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O'Neill's legacy - Villa and the counter-attack

Aston Villa have been playing on the counter for almost a decade - have we got it right yet? A look at how Aston Villa's impressive early start measures up statistically.

Gabby on the counter, it's the Villa way.
Gabby on the counter, it's the Villa way.
Stu Forster

Football can sometimes feel like an endless rerun  - "the football will go on for ever" as a wise man once said. It's a feeling which might be particularly acute among Villa fans. Without a true tilt at the top four since 2008/09, only occasional wrenching fights with relegation have enlivened the past few years.

But Villa's malaise goes even further. We have arguably been playing the same style of football for roughly 8 seasons, some variation of a possession-light counter-attack, ever since Martin O'Neill adopted it as our main strategy. The ultimate symbol of this has been Gabriel Abghonlahor, now entering his ninth season and still our prime counter-attacking threat. Deservedly or not, he has become the representative of our mediocrity.

There have been some minor variations over the years. O'Neill's counter-attack was high pressing and characterised by the wing play of Ashley Young and Steward Downing looking for the front duo of Carew and Abgonlahor until Carew's injury switched us to the aforementioned 4-5-1. Gerard Houllier briefly threatened to see us develop a form of possession-based play but the changes to the side were too disruptive, and we eventually went back to the 4-5-1 formation with Darren Bent in a half-decent compromise that fell apart with the exits of Downing and Young. Alex McLeish failed to recreate the formula and instead saw us hunker further back in front of our own box.

Reading this article in the Guardian from March 2009 can prompt an eerie sense of déjà-vu (trigger warning - this article has a picture of Emile Heskey in a Villa shirt).  It´s all there, a 4-5-1 with Abgonlahor leading the line, a system that worked very well away but left us with problems at home where we "dropped more points than they have won this season". The struggles to find an effective strike partner or replacement for Gabby. The difficulty of finding a reliable centre-back partnership. The inevitable fate of mid-table.

Paul Lambert now grapples with exactly the same issues and I don't want to suggest some progress isn't being made. Christian Benteke undoubtedly offers the best striking solution Villa fans have seen for years. Under Lambert we have followed the general trend away from out and out  wingers towards 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 and the development of Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood offer hope for the midfield. But it is notable that even Villa's impressive early performances this season have been built upon a defence that is hardly stable - Ron Vlaar without a contract still, the Senderos/Hutton/Cissokho combination still on probation and last chance saloon for Baker and Clark.

Villa are unlikely to abandon the counter-attack any time soon but they need to find the keys that made them a successful counter-attacking side under Martin O'Neill. A solid defence is step one and appears to be underway, if we can hope the Arsenal match was a blip. But much more work needs to be done on the attacking front.

So how can we tell what is a successful counter-attacking side, when they will routinely come in lower on stats such as possession, passes completed and shots? Taking inspiration from this article, one fruitful route might be the relation of shots to percentage of possession. An efficient counter-attacking side should have a high ratio of shots to their low percentage of time on the ball.

Using WhoScored.com's stats, let´s take a look at the earliest season there are possession and shot statistics available - 2009/10. O'Neill´s last season, featuring Gabby, Carew, Young, Milner and Downing, and our third consecutive sixth-placed finish. At 47.4%, our average possession was the lowest in the top 9 and were the only one of the top 9 to have less than 50% average possession at home. However we had an average of 13.1 shots per game, leaving us with an average of one shot per 3.59% of possession.

As a contrast, in our miserable 2012/13 season under McLeish, our possession was even worse, an average of 45.6%, as was our average Shots per Game - 11.5. That was one shot per 3.96% of possession. Not only had we gone down in possession but we had also become significantly less efficient in using the ball on the rare occasion we had it.

As for this season? Well it's a small sample but it's not pretty reading. We are currently at a shocking one shot per 4.57% of possession - and that's from an average possession of 35.7%. We are rock bottom in the Shots per Game department at 7.8. Obviously our conversion rate has been pretty high but that will not be sustainable - and our Shots Conceded per Game is pretty much in the middle of the pack, so we can't be certain that defensive displays will make up the difference.

We're not likely to see Villa dominate possession against Chelsea on Saturday - but we could certainly do with getting a few more shots in if we want to continue the good start.