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Examining Aston Villa’s tactical tweaks

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Dean Smith made a small change to make Villa a little bit more effective. So far, so good.

West Bromwich Albion v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship Play-off Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Aston Villa have played most of their games this season in a somewhat standard 4-3-3, with Jack Grealish and John McGinn’s positions the most interesting part of this formation. For a deeper analysis of this system, I highly recommend this article from The Athletic.

Though this system was seemingly working fine, as Villa were able to play some really nice football, results have not reflected the performance of Villa many a time this season. Leads have been thrown away frequently, seen by Villa being 15th in the table but 4th in terms of time leading games in the Premier League.

Against Burnley on the 28th September, Dean Smith’s Villa tweaked their system. Hourihane came in for Trezeguet, resulting in many fans expecting Hourihane to play as an 8 and Grealish to play on the left wing. Though Grealish did play on the left wing and Hourihane did play as an 8, the reverse is also true, with Hourihane playing on the left wing and Grealish playing as an 8. The two have heatmaps that are very similar, and the explicit reasoning for this is best explained by Hourihane himself:

If Jack comes inside, I go outside. It seems quite easy to do.” – Conor Hourihane, in the Express and Star.

Combined heatmap of Grealish & Hourihane v Burnley:

Fluidity and interchanging positions between Grealish and Hourihane is not all that has changed. Nakamba, at the base of midfield, is now playing deeper and more disciplined in possession than before.

Nakamba Heatmap vs West Ham:

Nakamba Heatmap vs Burnley:

Though he definitely still plays a role offensively, his defensive role has become much more of a focus. This has allowed Grealish and Hourihane to be fluid between attacking midfield and winger, rather than simply central midfielder and winger. Coupling this change with the exceptional timing of John McGinn’s forward runs has allowed Villa to create overloads of attacking midfielders on the edge of the opposition box when attacking.

Wesley’s role has also changed somewhat. Previously, he was somewhat more mobile, often trying to evade centre backs. Following the tweak, he sticks closer to the centre backs. By positioning himself in more of a traditional centre forward role when Villa are attacking, he much more firmly roots the centre backs in place.

The idea is based on Villa’s consistency in throwing away a lead. When teams are losing, they obviously begin to attack more, and put more emphasis on having players ready to attack. This necessarily somewhat neglects the defensive responsibilities of these players. None more so is this true of midfielders, who will push up a little higher and take more risks when chasing a game. This creates space in the midfield, and teams really desperate for a goal will often leave masses of space just in front of the box. One of the main strengths of Villa is their shooting from outside of the box, and this system seeks to exploit those spaces created by a team searching for a goal.

In every game (bar the dying seconds of the Everton game) Villa have led prior to Burnley, Villa have not led by more than one goal. Instead of trying to hunker down and hold on to a one goal lead, this Villa side’s main plan for holding on to a lead is to create a shooting chance on the edge of the box for Hourihane, Grealish, McGinn or Douglas Luiz.

Let’s consider the match against Norwich, which truly showcased how brilliant this system can be when everything works.

The first two goals, the first goal especially, seem tactically simplistic (even naïve) at first glance. The first goal consisted of a nice finish following a cross from El Ghazi to Wesley, but the cross should never have reached Wesley. Stood between two Norwich centre backs, who are both tightly marking him, only a major error from the Norwich centre back allows Wesley a chance. The same is true of a lesser extent for the second goal, as a centre back should prevent Hourihane’s ball from getting to Wesley.

This isn’t tactically foolish, however. This is not ‘hoof it to the big man’ football. Rather, the cross from El Ghazi initially is a demonstration to the centre backs that they must stay close to Wesley. That he scored evidenced this further. As the centre backs are rooted by Wesley, they cannot be proactive in defence and step forward to assist defensive midfielders. Given that many teams operate with only one defensive midfielder, this rooting leaves the DM isolated, and unable to deal with an overload. Fluid movement from Grealish and Hourihane, alongside assistance from Targett, allows Hourihane to get into the box in space and blast a low drive across the face of goal. Similar fluidity in movement from Grealish and Hourihane allowed an overlap in the box later in the half, which led to a penalty for Villa.

In the second half, Villa stuck to their defensive plan superbly. Break at speed, root the centre backs, isolate the defensive midfielder, create space to shoot on the edge of the box. All three second half goals come clearly from this. Villa win the ball, then find space on the edge of the box to shoot.

The system allowed Norwich chances though, it must be said. In the second half, these chances could be dismissed by claims of sloppiness, which only came about as Villa were ahead by so great a score. Sloppiness and overconfidence cannot account for Norwich’s chances in the first half. Their best chances came from selective overloads or simply good play in wide areas. Brilliance from Mings and Engels, as well as some poor finishing from Norwich, were the reasons for Villa keeping a clean sheet in the first half.

When Mings and Engels do not have brilliant performances, Villa are in a lot more danger. Take the Burnley game – Villa went ahead twice, but conceded two headed goals following crosses from wide areas. Additionally, a more defensive midfield set up from Burnley did not allow excesses of space in the areas Villa wanted, and thus Villa struggled a lot more than against Norwich.

Against Brighton, Villa need to be very careful of the threat posed by players like Glenn Murray, and dominant aerial performances will be needed from Mings and Engels. Additionally, Connolly’s second goal against Spurs was the result of his cutting inside from a wide position and shooting. This too will be a worry for Villa, however unless Villa are really chasing the game it is unlikely a wide player would find himself in as much space as Connolly did against Spurs.

If Villa beat Brighton, this system change will be seen as tactical genius. If Villa lose to Brighton, it will be seen as tactical naïveté. Though the new tactical system certainly has the potential to be a massive success, there is reason to worry over the massive reliance the system has on aerial dominance of Mings and Engels. A bad game for either of them will result in opposition teams scoring for fun. An injury to either of them places this massive burden on players like Ezri Konsa, Kortney Hause and James Chester, of whom only the former has any Premier League minutes so far this season - a grand total of 16 minutes.

Either way, this system is exciting and unapologetically offensive. It threatens to put teams to the sword, and gives Villa an interesting edge going forward that many teams will struggle to deal with. Opposition teams will have to set up a certain way against Villa to have any success.

Villa are Premier League. This change intends to keep it that way.

Article written by @BjornForce