Realistically Rémi Garde and Aston Villa needed to take at least 6 points out of the last three matches. Instead they managed just 1, a hard-fought draw against West Ham. The frustrating part is how Villa keep playing well initially, failing to score and then fall apart.
Here are a few tactical reflections on the last three games, highlighting why Villa are conceding and failing to score.
Richards weakens the defence
After reasonable defensive showings against Newcastle and West Ham by Jores Okore and Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards returned to the side against Norwich and his tendency to charge up the field has caused problems ever since.
For Norwich's first goal, Richards went up for a Villa set-piece and charged back but he ended up at left-back while pressuring the ball. Meanwhile Bacuna had dropped into the centre-back position. When the cross eventually came in, Bacuna (who has always been poor in the air) couldn't head it clear and Richards left a man behind him who volleyed it home. His effort to get back was great but he just didn't have the positional sense to pick up the right man.
Against Sunderland for the second goal Lescott dropped while Richards held a high position, allowing Jermain Defoe the space to go to the left of Lescott and squeeze a shot in. While Lescott could have done better, Richards left him isolated for no reason.
Richards doesn't drop back leaving Defoe with space to run across Lescott for Sunderland's second goal.
For Sunderland's third, utterly farcical goal, Richards simply ball-watched and allowed the player who had taken the throw to go behind him and pass the ball into the centre for Defoe to finish.
At this point the Richards at centre-back experiment must be declared a failure. Jores Okore was on the bench at Sunderland and must reform his partnership with Lescott and Richards must either show he can play at right-back or sit on the bench for the good of the team.
The hole down Villa's right flank
Both West Ham and Sunderland's left-backs exploited space down Villa's right side to leave the Villans behind after they controlled the game early on.
In the first case Alan Hutton gave Cresswell too much space when he should've realised there was no danger behind him, while Carles Gil was pressing in the middle. In the second Leandro Bacuna wandered out of position to press in the middle, allowing Patrick Van Aanholt huge amounts of space as Hutton was dragged out by a striker's run.
Sunderland's first goal. Bacuna is dragged into the middle instead of allowing one of Gana or Veretout to take the man, leaving space for Van Aanholt on the left. Hutton is dragged away by the striker´s run and Van Aanholt´s shot takes a lucky deflection.
There are two problems. One is that Hutton is failing miserably to close down shots. Norwich also had a chance when Guzan spilled a shot coming in from Redmond from almost exactly the same position which Hutton did nothing to stop. Villa desperately need an upgrade at right-back, because neither Hutton nor Bacuna are up to it. If Richards can't or refuses to play there, another option must be found.
The second is that Villa's midfielders are showing poor defensive discipline down the right as they push for the first goal. Idrissa Gana keeps a handle on the left and is likely to be helped by the return of Aly Cissokho but one of Ashley Westwood or Carlos Sanchez may be needed to shore up the other side.
Where is Villa's attacking midfield?
With Garde's preferred 4-5-1, the need for attacking midfielders making runs into the box is obvious but Villa don't seem to be able to organise themselves as to who makes those runs.
Against West Ham it was Veretout in an advanced position, providing for Ayew and Gestede and he got a shot off inside the box but little more. He was unlucky against Sunderland after he his volley was well-saved but then he dropped deeper. He at least has the excuse that he's often taking the set-pieces and has created 7 chances (passes leading to a shot on goal) in the last three games.
Against Sunderland, Gestede was largely isolated. Here Gil and Grealish (marked in red) are left behind by the speed of the counter and only Veretout manages to make a remarkable run into the box where he was unlucky to have his volley saved.
Carles Gil managed his wonder goal against Sunderland but only two off-target shots apart from that in 180 minutes, with just 2 chances created. Westwood has also been typically toothless, with just two shots, both off-target and appears to have stagnated as a player.
Amongst the wide players both Leandro Bacuna and Kieran Richardson got some long-distance shots away but nothing that troubled a goalkeeper much. Scott Sinclair and Jack Grealish managed 0 shots in their limited cameos and Adama Traoré is also yet to register a shot and despite all his dribbling created just the one chance, which Gil did amazingly to convert.
It's hard to know how what Rémi Garde can do to fix the issue when none of the midfielders are showing great form. Only Veretout seems to be in any way consistent and probably needs to be kept high up the pitch. Adama and Gil have at least shown they are capable of brilliance and supporting Jordan Ayew from wide they could point the way to a more attacking unit.
With relegation seemingly certain, tactical analysis almost seems superfluous but there are still five months worth of Premier League football to be played and the team needs to start playing if only for the sake of their careers and dignity.
The issues highlighted here are only a sample of Villa's tactical problems (see also incoherent pressing, poor decision making in transition, utter lack of left-wing attacking play, etc) but are some of the most pressing and easily fixable. Getting Richards out of the centre-back pairing, getting a decent right-back with cover ahead of them and developing a real attacking midfield would at least give them a fighting chance.
For what it's worth this seems to me like the best set-up Villa could manage at the moment, where Gana and Westwood compensate for Gil and Adama's defensive shortcomings while those two add some attacking threat and Veretout can develop into an attacking midfielder.
What do you think? Could this solve some of Villa's problems or does the team need a total overhaul?