The final 15 minutes of Sunday’s clash against Fulham made many Villa fans sit up in their seats for perhaps the first time since the opening 45 minutes of the Burnley game in January.
Following a pretty comatose performance for the preceding 75 minutes, and if we’re being honest the previous two months, Sunday’s performance felt significant. Villa managed their first three points coming from behind, only their second win without Jack Grealish, and Villa’s substitutes managed more goal involvements than in all of their previous 28 matches.
With Grealish’s complicated shin injury making him a doubt for the final nine matches of the season, and Ross Barkley’s lack of fitness, long suspected by fans and now confirmed by Dean Smith, I look to Sunday’s performance, data, and tactics, to suggest a change to improve Villa’s form without their star men, by starting Keinan Davis.
How Villa look to play
In order to layout my suggested switch up, we should first look at how Villa look to play with everyone fit and how that has gone wrong in 2021.
Since the arrival of Ross Barkley, much of Villa’s starting 11 has picked itself, with the only spot of variation being the right wing spot of the 4-2-3-1 in which was held, in the early part of the season, by Trezeguet.
Villa often progressed the ball down the left flack through Targett or Mings into Grealish, who’s ability on the ball allowed Villa to move the ball up the pitch quickly, either through Jack’s dribbling ability or by moving the ball between Barkley and Watkins peeling out onto the left wing.
Alternatively, Villa often looked to go direct into Watkins, particularly in matches against tougher opposition, with the forward’s hold up play being supplemented by Barkley who pushed up high as a 10 and Grealish offered an option on the wing.
The interchange between these three was central to most of Villa’s attacking play, with Barkley looking like a very astute acquisition on loan from Chelsea, with his ability to drive at the defense with the ball and find a pass into dangerous areas — completing 3.2 key passes per 90 minutes (passes leading to shot opportunities) and offering a goal threat from the edge of the box, with 0.3 expected goals per 90 (xG, a measure in which calculates the chances of a particular shot resulting in a goal).
When Barkley was injured early in the Brighton match, Villa were able to adapt after a brief return to a 4-3-3 for a less than clinical West Ham game and smash and grab performance against Wolves. Villa then moved back to the 4-2-3-1, which arguably saw Villa’s best month with Grealish as a number 10.
This change saw the regular introduction of Bertrand Traore on the right wing, with the reintroduction of Anwar El Ghazi on the left, both acting as inverted wingers to offer goal threats, with the creative burden falling onto Grealish’s shoulders.
During this period of five games, Jack saw his number of touches in the box drop from 10.1 to 6.1 per 90, and his xG, fall from 0.27 to 0.14 per 90. However, by every other creative metric I can think of, expected assists (xA), key passes, shot creating actions (SCA), as well as the number of passes and dribbles into the opposition box, Grealish improved when playing as a 10.
El Ghazi, in particular, scored five goals in six games during this period, benefiting greatly from being able to be more direct. On the other hand, Villa’s early European push and momentum floundered in 2021 after a hiatus caused by a COVID outbreak at Bodymoor Heath.
Providing a reason for the decline in Villa’s form is complex and the unusual circumstances of this pandemic season certainly share some blame.
Few teams could be said to be consistent in 2021, the smaller summer break, lack of pre-season, congested fixture schedule, and fewer opportunities to relax have certainly effected performances.
The added injuries and fatigue, both physical and mental, have added to a loss of form for key individuals in the Villa squad — none more so than Ross Barkley, who has looked a yard or two off the pace since his injury.
Whether due to physical fitness or fear of receiving another injury, Barkley has seemingly lost his explosiveness when running at the opposition with the ball; loss of confidence too is likely a factor. In games, Barkley is making fewer key passes (3.20 to 1.89), passes into the box (2.00 to 1.26), as well as a drop off in carrying the ball into the final third (2.00 to 1.26).
With one of the three key attackers in Villa’s 4-2-3-1 out of form and fitness, it is not hard to believe that Villa suffered in the final third without the threat of Barkley as both West Ham and Brighton were able to double up against Grealish on the left without disrupting their defensive shape.
