Aston Villa were struggling for points since the winter break. Only managing one point in the three previous fixtures where the club would have been aiming for at least seven. Steven Gerrard’s possessional style looked to have taken hold against teams lower in the table, with the club seeing over 60% of the ball against Newcastle United and Watford. Disappointingly, however, this was possession without purpose as Villa failed to create many clear-cut goalscoring opportunities with cross after cross failing to find a target, and only two of their thirty-one shots in those two fixtures on target. They looked vulnerable in defensive transitions and Gerrard’s Villa resembled Mikel Arteta’s first full season at Arsenal.
The last two fixtures against Brighton and Hove Albion and Southampton saw Villa’s fortune’s turn with two comfortable victories, creating big chances, and looking far more solid. In those performances, however, Villa saw less than 40% of the ball. It seems no coincidence that a return to counter attacking football yielded a more positive performance for this Villa side. Moreover, a closer look shows some changes to Villa’s buildup play has made them less vulnerable to counter attacks and better able to create big chances. This change in shape may well be the platform from which Gerrard can build this Villa side in possession.
To understand what changed, we should look at how Villa created or failed to create goalscoring opportunities against Newcastle and Watford.
Possession in of itself should not be the goal and these shotmaps of the Newcastle and Watford matches demonstrate the issues in attack when possession football lacks penetration. There are few shots of genuine quality, with the expected goals per shot sitting at 0.05 or below. This means that Villa’s average shot has a less than 5% chance of resulting in a goal based on the history of shots taken in similar situations. Villa generated an expected goals total (xG) of over one against Watford, with 20 shots, the poor quality of shots, however, means Villa will score less consistently than a team that create chances of 0.1 xG per shot with only 10 shots. This poor xG per shot can be explained by looking at the average position of these shots by looking at the dotted lines, which are outside the box against both opponents. Shots from range can result in spectacular goals, but it is not a reliable way of scoring — in order to progress, Villa must create scoring opportunities in and around the six yard box. To understand why Villa were not creating these opportunities, we should look at how Villa decided to buildup attacks.
Above is Villa’s attacking shape under Gerrard for the Watford and Newcastle matches, it is broadly a 2-3-5 shape adopted by many top sides like Liverpool and Manchester City. The idea is to have players occupying the central space in front of goal, the wing spaces, to stretch the opposition lines, and the half spaces between them from which creative players will have a variety of passing options. The particulars of that Villa system are that these wide spaces were occupied by very high full-backs, while the number 10’s occupy the dangerous half spaces. Another unusual aspect of this system is that the eight’s in the midfield three are tasked with covering the high full-backs. These positions theoretically have some advantages as it allows the progressive eight’s to receive the ball in space, and opens some space for the ball to be played directly into the 10’s.
Against Newcastle, this system left Villa struggling to get into opposition’s final third. As Newcastle pressed, there was no easy outball for Villa’s centre-backs with the high full-backs. While the eight’s splitting wide to provide that outball, it meant that Douglas Luiz was alone and outnumbered in the midfield space, which forced Villa to play long balls rather than building meaningful opportunities against the Magpies.
Against Watford, this system worked far better in the buildup as Watford sat deep in a low block and allowed Villa to work the ball nicely into the final third. However, Watford’s tight midfield three blocked passing lanes into Villa’s narrow 10’s, meaning the most creative players had to drop deeper and deeper to collect the ball where they were unable to affect chance creation. Often, Villa’s buildup would go to the high and wide full-backs — Matty Cash and Lucas Digne put in 10 crosses, but without a large aerially threatening centre-forward or an overload of Villa players in the box, these came to very little. This structure seemed unsuited to some of Villa’s players as they missed progressive passes into the 10’s, something on loan left-back, Matt Targett, provided, and while John McGinn is also impressively capable of this, he was unable to make that impact from a deep right-back position.
This structure in buildup left Villa vulnerable in defensive transitions. The space behind the high full-backs was exploited by opposition counter attacks — this is how Watford created a number of good opportunities, and ultimately, their winning goal. Villa’s narrow structure meant the centre-backs were dragged out of position in order to cover for those full-backs, and left the centre of the pitch open for opposition attackers. Villa not only conceded less changes against Brighton and Southampton, but created much better quality chances for themselves with fewer shots, as these shotmaps show.
These shotmaps look far healthier, and the total xG of both matches is higher, meaning Villa were more likely to score one or more of their chances during a match. The average quality of each shot is far higher too at 0.14 xG and 0.2 xG per shot as a result of more of Villa’s shots being taken from within the box. Against Brighton, most of these high value chances either came from set pieces or direct counter attacking situations. These situations are where Villa’s attacking players could run into space behind the Brighton defence as the home side looked for an equaliser after Cash’s unlikely, but well taken opening goal.
