It was set to be one of the toughest of starts. In the space of seven days, Aston Villa were to visit Arsenal and Chelsea, and host Liverpool. David Moyes should have looked at our games before carping about United's fixture list. But after the seven days we hold three points and probably deserve more. Encouragement can certainly be taken from some of the performances, which offered endeavour, determination, energy and adventure. After the valiant defeat at Chelsea and spectacular victory at Arsenal, the frustration which followed the Liverpool defeat of not hitting the same heights as against Arsenal and Chelsea maybe shows how far we have improved in such a short space of time. Equally there were also a few gentle reminders that this is still a young squad which will likely suffer a few more bumps along the way, and some warnings against becoming too one dimensional.
I doubt I was the only fan that was filled with dread after conceding in the first eight minutes against Arsenal AND Chelsea, and those goals coming about from familiar mistakes made the dread more palpable. Against Arsenal the costliest mistake came from Vlaar charging out to try close down Rosicky, getting turned far too easily and with Lowton high up the pitch El Ahmadi tried to fill in, but we were quickly exposed by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Chelsea goal saw Lowton being caught unawares of Hazard in behind him (not smart), it was an unfortunate own-goal for Luna, but was preventable (as most goals are after the event).
There are small signs of improvement in defensive unity and also moments where players are caught badly out of position, but it is a young defence (Vlaar aside) that is still learning to play with one another. Last season we struggled for a consistent back 4 with injuries hurting any understanding, so it was a shame Baker and Clark have picked up knocks (albeit minor ones).
Having impressed in the latter part of last season Baker was selected alongside Vlaar against Arsenal, but he lasted just 17 minutes (as predicted by Aston Villa Review I believe, an excellent podcast worth subscribing to). Somewhat surprisingly Lambert opted for Ciaran Clark over new signing Jores Okore, but Clark was very solid against Arsenal, taking up excellent positions, particularly when Walcott looked to cross for Giroud. Clark then looked assured against Chelsea before being forced off after 43 minutes, especially in marshalling the offside trap (although Ba was a willing catch).
So on came Okore for his debut against Chelsea and after a shaky four minutes prior to half-time, he grew into the game, showing excellent recovery pace and tracking some dangerous runs. It can only be a good thing that there appears to be a bit of competition for centre back roles, and being tested by Benteke, Weimann and Gabby in training should keep them on their toes.
Okore started against Liverpool and was generally excellent again, rarely (if ever) getting beaten by his man. I've seen criticism of him for the goal Liverpool scored but I don't believe there was much he could or should have done differently. He tracked Sturridge out of defence, but once returning to defence it looked to me as though Vlaar had shuffled across so Okore could slot quickly back into the right of Vlaar. It was a wonderful dummy from Coutinho which caught Vlaar out, and Sturridge was clinical. Okore in his short time has looked the best centre back at the club, and a partnership with Vlaar grew as the game wore on. His dashboard below shows his 90% passing, 5 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 clearances, and a couple of successful dribbles.
Our fullbacks are given license to get forward and provide valuable width as Gabby and Weimann typically look to move inside and link up with Benteke. Lowton definitely hasn't hit the heights he did toward the end of last season, but hopefully it's only a matter of time. After the early lapse allowing Hazard in, he quietly made 4 interceptions against Chelsea. Interceptions are a huge part of his game, averaging 3.0 per game last season (only 4 players made more per game in the Premiership, Delph made the 9th most per game, averaging 2.8), this skill can set us on attacks quickly. This was perfectly exhibited last season by his interception and assist for Weimann's goal against Sunderland.
Luna is new to the league, but after a near mix up with Guzan against Arsenal he has steadily improved, with a few moments of worry too. Luna only featured 11 times last season for relegated Mallorca, but he averaged 2.6 interceptions per game (a healthy number), and like Lowton this skill has the potential to put us on the front foot quickly. Of course it can equally cause trouble if the pair attempt to make an interception but fail. We also witnessed his defensive pace in dealing with Walcott, and then using his pace as an attacking weapon, when bursting forward from an Arsenal corner to score on his debut (pre-season also saw him make a few very aggressive forward runs).
The fullbacks will be asked to go through a lot of miles this year, but Delph, El Ahmadi, Westwood and Bacuna have shown good discipline in covering for the swashbuckling fullbacks.
The effort and discipline by the midfield trio against Chelsea and Arsenal was exemplary. Westwood sat deeper than Delph and El Ahmadi, partly because he is maybe less mobile, but also because he has the greater range of passing, so once the ball is recovered he would be in a bit more space to be fed the ball and launch attacks.
So it was primarily El Ahmadi and Delph who pressed aggressively, an example of their tackles and interceptions against Arsenal (El Ahmadi) and Chelsea (Delph) can be seen below. El Ahmadi's tackling against Arsenal nearly all occurred in their half, attempting eight tackles and completing six, and Delph completing five of eight against Chelsea, including three deep inside Chelsea's half and three around the half-way line.