Naturally, this further impacted the more direct players of the attacking 4, Watkins and Traore, with both receiving fewer progressive passes per 90; 8.4 down from 9.6 in 2020 and 3.0 down from 5.0 respectively.
Villa’s creativity issue was then compounded with the loss of Jack Grealish and the subsequent move back to the 4-3-3 has seen a rotating cast as Dean Smith has looked to strike the right balance in midfield.
With Barkley out of form and fitness, Smith has looked to complement McGinn and Luiz with Sanson, who having been dispossessed 2.8 times per 90 and only registering 1 key pass, is clearly still adapting to the league.
Meanwhile, Ramsey is still a talented youth prospect finding his game.
Nakamba is another option, but has so far been used on a situation-by-situation basis for his off-ball abilities to screen in front of the back 4.
Furthermore, in the front three, Traore and either Trezeguet or El Ghazi have been tasked to fill the creative void, but with little success, leaving Watkins isolated and balls coming back towards the defense not long after clearing them.
With little on the bench to change the outcome of matches it seemed that Villa would simply have to hold out for Grealish’s return, which according to social media, was assuredly very soon.
The case for the 4-3-1-2
Sunday’s match against Fulham provided an insight into how this Villa team can arrest their drop in form for the remainder of the season.
If Grealish had made his teased comeback, I would advocate going back to the 4-2-3-1 used in December with Grealish as the 10. However, with further complications to Jack’s shin injury, Smith did what many fans had already suggested and pushed McGinn into the 10 position.
This makes a lot of sense as McGinn has played well in that position for the Scottish national team with his added energy to the press and his ability to retain possession with his backside — running at opponents with the ball helped alleviate issues of Watkins being isolated and retaining cleared balls. This switch alone did not solve Villa’s creative issues and it would take 75 minutes until Villa registered a shot on target.
The substitutions that facilitated the first shot on target and the following comeback came along when Villa’s system moved to an attacking 4-4-2, with the home side chasing the game.
While Trezeguet was a direct fresh legged replacement, Davis offered hold up play and physicality against a deep lying back line, freeing up Watkins to make runs into the box, with Ramsey adding energetic dribbling ability, a range of passing to the midfield and working well in the congested spaces.
Personally, I’m a big believer that a side must build its system for the players currently available to it and it has been clear that the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hasn’t worked without one or several creative fulcrums that are currently not available to us.
Therefore, I am advocating that Villa go to football’s biggest cliche of going ‘back to basics’, and play far more directly.
The 4-4-2 that ended the Fulham match probably would not be viable across 90 minutes with the midfield two of McGinn and Ramsey likely to be overwhelmed defensively, however, adding a defensive midfielder to the line-up in a 4-3-1-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond) may solve that and look something like the graphic below.
This system would allow Villa to play direct to either Watkins or Davis, who are both players with good ability to hold up the ball, and having McGinn pushed up high, it allows for multiple passing options to players with a good ability to retain possession.
Off the ball, this front line can pressure the defenses of the top teams Villa must play in the upcoming fixtures, all of which, outside of Man City, have suffered with deficiencies in their center-back partnerships this season.
In the midfield, I would start Trezeguet deeper than usual against Liverpool, but his energy to get up and down the pitch is unquestionable and his defensive attributes were applauded at the beginning of the season, so I think he would adapt well.
Against Liverpool there is space to be exploited behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, which Watkins can peel into by stretching the defense for a late runner from the midfield —forming a 4-2-2-2 in possession; a role which again potentially suits Trezeguet. Barkley, Sanson, and Nakamba could all switch into the tip, left or right, and base of the diamond, respectively.
Both Targett and Cash can provide width as they do in Villa’s current system. While this appears to leave Villa’s wingers out in the cold, it is worth noting that Traore’s most prolific season was as a forward in a 4-3-1-2 at Lyon and while El Ghazi did not impress as a lone striker last season, his direct attributes may work in a two with either Watkins or Davis.
I have advocated for this system in part because it offers an opportunity to Keinan Davis, who despite his great potential, has yet to really step up and I believe never will as a lone striker. At 23 years old, it feels like now or never for Davis in a Villa shirt and this proposed system could see him and Villa thrive.