I’m a theory and numbers guy; I enjoy long conversations over a pint about the benefits of Deep Lying Playmakers and Inverted Wingers permeated with rabid moments of number crunching to solve the inevitable arguments such conversations create. My intention with this is to look at how Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa play from an aesthetic and functional point of view.
Having sat at Villa Park on Saturday evening developing similar feelings of hope and frustration that marked many of Villa’s performances during last season. I began to wonder if anything had changed other than a few names on shirts over the summer. I left the ground and trudged to the station feeling deflated. All that typical preseason hope having been stolen away. However, on reflection the performance was encouraging. I have long bemoaned Villa’s haphazard approach to football; never having a real plan to stretch teams and relying on a predictably small number of attacking options. This was true of Martin O’Neil’s Villa (Counter-Attack), Gerard Houllier’s Villa (Bent), Paul Lambert’s Villa (Benteke)... it goes on, culminating in last season’s reliance on Jonathan Kodjia, despite buying players with disparate skill sets to seemingly create multiple systems of attack.
The 4-4-1-1 system which emerged in pre season was clearly intended to get the best out of Jack Grealish and Scott Hogan. Hogan scores two types of goal; tap ins and goals from through balls played from central positions. Grealish is a player who has always worked best centrally, can shoot and weight a pass beautifully. Hogan cut a frustrated figure during his appearances last season. Bruce not knowing how to integrate a striker who thrives on a very specific type of service into a team which for all intents and purposes appeared for much of the season to be attempting nothing more complex than “get the ball to Kodjia and hope”. Bruce was going to play football the ‘right way’ it seemed. On the ground, moving the ball quickly, employing wingers and players who can attack centrally to stretch teams and not be predictable.
Indeed we saw just this on Saturday; the move which ended with Gabby Agbonlahor fluffing his lines when one-on-one with the goalkeeper was a crisp passing one in which defence was turned into attack in six seconds. Henri Lansbury operating in the Number 10 position vacated by the injured Grealish, played a perfectly weighted pass for Agbonlahor to run on to. During the first half Hogan looked dangerous and tireless in equal measure. His off the ball movement is delightful and he will run the channels and harry defenders endlessly it would seem.
A lot has been written and said about Steve Bruce’s decision to start Leandro Bacuna in Central Midfield ahead of Connor Hourihane last Saturday. In-fact the decision not to accept an offer for him from Reading seemed curious to me considering the sheer number of players Villa have in this area and the club’s stated intention to involve Academy players with the first team.
Bacuna is the personification of the phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, a utility player who over the years has played in seven different positions for various managers. Bacuna never managed to make any single role his own and has primarily operated as cover for injury or suspension. His versatility makes him a very useful squad player and this is probably the reason the club have retained his services. However, the fact he has never cemented a role in the team in his preferred attacking midfield positions shows that he has consistently failed to live up to expectations.
Bacuna is a very similar player to Ahmed Elmohamady, a right sided midfielder who will put a shift in defensively and can be an option at Full Back. In the below infographic from 11tegen11 we see just how similar. Despite being picked to play as a Central Midfielder, Bacuna’s average touch position is almost the mirror image of Elmohamady’s. His natural tendency to run with the ball pulls him wide away from the congested central areas. He is in effect playing where Agbonlahor should be, this leaves a large volume of pitch for the 33 year old Glenn Whelan to cover.
Formations are living systems, each gear has a place and a function. When a cog is placed in a position which it does not suit, then the system is unbalanced. However, living systems will always seek equilibrium and attempt to compensate for such imbalance. The selections of Bacuna and Agbonlahor in a 4-4-1-1 highlight this.
Agbonlahor started very brightly against Hull and could maybe have had two goals had he sorted his feet out when slipped in by Lansbury on 4 minutes. He did, however fade and at a rate which far exceeded that of his team mates. This is not to say that he necessarily had a bad game, but he was not the attacking option a 4-4-1-1 requires to function. Agbonlahor and Neil Taylor worked very hard without the ball against arguably the stronger side of the Hull attack. With Villa’s left side sitting deeper the natural forward space is diagonal left from the center circle, exactly the space into which Bacuna was carrying the ball.
Bacuna exploiting this space is fine when the team are in the ascendancy, pressing Hull back. Defensively it relies on Agbonlahor having the intelligence to take up a more central position when attacks break down.
The lines indicating pass frequency show that the right side of Villa’s attack was the more productive. In particular Villa made great use of Sam Johnstone’s accurate distribution to Elmohamady. Elmohamady had the beating of Max Clark in the air for the entire first half. He was able to link with Hogan successfully on a number of occasions from that pass. Whelan and Alan Hutton also exploited this advantage by floating balls out wide. Leonid Slutsky saw this and in the second half one of Michael Hector or Sam Clucas would drift wide to double up on Elmohamady whenever the ball was with Johnstone or was being played around the back line. This nullified Elmohamady’s ability to win aerial duels and yet Villa consistently attempted that same tactic throughout the second half, with predictably frustrating results.
It wasn't until the directness of a traditional winger in Andre Green was introduced on the left that Hull were forced to compensate and the double teaming of Elmohamady had to stop. This allowed Villa to regain control of the game and seek a winning goal.
Hogan as I mentioned above had a very encouraging game; it is going to take this Villa team a while to get used to how early he wants the ball played. He is always looking for the early ball slipped through the defence. He starts his runs from an offside position and bends them back on side as the attacks develop. The Villa midfield are going to have to get used to this as by taking an extra couple of touches they delay just enough for Hogan to stray back offside. Lansbury has the nous to exploit this and on numerous occasions in the first half it was very close to clicking. To my frustration when Hull began to press, rather than continue this tactic or try and hit the channels as an out ball, Villa began to go long. Scott Hogan is 5’9”, he is never going to be a hold up man when marked by all 6’2” of Michael Dawson.
On any other day Hogan, Agbonlahor, Lansbury, Green or Onomah score just one more of the chances presented to them. As Expected Villa highlighted, the chances created would normally have resulted in a home win. Nevertheless, Hull equalized through a goal which front to back was a team calamity. One which I’m sure John Terry and Steve Bruce were not happy about in the slightest. The midfield over committed to attack, numerous players didn't track back with intent to get behind the ball, the whole team was dragged towards Hull’s right winger and the goalkeeper was beaten at his near post. Its a horrible watch and one which I’m sure the entire team have been treated to on repeat for a large chunk of Monday.
This team will get better as new players settle, of that I am sure. One thing I haven't been sure of in some time is that there is method to the madness. That Villa have decided to use a system which relies on a team rather than a standout player is one of the most encouraging signs as one player alone wont get us to the 80 goals Keith Wyness is targeting. Hope is a funny thing, this time of year we are all full of it. It ebbs and flows with results more than performances but what I saw on Saturday has me thinking that perhaps this year Villa may actually have a plan. If Steve Bruce can find a system which lets this squad play as a team and John Terry can inspire some togetherness, we may have a season that is stressful for all the right reasons for once. We have talented players to return to the fold, how they are incorporated is a discussion for another day, but for now at least Villa seem to be thinking about football as a team sport.