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xV: On Villa’s attacking woes, Dean Smith’s tactics, and the importance of personnel

Villa need an in-form John McGinn to play expansive, attacking football — without him playing at a high level, Dean Smith’s forced to make the most of a bad hand.

Manchester United v Aston Villa - Premier League
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: John McGinn of Aston Villa during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford on December 01, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-based look at Aston Villa! Even though the Claret and Blues moved up to 18th this matchweek, things are looking bleaker after West Ham’s 3–2 win over Chelsea.

Let’s talk about West Ham for a minute

I saw a lot of “that’s why Villa should’ve had a go against Chelsea instead of sitting back” Wednesday night, which… I think misrepresents West Ham United’s game plan in their shock 3-2 win. The Hammers had under 30 percent possession, and only registered three shots on target. Right before the key pass is played on their winning goal, there’s a total of three players in Chelsea’s defensive half. That’s from both teams, mind you.

West Ham absolutely sat back and set up to counterattack — just like Villa had a week and a half earlier. It’s really a point of nuance: It’s not that Villa sat back and West Ham didn’t, it’s that West Ham generally have the personnel to hit quickly on the break and Villa… don’t.

I made this point on Twitter during that Chelsea match, but it’s frustrating watching this Villa team sit back and try to absorb pressure because it’s so hard for them to break and release. What does a good counterattack look like for this team? Getting the ball to Jack Grealish and letting him get fouled 30 yards out to set up a free kick. (This actually worked against Chelsea, mind you, until the defence fell apart.)

It’s two-fold, really. One half is an issue of pace, because there’s none of it in this team. The other half is an issue of talent.

Andriy Yarmolenko has barely played a part in East London since David Moyes’ arrival — the commentator noted how his appearance off the bench Wednesday would be his longest since Moyes took the job at the London Stadium. He would also waltz into this Villa team.

So it goes, and it all comes back to…

Villa haven’t played the way they’re “built” to play in several months

Ask yourself this: What was the plan for this Villa team? It wasn’t to be a resolute defensive team that was hard to break down; it wasn’t to be a team that hits you with blistering pace. Generally speaking, it was to play attacking, forward-thinking football, to play open matches, and to get in and score goals.

We saw this at the start of the year, and it’s part of why I was so bullish on Villa’s survival chances for large chunks of the season. I wrote about this in xV before the season started, but as a general axiom, you stay up if you score goals — in the last 20-plus Premier League seasons, only one team (Blackpool) has scored 50-plus goals and gone down.

After the 2–2 draw at Old Trafford on 1 December, Villa had 21 goals to their name in 14 league matches, on pace for a 57-goal haul, well on track to meet the desired goal target. It wasn’t like Villa’s attack was some big statistical anomaly, either, as StatsBomb’s xG model had Villa for around 18 xG in those 14 matches (an average of 1.3 xG per match).

Villa haven’t been the same side since that result; in Villa’s next 14 league matches (which took us to the interruption), Villa won just 10 points, scored just 13 goals, and averaged fewer than 1.0 xG per match in attack, per StatsBomb’s model.

This might not have been a huge issue if the diminished attack accompanied an improvement in Villa’s defensive fortunes — but in fact, it accompanied the complete opposite. In their first 14 matches, the Claret and Blues conceded 22 goals; not great, but not bad when you’re scoring at the other end. In the next 14, they conceded 34 times. And again, these aren’t huge deviations from what the StatsBomb xG model would’ve suggested.

So, what the hell happened? I would say three distinct items have fundamentally changed the effectiveness of Villa’s attack:

  1. John McGinn’s loss of form in early December
  2. John McGinn’s injury later in December
  3. Wesley’s injury on New Year’s Day

If you think back to the start of the season, McGinn was putting in great, high-energy performances week-in, week-out and helping Jack Grealish to key the Villa attack. But McGinn really struggled and looked run down in the handful of matches that followed the United draw, and in the build-up to his injury, there were calls for him to be dropped from the team.

On Wesley: Irrespective of what you think of him as a player, an injury to a striker who’s an ever-present in a team that plays with only one up top is necessarily going to have a big impact. Even if you don’t rate him, it’s hard to say Villa’s attack wasn’t better with him in it.

Villa haven’t really been able to recapture their attacking edge since the events outlined above, and even since he’s returned, McGinn hasn’t looked like the same player he was back in September or October. As long as that’s true, it fundamentally takes away Villa’s ability to play open, attacking football — because they don’t have the talent to do it at other positions. It worked early in the season because Grealish and McGinn were in form and each able to carry the responsibility.

With both of them out of form and Wesley injured, it’s really hard for me to see how Villa really could play expansively right now, particularly against stronger sides.

In truth, I actually think Dean Smith’s tactical switch at the restart might’ve been the right move, just too many matches too late. Villa’s defending has been far improved since the restart — conceding just four goals in as many matches is a stark improvement to the 34 in 14 before the break — while their attack hasn’t really been worse off, at least in a repeatable way (StatsBomb’s model gives Villa an average attacking xG of 1.0 since the restart).

The challenge is this, though: Villa’s tactical switch reduces randomness, and increases the chances of a draw. That can only get you so far in a relegation battle.

I’m not concerned about Watford and West Ham both suddenly tearing it up and running off a few wins (my apologies if this happens) — and I think that, at least until West Ham’s win, Villa had been the clear best bottom-five team since the restart — but I am concerned about Villa’s ability to actually get the win or two they need to get out of this.

It’s not hard to see how it can happen — taking one chance against Sheffield United or one more against Newcastle United would’ve done it — but it’s also not hard to see how it doesn’t happen. If I had to place a wager, I’d bet on Villa going down, but hey, maybe they run off back-to-back wins against Crystal Palace and Everton, and force a “loser leaves town” match with West Ham on the final day.

We are still not at the point of the season where one bad result dooms Villa. Let’s try to enjoy the football as much as possible until that happens — after all, isn’t that the whole point?