The first episode in our Boot Room puts Aston Villa’s number six, Douglas Luiz, under the microscope. This could be a make-or-break half-season for the 23-year-old Brazilian.
From the early sixties through the late eighties, the boot room of Anfield became the hub of Liverpool’s dominance; an informal meeting place for the coaches to discuss ideas, tactics, and player development. What the boot room didn’t have was access to player data and scouting metrics, or indeed even a computer. Those tools, which are increasingly relied upon in the modern game certainly would have helped in that final area, player development. As such, we at 7500 to Holte bring you our own Boot Room, where we use the modern tools of scouting to analyse Villa’s current squad, highlighting where they excel and where they can improve. Our Boot Room probably smells a bit better too!
Douglas Luiz arrived at Villa in the summer of 2019, signed by then sporting director Jesús ‘Suso’ Pitarch. The Brazilian was slotted into Connor Hourihane’s holding midfield role in the 2018/2019 promotion winning squad. Villa needed a player who could replicate Hourihane’s passing ability without compromising the defence at a higher level. In the two seasons since, Luiz has received mixed reviews. At times he lacks a clear identity on the pitch as many believe the player would be better utilised as an eight rather than in a holding role. The club seems have had the same dilemma, having spent part of the summer transfer window looking for, but ultimately choosing not to purchase another defensive midfielder.
With the departure of Dean Smith, Luiz’s future at the club is subject to the whims of new head coach Steven Gerrard, who has thus far utilised him further up the pitch. The competition for number eight’s in Gerrard’s system is high, however. The continually improving Jacob Ramsey, undroppable John McGinn, and high energy Morgan Sanson could limit Luiz’s playing time significantly. Becoming this midfield’s established number six is his best way to staying in the starting line-up long-term. The lengthy injury to Marvelous Nakamba gives Luiz a short time to stake his claim on the holding role. The player is in his third year with Villa, with age and experience no longer excuses, Luiz must improve his game in a few areas to complete Villa’s midfield or risk losing his place.
Aston Villa have largely settled into a seasonally appropriate Christmas tree 4-3-2-1 formation under Gerrard. The new boss has spoken about being flexible in his approach and has utilised a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 during his time at previous club Rangers. The expense of signing Ollie Watkins last season and Danny Ings in the summer means there will be some pressure to implement a system using the two strikers. Additionally, to include the likes of both Leon Bailey, and Emiliano Buendía in the line-up, the system would need to change to a double pivot midfield in either a 4-2-3-1 or a modern 4-4-2.
As Villa evolve into a higher possession side, it may be necessary to use the full suite of Villa’s attacking talent to break down low blocks as teams lower down the table sit off and defend. If Douglas Luiz is to be the deepest sitting midfielder in either a single or double pivot, his role will be to snuff out dangerous attacks in front of the defence and then distribute the ball to a progressive midfielder, the advancing full-backs or into dangerous attacking areas for the number ten or ten’s. In both of these aspects, Luiz isn’t doing enough currently to take him and by extension Villa up to the next level.
It is difficult to measure Douglas Luiz’s defensive prowess by statistics alone. Much of defending relies on positioning, blocking passing lanes, and moving the opposition into less dangerous areas. For example, Ezri Konsa has developed into a fantastic centre-back, yet looking at his number of tackles and interceptions, would imply the opposite. When comparing defensive stats like pressures, tackles, and interceptions, we instead measure style of defending rather than defensive prowess.
The radar plot shows how Luiz compares to midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues as of Dean Smith’s final match in charge at Southampton. This shows that Luiz’s defensive style is generally passive; in recovering loose balls, he removes danger by shepherding the opposition away from goal. This passive style is why Luiz looked so effective in Villa’s Project Restart line-up, which largely held its structure and passively blocked opponents from progressing the ball. However, passivity has its drawbacks, particularly in a midfield two. Under Dean Smith, Luiz’s less aggressive style meant his midfield partner, John McGinn, is less able to range up the field and affect the attack. The next plot shows how Villa’s double pivot from last season compares with pivots at the top end of the Premier League, with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho, and West Ham’s Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček.
Chelsea and West Ham show the different styles of implementing a double pivot. Chelsea makes up for having fewer midfielders by pressing, allowing an average of 10.4 passes per defensive action (PPDA - the lower number of passes allowed shows a more active press). West Ham are comparatively passive, allowing 14.4 PPDA, but use a compact structure to make progression through the midfield difficult. The respective styles of each side show in the pressing numbers of their midfielders. Meanwhile, Villa under Dean Smith fell somewhere in between, allowing 12.2 PPDA, but were less compact defensively than West Ham. A common theme in both Chelsea’s and West Ham’s midfields though, is the active defensive work of one or both of the midfielders when tackling and intercepting the ball. Luiz and McGinn by contrast were more passive than either of these double pivots, making fewer defensive actions. When combined with the middling press and open structure, it has led to them being overwhelmed too often.
These are issues that the new coaching team are looking to address. Under Gerrard, Villa’s PPDA has dropped to 13.8, reflecting the more compact shape adopted since his arrival. In a two-man midfield, Douglas Luiz must improve the number of tackles and interceptions he makes to help his midfield partner if Villa are to get all of their attacking talent on the pitch. There are good signs that he may be able to do this as Luiz has won 64.1% of the tackles he attempts and is only being dribbled past 1.45 times per 90; better than Jorginho’s 61.1% and 2.68 respectively, but lower than Declan Rice who wins 72.0% of his tackles and has only been dribbled past 0.70 times per 90. Similarly, he falls between Jorginho and Rice in his number of interceptions, which has been his biggest defensive improvement this season, averaging 2.74 compared to last season’s 1.07. The Villa midfielder also makes few mistakes leading to shots — zero in the last year.