A good example of the dual pressing from Delph and El Ahmadi came against Arsenal, with El Ahmadi harassing Wilshere 15 yards inside Arsenal's half and Delph in the vicinity should Wilshere escape from El Ahmadi with the ball. El Ahmadi wins the ball and quickly passes it forward to Benteke, Delph was (due to looking to press) in a great position to burst onto a lay-off from Benteke before firing a low drive against the inside of the post. We want to see more of this from Delph.
With Chelsea going 1-0 up early they kept possession for large periods, happy to play in front of us while we were happy to be compact and stay in the game (after last year's visit to the Bridge it was understandable). So the first half was quite a passive affair, which only makes Delph's defensive performance even more remarkable; seven of Delph's eight attempted tackles occurred in the second half, when Chelsea were having to push for a second goal. With the support of Westwood and El Ahmadi, Delph well and truly stamped his authority on the game and outshone everyone on the pitch.
Oftentimes last season we fielded just two central midfielders (with N'Zogbia, Ireland, or Holman in advance), and sometimes the chosen duo struggled to cover the ground and apply pressure, meaning opponents had time on the ball to control the tempo or to find a killer pass and put our defence under pressure.
Against Liverpool we began with just 2 central midfielders (Westwood and Delph), Gabby and Bacuna playing wide leaving Weimann and Benteke up front. The loss of a man in the centre of the pitch meant Lucas, Gerard and Henderson had more time on the ball than ideal and Liverpool comfortably controlled affairs under little to no pressure. Our midfield pair had even more trouble when Coutinho and Aspas decided to drift inside. The ball from Jose Enrique for Sturridges' goal was made under a minimal amount of pressure, and played into the space behind the midfield but in front of the back 4, where both Coutinho and Sturridge were lurking. This was a space occupied by Westwood against Chelsea and Arsenal (with El Ahmadi and Delph in front), but he and Delph were now having to cover more ground and were more concerned with the midfield (which outnumbered them), Sturridge moved past Delph, Delph was looking to press forward rather than track Sturridge, and though he recognised the danger it was too late to intercept the pass.
After about 35 minutes we moved Bacuna (who looked very nervous but battled hard) inside with Delph and Westwood, and for the final ten minutes of the first half we began to get a foothold in the game. In the second half we seized more control (though Liverpool were happy to sit back). Delph contributed plenty defensively again, with four tackles and six interceptions, but as he was stretched across midfield in the early parts of the game we also saw his first booking, a result of a lunge coming as he was desperate to win the ball from Sturridge rather than expose the space behind him.
The pressure we applied from midfield meant the likes of Mata, Hazard, Wilshere, Cazorla, Oscar, and after moving Bacuna inside against Liverpool, Gerrard and Coutinho were all harried and rushed, and as a result were less creative than usual;
- Arsenal had 4 shots on target from 15 attempts and enjoyed a bit more penetration than we would have liked, especially in the channel between Lowton and Vlaar (with Vlaar getting drawn to the ball a bit too often.) Rosicky broke through this channel twice and Cazorla once, but Guzan was up to the task when called upon.
- Chelsea had 3 shots on target from 15 attempts (the majority were from range, 11 outside the area.)
- Liverpool had 1 shot on target from 5 attempts.
Thankfully we won't have to face such dangerous opponents week in week out, but it is encouraging that we could stifle them for long periods.
A two man midfield is clearly not as effective in aggressively pressing the opponents as a three man midfield, which can cover more ground and cover one another far more easily. As we witnessed in the first half against Liverpool, the game can pass us by and while Liverpool created very few chances they did cause our defence to be pulled out of position. The energy and combativeness of a midfield trio should not lack for those qualities if one of the starters get injured or suspended (yellow cards are to be expected with such a style, Westwood has already picked up two yellows, El Ahmadi has one, and Delph has one). Both Sylla and Bacuna have exhibited, last season and/or pre-season, great energy and drive, and offer Lambert options and competition for the future.
On the ball against Chelsea and Arsenal it was noticeable how quickly the midfield trio looked to play the ball forward. Last season these three were the best passers at the club, each with passing success ≥85.0, in the first 2 games however they were all <80.0%. The reason was down to the types of passes these players are attempting. Away to top-four sides we were never going to match them possession wise (36% vs Arsenal, 31% vs Chelsea), so we aimed to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, either into the feet of our attacking trio or preferably in front so they can use their pace against a potentially disorganised defence. The table below shows the midfield trio's passing accuracy, and what percentage of total passes were forward, from last season and the games against Arsenal and Chelsea. I expect the differences between last season and this to lessen as the season progresses and we face lesser opponents (accuracy improves and percentage forward decreases), but it is evidence of our looking forward early, sacrificing accuracy for effectiveness.
The disciplined but aggressive pressing and tackling from the midfield trio coupled with the direct passing was crucial in the performances away to Chelsea and Arsenal. The pressing not only helped shield the defence, but it has also provided a solid platform from which devastating attacks have been launched. The direct countering style we've shown should continue to be effective against the bigger teams (or teams that will attempt to dominate possession), however we will need to adapt our game against teams with whom we will compete with for possession.
