As I have noted in previous columns, for all his reputation as a tactical chameleon, Paul Lambert has set his team up in a remarkably consistent fashion during his time at Villa - a 4-3-3, hoping to exploit the pace of our wide forwards with the ball and able to switch quickly back to a solid 4-5-1 without it. Unfortunately Villa's recent string of results outlines almost every possible issue with the 4-3-3 when played without confidence, structure or possession.
The most glaring issue has been Villa's utter lack of control on the flanks. A 4-3-3 formation will feature attacking full-backs using the space left by the compact central midfield trio, in Villa´s case Hutton and Cissokho, who have indeed played relatively high up the field even when Villa have been lacking in possession and clearly on the back foot.
To compensate for this, one of the midfield trio will generally be a holding midfielder providing a defensive screen. There is a significant danger in this, in that while the defensive midfielder does provide defensive manpower, he doesn't cover the same space on the flanks and opposition full-backs can use that space - opposition full-backs are the primary threat against a 4-3-3. This was brutally exposed against Everton where Leighton Baines had an absolute field day, delivering 24 passes in the attacking third, 16 of which were successful.
A painful example of this dilemma in the 4-3-3 was Everton's second goal - N´Zogbia carelessly lost the ball, leaving Hutton stranded out of position having run up for the attack. Barkley took advantage of the space, forcing Vlaar out to confront him and leaving space for Lukaku in the middle. Cleverley, playing in the defensive midfielder role simply didn't have the legs to catch up and Lukaku got the shot away, though Guzan really should have saved it. But the situation was caused when a full-back being caught out of position left the defence stretched and the defensive midfielder unable to influence the play.
Note Hutton running back into frame, and Lukaku's enormous headstart over Cleverley.
Leighton Baines has not been the only full-back to enjoy his time against Villa in the last few matches. Ivanovic equally dominated the opposite flank for Chelsea. In fact though Alan Hutton had a difficult time against Baines, he has overall been considerably better than Aly Cissokho in containing threats and being an attacking threat in his own right - he marshalled Eden Hazard well and his passing combinations with Cleverley provided the main part of Villa's very few threats against Everton.
However in Cissokho's defence, this may be because his wide forwards have been of poor quality. The wide forwards should ideally be both pegging back the opposition flank players and covering their spaces. Charles N´Zogbia has already been singled out on 7500toHolte as particularly poor in the Everton game, failing to track back, and there is surely little argument to use him again in place of Andi Weimann or Kieran Richardson.
However there have been more systemic failures in Villa's playing of the 4-3-3. The most noticeable has been their utter lack of pressing. The threat of the 4-3-3 should lie in the possibility that if Villa win back the ball, they can quickly spread it wide and overload the opposition defence. However in the last series of games, the Lions have never put any pressure on the ball as it is passed forward, instead opting for deep defensive line around the penalty area. Colin Trainor, over at StatsBomb, recently measured the pressing intensity of Premier League sides by average PPDA - Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action - essentially how many passes on average a team could take before the team without the ball took some sort of action to challenge them. Villa were rock bottom, allowing an average of 31 passes, hugely more than even the 19th team, QPR (at an average 18).
Trainor noted the change appeared to happen after the 3 goal blitz by Arsenal - before which Villa pressing had produced good counter-attacking opportunities, such as in the Hull game. Counter-attacking from gaining the ball high up the pitch is hugely more efficient than gaining it deep inside your own half - Villa's few half -chances in the previous games have often been squandered somewhere along the way of covering this huge distance - see Cleverley's glimpse against Everton before McCarthy made up the distance, or Richardson's tired effort against Man City (and compare with Gabby's and Andi's finishes against Hull where they were already in the box).
In addition Villa have failed to field a true defensive midfielder. It feels slightly uncharitable to criticise the midfield trio of Cleverley, Delph and Westwood (or Richardson on Saturday) who have been some of our better players, but none of them are naturally defensive midfielders and they lack the positioning sense required of the holding midfielder in the 4-3-3. The role was made famous by Claude Makelele under Mourinho's Chelsea and his style was to barely stray beyond his own halfway line. When his full backs made forays forward, he would instantly shift to cover that space.
Average Villa player positions against Everton. Note the high full backs and the lack of a clear defensive midfielder -Image from fourfourtwo.com's MatchCentre
Look again at the video of Everton's second goal - Cleverley is the deepest midfielder and though it feels harsh, when he makes the pass and Hutton goes forward, he should instantly shift across to cover the space. He doesn't, staying static in the middle, and Barkley exploits that free space. The defensive trio has rarely managed to shut down opponents passing. While the last three matches have seen poor control of the flanks, against Arsenal, the game that started this poor run, Villa were massacred through the middle as the central trio failed to get close enough to their men, and our defense was caught out with space behind. The psychological reaction has been the disastrous shift back to defending around our own penalty area, to leave no space behind, but with little to no chance of an effective counter-attack.
Currently Villa are playing a broken 4-3-3, failing to exercise control over the flanks, press effectively to regain the ball and launch high percentage counter attacks and unable to put up an effective defensive screen in the middle. Each of these issues desperately needs to be addressed. The good news is the change could be basically psychological rather than in terms of personnel - if Villa could start pressing confidently and the full-backs could move forward with the knowledge that a defensive midfielder (Sanchez?) will cover them, there are the seeds of an effective 4-3-3. QPR are surely the perfect team for a desperately needed readjustment.