For Jorginho, that defensive work took time to develop at the Premier League level. His widely derided first season in 2018/2019 saw him make 3.85 tackles and interceptions per 90, but by the 2020/2021 season this was 4.93 per 90 after implementing marginal improvements to his number of defensive actions season on season. For Douglas Luiz, it is clear he has the attributes to be an elite level defensive midfielder and by improving the number of defensive actions he takes, particularly the number of tackles, Luiz could experience a similar improvement when in a midfield two.
There were issues, both structurally and with personnel when Villa used a midfield two under Smith. The simple solution to this when Steven Gerrard arrived was to stick to a midfield three. Villa have played their best football since the introduction of the three man midfield and Christmas tree formation under Gerrard, which was assisted by the emergence of an energetic Jacob Ramsey. Having two high energy eight’s and attacking midfielders able to step back into the midfield suited the defensively minded Marvelous Nakamba, giving him short passing options to make up for his lack of passing range.
With Luiz in the holding role though, Villa could be more expansive in attack. Luiz’s passive style is able to win second balls to gain possession in the packed midfield, then use his passing range to put the ball into dangerous areas. To see where Luiz can improve here, however, we can compare him to Villa’s reported first choice target for the role back in 2019, Kalvin Phillips of Leeds United. Phillips won recognition for playing a deep lying creator role for Leeds, which led to his starting role within the England national team at the Euros this summer. The next radar plot demonstrates how often the two players are performing actions necessary for a complete midfielder compared to midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
A comparison between the two players shows the focus of Phillips on his role as disruptor and distributor. Defensively, he fits into Leeds’ aggressive man-to-man system of pressing and winning the ball, but he has been able to turn this into effective creative numbers with his passing. A notable aspect of Phillips’ game is the few dribbles he makes. This is an area the Luiz is more adept in, not only attempting and completing more dribbles (1.13 compared to Phillips’ to 0.97 per 90), but also succeeding more often, with 64.9% of his attempts. However, where Luiz could improve his game is in distributing the ball into dangerous areas. The plot shows that in terms of passing, Phillips is on top, making more progressive passes that break opposition lines (3.97 per 90) while Luiz was making 3.46 below average for midfielders.
Phillips also moves the ball to attacking players in the opposition third of the pitch more often (5.45 times per 90) compared to Luiz’s middling 3.58 per 90 under Smith. Luiz has the skill set to improve in this area as Villa implement a higher possession passing style. Luiz not only completed the most successful passes of Villa’s midfielders under Smith (38.14 per 90), but also completes a high percentage of those he attempts (84.6%); recycling possession well. In long passes over 10 yards, Luiz completed 72.2% of them, making him above average in Europe’s top five leagues. However, few of these passes broke opposition lines and ended up in the final third or the opposition box.
These lower creative numbers mean that Douglas Luiz created fewer shooting opportunities for his teammates than Kalvin Phillips. The Villa man made fewer key passes (passes leading to shots) than Phillips (0.86 compared to 1.04 per 90). He was less involved with indirectly creating opportunities too, managing 1.81 shot creating actions per 90 (either of the two actions leading to a shot, whether that is a pass, dribble or defensive action), compared to Phillips’ 2.00. A deeper defensive role does not exclude Luiz from contributing to Villa’s attack, as the comparison shows, but whether starting as a six or more importantly as an eight going forward, Luiz needs to impact the attack more.
Under Gerrard, there are again signs Douglas Luiz can have that impact from a deep position. Against Norwich, Luiz completed his most passes in a match this season, completing 52 of his 62 attempts. Those passes made it into the attacking third eight times, a season high, and into the box twice in which matched his output playing further up the field against Leicester City. When playing further up the pitch under the new regime, Luiz created his highest number of shooting chances against Manchester City, a total of six, with three coming from dead ball situations and the other three from passes in live play. In Luiz, Villa have a player of significant potential who can make the attack more expansive and felicitate a higher possession style, but who has not yet made himself an undroppable anchor for Villa’s attack.
Developing a complete midfielder who balances the defensive with progressive is difficult. It’s little wonder that a top-class defensive midfielder/deep lying creator is often the missing ingredient stopping many sides from making the step to the next level. In Villa’s case, the role is more specific as Villa’s options at number eight (John McGinn, Morgan Sanson, and Jacob Ramsey) all generally like to progress the ball by dribbling. This requires a number six who recycles possession while finding passes that break the lines of the opposition defence. That number six also needs to be on top of their defensive game, to be the shield of the back line as well, and be the anchor for the attack. Both aspects are critical to either a midfield two or three at the very top level. The right mix of qualities need to be present across the midfield regardless of its structure.
Looking at the comparison with Chelsea’s double pivot, the shared burden of defensive work across all their midfielders allows them to affect the attack. Kanté is allowed to progress the ball by dribbling, which makes up the majority of his shot creating actions. Meanwhile, Jorginho is permitted sufficient time on the ball to affect the attack, with his progressive passing. Villa have improved their midfield structure and the high work rate of the midfielders seen so far under Gerrard needs to continue for Villa to similarly succeed.
It is a make-or-break year for Douglas Luiz. He must focus on improving two areas of his game:
- Using his passing ability to move the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch and break lines.
- Being a more active defender to allow his midfield partners to support the attack.
With the January transfer window lass than 24 hours away, the next few fixtures will be vital for Luiz to cement a starting place. If he does so, the club may consider simply bringing in a promising understudy for the holding midfield role. If he does not step up then he is at risk of losing his place to an adept defensive midfielder, in a newly invigorated midfield, with fewer and fewer opportunities for Douglas Luiz to live up to his potential.