First, I will analyze the defensive tactics implemented under Head Coach Dean Smith. With the popularity of counter-attacking high pressing teams such as Liverpool and Manchester City or the low block, absorb pressure, tactics of the likes of Burnley. Smith’s system fits somewhere in the middle of this Premier League divide with a unique tactic I like to call the Half-field Trap - a mid-block.
Starting with a turnover, Villa will look to win the ball back as quickly as possible initially. If they do not win the ball back, or are defending from a dead ball situation, they organize into a compact 4-5-1 forcing the ball back to the central defenders or goalkeeper. Once the defensive formation is established the striker will encourage the central defenders to play the ball to one side of the field, either to a full-back or wide midfielder.
The striker then looks to trail the attacking play to deny the back pass and forcing the opposition towards the sideline. This requires little energy from the striker while also placing him in a perfect position for a counter-attack or to harass a loose ball. As the opposing player comes wide, the winger drops back to invite the player forward and deny a through ball to an advanced attacker.
At the same time, an attacking midfielder either cuts out the passing lanes to a central midfielder forcing the player even further to the sideline. At the base of the midfield, usually Hourihane, slides over to cover any opposing midfielder who looks to receive a pass. As the player passes a predetermined threshold the ‘trap’ is sprung as the attacking midfielder and winger suddenly press the ball carrier after denying his easy outlets. While backed up against a sideline the opposing player must rapidly decide from a limited set of options most of which are covered by Villa’s trap or require high technical skill such as beating two men off the dribble. Villa manufactures the advantage by making the opposition predictable, allowing them to win the ball back. Once the ball is won back Villa looks to quickly counter using a ball over the top to one of the front three or through a driving run by an attacking midfielder. Quite often though the ball is recycled back to the center backs to maintain possession.
Villa deny the opposition half of the field of play, congesting the middle of the pitch, using the sideline as an extra defender. Along with aerially dominate center backs that can deal with crosses into the box. a deep playmaker positioned to pacify the number 10 role. Teams are forced into wide predictable play that can be successfully countered against all but the most skilled sides.
So, what is going to change this year? Last season in the Championship, Villa would press extremely hard if they lost the ball before they reorganizing back into their shape. Gambling on the fact that their defensive players were more than capable of neutralizing most Championship teams attacking players. This season Villa do not have that luxury.
Coming into the best league in the world as a newly promoted side, Villa will no longer favor their odds. An immediate casualty of the step up will be how aggressive Villa act on the counter press. We saw this change already being implemented in the pre-season friendly against Minnesota United. Villa were clearly the better team nevertheless they allowed MNUFC to have a lot of the ball while being content to wait in their own half to apply this ‘Half-Field Trap’. I believe that this is because Dean Smith is instructing his players to sit deeper in order to become more comfortable with the opposition having more of the ball. Similarly, Villa’s line of engagement for the trap will be further into its own half. This will compact the vertical space making it even harder for opposing teams to play through them.
This will open space in behind the opposition’s defense for the pinpoint long passing of Hourihane and Grealish to exploit. I expect the basic principles to remain the same under Dean Smith as he rarely adjusted his tactical setup last year in the Championship. The aim will be to keep it simple and utilize his unique tactic.