frequent passers-Ron Vlaar, Sylla and Bacuna-attempted 130 passes between them, completing just ~69%. Only two players (Ashley Westwood and Clark) completed above 75%, which explains why we only had 43% possession. It was a similar story against West Ham a week ago, with three of the four most frequent passers-Westwood, Lowton and Benteke-attempting ~120passes but completing only ~66% between them.
So it was a very scrappy first half. with little worthy of writing about. There were a few bright moments from Tonev down the left wing, but he also had the chance to create a clear opening for Benteke only to shoot wildly from 25v yards instead; poor decision making again from the new boy. For all of Cardiff's possession (they had a worrying 60% in the first half), they created very little, with their best chance coming from Guzan and Baker hesitating.
The second half was an improvement. Our passing was still too wayward for us to build pressure via possession as the home side perhaps should be looking to do, but the tempo-especially off the ball-increased. We looked to press aggressively and a little higher up the pitch, which unsettled Cardiff's passing; in the first half they comfortably completed 84% (231) of their 275 passes, while in the second half they completed just 70% (120) of their 170 passes. The off the ball pressing saw us effectively control the game by forcing errors higher up the pitch, and we were able to build attacks quickly from advanced positions, which included a few decent chances for Benteke and Kozak from crosses into the box from Bacuna playing at right back.
The defence was solid throughout. Though Vlaar's passing was poor as he looked to go long too often, he is part of an improving defence, contributing four tackles and two interceptions. We still have moments of worry, but it was the solid defence that provided the platform for the win. If a team is struggling to score as we are, and have been, then it is important that the defence keeps us in games so that we have the potential to win. Last season we kept 2 clean sheets in 38, this season we have 4 in 11. When we've taken the lead this season, we've gone on to win.
The game-changing moment stemmed from a Paul Lambert substitution; El Ahmadi replaced by Lowton, which saw Bacuna pushed into midfield. The change had an impact immediately; Bacuna winning the ball, playing it forward for Kozak who was surrounded by three Cardiff defenders, taking a return pass and driving forward into space. Medel was forced to pull him back, and from the resulting free kick Bacuna provided the one moment of quality in an otherwise poor match in front of the Holte End.
The goal was a huge moment of relief for both the home crowd and the players, but rather than sit back we continued to press forward and created a few more chances while remaining defensively solid. The second goal came from Tonev in space on the left delivering a decent cross into the middle where both fullbacks, Kozak, and Benteke waited. The ball found its way to Lowton who headed it back into the middle for Kozak, who did well to finish considering the ball had very little pace on it and he was having to move back to head it.
Lowton had a couple of other nice moments in the 15 minutes he was on the pitch, adding a threat down the right and linking up nicely with Bacuna. For whatever reason Lowton hasn't been playing, and while he may still be struggling for the form he showed last year (as many of our squad are) he can be an important creative force, often providing good width. It was also good to see Bacuna's potential threat from midfield, showing great energy and tenacity in pressing Cardiff and forcing errors. That energy also carries an offensive threat, as he can use his quick feet to create a bit of time for himself. We've seen he can strike a shot.
Our midfield providing some sort of attacking threat is much needed, and while they might lack the creativity you'd perhaps want-a playmaking attacking midfielder is on every Villa fan's Christmas list- the midfielders we do have should be more than capable of making aggressive forward runs in support of-and occasionally breaking beyond- our strikers. Delph is certainly capable of such runs, a trademark from his days at Leeds which we have seen on (very) rare occasions; against Arsenal when hitting the post, and against lesser opposition in the Cup when he surged past Benteke and finished well.
The overall performance was still below the standard we saw in the second half of last season, but grinding out results when we aren't playing well is a positive and this "ability" should see less pressure come on the young squad as the season progresses. The tough opening start we had was over a few weeks back and we came through and amassed a respectable amount of points, but the performances certainly do need to start improving as we head into the winter.
Poor passing has been a huge factor in a number of disappointing performances-both as a team and as individuals-and it has meant that we've struggled to get into any sort of rhythm in games. It is our passing that is most crucial if we are to see an improvement in our form.
Below is a table showing the passing stats (Average # of Passes, % Passing Accuracy, and % of Forward Passes ) of players from this season compared to the overall passing stats of last season and the passing stats from January 1st, 2013 to the end of last season (when we were playing some of our better football under Lambert):
Ron Vlaar is the only player whose accuracy has improved from last season to this, but his passing is still below the level it was during the run from January 1st to the end of last season. Clark is the only player whose accuracy improved from that promising run of form (though he didn't play every game in that stretch) and that increase is just 0.4%, and his accuracy is still down compared to the whole of last season.
So everyone's accuracy has become worse: Benteke is down ~7%, Delph is down ~6%, Lowton is down ~5%, Sylla is down ~12%(!), Weimann is down ~5%, Gabby is down ~3%, and Luna is down ~3% compared to Bennett. These are perhaps small numbers individually (though still quite alarming drops) but when you combine them in a team of 11 then it becomes a real problem and helps to explain the lack of fluidity and control we have seen in performances thus far. Lowton looks to have regressed dramatically, with fewer forward passes and a decreased accuracy. It makes his exclusion perhaps more understandable given he has been caught short defensively on a number of occasions; ceding possession and poor defending isn't a good mix.
The reason for the accuracy decreasing might be due to the players looking to play the ball forward at an increased rate; forward passes are typically harder as you are passing through players and the margin for error is smaller. Gabby and Weimann are passing forward more, which will usually mean trying to find one another or Benteke rather than drawing teammates forward and building pressure; their accuracy has suffered as a result.
Delph and Westwood also have noticeably higher % of forward passes this year. I touched on this briefly in my recap of the first 3 games, stating that the midfield sacrificed a bit of accuracy in favour of effectiveness in opting to launch our front three on counters against teams who committed numbers forward. Delph and Westwood were two of our tidiest passers last year, but were often criticised by fans for playing it sideways too often. The pair are playing it forward more often with a few moments of real success helping create good attacking opportunities, but we have lacked a level of control in games. Occasionally a more measured, patient approach is needed, while all players need to improve their passing accuracy.
We have achieved some good results in spite of this (slightly) worrying dip in our passing, but the dip has seen a drop in the level of performance. If we can get players back fit over the international break we should have a bit more continuity in and around the first team. If we can regain some composure on the ball, offer teammates movement and make good decisions, these stats should rebound up. If that can happen, we will hopefully see a return to the performances we saw toward the end of last season.