After shifting Bacuna inside we began to compete with Liverpool for possession ending the game with 47% (after having ~30% in the first 35 minutes we had ~60% in the final 60 minutes). However Liverpool were incredibly wary of pushing high up and opening themselves up to the powerful counter attack we exhibited against Chelsea and Arsenal. This unsurprisingly saw our midfielders complete more passes, as the benefits of playing it forward quickly were no longer there, the midfielders completion rates are in the table below.
It is clear they are all more than capable passers, including more accurate forward passes, but the tactic employed by Liverpool will be one employed by other teams as they visit Villa Park, so we must add a level of guile and creativity to break down packed defences.
Westwood has been the quieter of the midfielders, but he should be seen to better effect when we have a healthier portion of possession and he can influence the tempo. He and Delph struck up a very good partnership (with Sylla deployed as a destroyer in front of them) toward the end of last season which saw us compete and create decent chances against some stubborn defences. We did score some wonderfully worked, patient goals last season, but we still lack for a truly creative force, someone capable of popping up in pockets of space and finding a killer pass. I have confidence in the likes of Delph, Westwood and El Ahmadi being able to pick out a player in those pockets, but we need that player for them to pick out.
The Attacking Trio
Against Arsenal and Chelsea, Benteke was seen pulling wide into the zones typically occupied by the opponents fullbacks, and we aimed to hit him from distance (Mourinho's post game appraisal about us targeting Benteke was accurate, even if it was said somewhat dismissively). Given the expected paucity of possession away from home against two top-four teams, Lambert would have been a fool not to use a unit as powerful as Benteke to try gain territory. Lambert was not necessarily targeting the fullbacks, rather the aerially weaker of the opposition centre backs, in an effort to draw them out and create space for Gabby and/or Weimann to break into. Against Arsenal Benteke looked to challenge the left pair of Gibbs and Koscielny (avoiding Mertesacker), against Chelsea he looked to challenge the right pair of Ivanovic and Cahill (avoiding Terry).
The two graphics below show the passes Benteke received in these two games, the zones he was picking up and the types of passes we hit him with are clear.
An excellent break down of Benteke's goal against Chelsea can be found here, but in summary it came from Benteke challenging Ivanovic, who was somewhat isolated against Benteke and Gabby. Perhaps Cahill could have come out to challenge Benteke, leaving Ivanovic to mark Gabby. Instead there was space in behind that a resurgent Gabby was powerful enough to exploit, this is the relatively simple problem we posed Arsenal and Chelsea and we ruthlessly exploited any weakness shown.
The quickness with which our midfield has looked to play the ball forward for Benteke also led to the Koscielny red card: Arsenal have committed men forward in search of an equaliser; the midfield wins the ball back; Delph immediately plays a speculative pass into that zone; Benteke perhaps fortuitously heads the ball back; Weimann gallops onto the ball and Koscielny, isolated against two pacey attackers, makes a lunging challenge and sees red (there was minimal contact, but it was enough to bring Weimann down as he tried to avoid the challenge).
Gabby was seen at his explosive best in the first two games; with powerful runs through the opposition, he created both penalties against Arsenal, and showed Ivanovic a clean pair of heels for the goal at Stamford Bridge. Gabby was playing very well in the final four months of last season, but the un-interrupted pre-season and the continuity with the manager has certainly helped him and he looks superb. Whether he gets a deserved England call up is not certain, but he is incredibly valuable to us.
Weimann has been a little quiet offensively; he's got into some great positions, missing the chance vs Arsenal before the ref brought it back for the first penalty and also missing a couple of great chances against Chelsea (though Cech deserves some credit.) But he is getting into these positions, so hopefully it's only a matter of time before the net begins to ripple with regularity.
Gabby and Weimann are not just part of an attacking trident that can strike fear into all, they have both contributed plenty in defensive areas, tracking opposing fullbacks, before showing a tremendous attitude to get forward after they've performed these duties.
However, as with the midfield, there must be a few concerns that against a deep defence-like Liverpool employed-they will never be as effective. We have conceded three early goals in the three games and for a primarily counter-attacking team this can be a big problem as it allows teams to do as Liverpool did, sit back and neutralise our counter-attacking threat. So it will be interesting to see how Lambert deals with the trio, particularly Weimann and Gabby. Given room to run then they are as explosive as any strike-force in the League, deny them space and they can be shut out of the game.
Overall there have been signs of real encouragement; the defence-despite Baker and Clark picking up slight knocks-have improved, and Okore looks like a superb talent. The midfield has helped enormously in protecting that inexperienced defence, Delph and El Ahmadi especially impressive over the first three games (or two-and-a-half games for El Ahmadi). And the attack can be as frightening as any in the league given the right circumstances.
There is of course a lot to improve upon, but Lambert is all too aware of this constantly reminding us "there's a long way to go", and such a young squad will suffer from inconsistencies. It appears to be a very tight squad of players with good competition for places, and despite suffering two defeats in the first three the players should take great confidence and heart going into the rest of the season, and so should the fans.