Villa's defence has improved, but at the expense of attacking fluency
In my last Tactics Talk (see here) I suggested that the most obvious problems for Rémi Garde were the defensive failings of Micah Richards, the hole down the right flank caused by poor midfield discipline and the lack of challenges by Alan Hutton, and the absence of attacking threat being added by the midfield.
Villa getting 4 points from their matches against Crystal Palace and Leicester City was due to Garde fixing some of the defensive issues and some long overdue luck. But Villa still aren't creating enough chances and Garde's current set-up is unlikely to do so.
This was broadly Rémi Garde's starting formation for the last two games:
Most of the time the media labelled it a 4-3-3 but it's really a 4-3-2-1, where the full-backs pushed forward aggressively and the central midfielders covered behind. Further up the field, Jordan Ayew ran the channels on either side of the box and Carles Gil floated centrally, while Libor Kozak provided the threat in the box.
The back four has improved
The dropping of Micah Richards and Alan Hutton for Jores Okore and Leandro Bacuna in their positions and the introduction of Aly Cissokho has simply made for a better defensive unit.
Okore has better positional discipline and makes fewer rash challenges than Richards. While he was beaten by Jamie Vardy to the ball for the Leicester goal, generally he covered well and rarely left Joleon Lescott isolated in the way Richards' does.
Bacuna is still positionally suspect and has a tendency to lunge for a ball he can't win, but his activity and athleticism compared with Hutton make him the better option. Against Sunderland and Norwich, Hutton made a grand total of four tackles and one interception. Bacuna managed six tackles and six interceptions against Palace and Leicester while also going forward more effectively.
Bacuna's attempted covering tackle on Ulloa near the end of the Leicester match where he got nothing but air but distracted the Foxes striker was a neat example. A good right-back would've got the ball, Alan Hutton would've been stranded 10 metres behind the play. A quality right-back should still be a priority in the January transfer window but for now the Dutchman has earned his place.
Cissokho simply remains a very solid defensive option who may one day contribute something to the attack, just by sheer statistical probability.
Mark Bunn may or may not be a good thing for the defensive unit, there's just not enough evidence to say yet.
Villa's overly defensive midfield as Veretout drops deep and Gil disappoints
In my previous Tactics Talk I noted that the number of goals Villa were giving away down the right flank wasn't just Hutton's fault but also a lack of discipline in the midfield and recommended playing both Ashley Westwood and Idrissa Gana as holding midfielders to cover.
Garde has played those two and they've done very well, especially Gana who put in an enormous 9 tackles against Leicester. Westwood also seemed to regain some of his form, even adding a few clever flicks that launched Villa attacks. While he'll never be a top midfielder due to his lack of assists and goals, his retention of possession is an overlooked defensive tool and he's a much safer option than Carlos Sánchez.
However Garde went a step further by having Jordan Veretout, previously pushed up the field, drop back to cover the right-hand space when Bacuna went up the field. It certainly shored up that side of the field but Veretout is Villa's leading supplier of key passes and assists this season and having him in such a deep position feels like a waste. As mentioned in our player ratings (here) Veretout had one of his clumsiest games against Leicester as he tried to force passes from his deep position but he still managed 2 passes that led to shots, more than any of Villa's other midfielders.
The most disappointing of those midfielders was Carles Gil. The Spaniard was given a free role to drift inside from the right flank but did very little with it in either game, being easily muscled off the ball and unable to find a telling pass. His substitution for Rudy Gestede against Leicester was entirely deserved and led to Villa's equaliser.
Arguably the left-footed playmaker is out of position on the right but at this moment Gil is taking up a space that Veretout could use much better - but only if Garde feels he can risk playing with just the two holding midfielders. A quality right-back might be the key to pushing the Frenchman forward.
Kozak can't solve Villa's attacking issues
That's no real criticism of the Czech striker. After two years of injury and reserve games he did well just to get himself involved, getting a few shots away, linking up passes and making tackles. But his finishing and aggression clearly aren't there just yet and at the moment between him and Rudy Gestede the Villans have two strikers who are deeply limited in the ways they can get goals (Gestede's goal against Leicester is best described as a happy accident which is unlikely to be repeated - about the same as Lescott's against Palace).
Jordan Ayew offers rather more hope but only if Villa can clone him so that he can run the channels, dribble past the man and pass to himself in the box - or Garde can get his midfield to finally take up some of the slack. Which goes back to pushing Veretout forwards, which ties back into getting a real right-back who doesn't need a constant babysitter.
What do you think? Could a new right-back help push this side on or is something more needed in the transfer window? Let us know in the comments!