These were characteristic’s of Villa’s style under Dean Smith last season as Villa produced the highest number of direct attacks of any side in the league with 95. Against Southampton, Villa created even more high xG chances — Southampton’s high line similarly gave the forwards space to run into. However, in this fixture, Villa created good chances against a settled defence and not just in transition. After the Watford defeat, Villa changed how they built up against Brighton, which resulted in a more solid structure with and without the ball, making Villa less vulnerable and more able to create these good goalscoring oppertunities.
Villa switched to and often defended in a 4-3-1-2 diamond; against Brighton, Villa’s shape in buildup resembled a lopsided Marcelo Bielsa-esque 3-3-1-3, while this was a more symmetrical diamond against Southampton. The big change to the system used against Newcastle and Watford were the deeper full-backs, who provided an out ball for the centre-backs when building from the back. This change against Brighton benefited both Cash and Digne, as the more defensively minded Cash shuffled across to form a back three at times. This is similar to Kyle Walker’s role at Manchester City; Cash’s pace meant he made some important defensive actions in the early parts of the game that kept Villa from going behind early. Digne on the other hand, was allowed to push up with more defensive security behind him, as he played a role in McGinn’s saved effort, as well as Cash’s long range goal in one of his rarer forays forward. For the match against Southampton, Digne was ruled out with COVID, with Ashley Young in the role — both full-backs stayed deep and made late runs down the wings to provide support on occasion.
The midfield benefited from playing more traditional roles, which gave Luiz closer passing options on the ball, and a tighter defensive shape without it. John McGinn probably benefited from this change the most as it allowed him to beat pressing midfielders with his low squatting pass receiving skill before moving the ball upfield. He had upfield options too as against Brighton, Jacob Ramsey pushed high and Philippe Coutinho was able to move freely in between their lines. Against Southampton, Coutninho dropped deeper into midfield to overload the two opposition central midfielders, with Ramsey and McGinn running beyond him and Danny Ings dropping to link passages of play together.
These matches saw the return to a front two in Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins, with the pair finally developing the partnership that fans were hoping for when Ings was announced in the summer. The two forwards were used in roles more natural to them, with Watkins asked to run the channels and force the opposition defense backwards, and Ings playing a second striker role to link play before getting into the box. This all came together for Villa’s first goal against Southampton as all three of the frontmen combined for Watkins’ finish.
This new shape used in the last two fixtures helped Villa concede fewer big chances, and the overall xG was reduced from 2.35 against Newcastle and Watford to 1.95 in the last two fixtures, but crucially, fewer of those chances were of a high value. Defensively, the front two blocked passes into midfield, and Villa were secure on defensive transitions thanks to the deeper full-backs and a tighter midfield. Villa’s ability to create changes against a settled Southampton defence shows that the new shape aids Villa’s buildup regardless of the how much of the ball they are seeing. When playing against teams in a low block, the shape could be adapted for players who thrive in those circumstances, replacing Ings with Emi Buendia, for example, would use the two 10’s of Gerrard’s preferred system, and give Villa more control of the ball in the opposition half.
With Villa still developing in possession, some poor performances like those against Newcastle and Watford are to be expected. A greater share of the ball will give Villa more control of the game going forward and would help them find the consistency needed for sustained European pushes by beating teams lower in the table. The future of this system may allow the full-backs more freedom to move upfield in order to stretch the opposition — something the return of Marvelous Nakamba and his tendency to slot into the defensive line would facilitate. Implementing the positional rotations and clever interplay needed to break down opposition low blocks will take time.
A long-term aim of the coaching team may be to implement the counter-pressing system they used at Rangers, which squeezed the opposition and kept them under sustained pressure with the ball. This pressing is used by possession based sides to slow down opposition counter attacks by systematically swarming the ball carrier, and can be used to create scoring opportunities. Gerrard’s Rangers side allowed the fewest passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the league for two of his three seasons in the North. This has only just begun to materialise at Villa, with the side pressing less since Gerrard’s arrival, allowing 13.5 PPDA this season, and is a drop from 12.2 PPDA under Dean Smith. A key tactical change in these last two fixtures, however, has seen Villa begin to implement a counter press. The side recorded their most pressures of the season with 210 against both Brighton and Southampton as Villa’s midfielders were able to effectively shut down counter attacks thanks to their more natural positions.
The improvements to Villa’s structure for buildup against Brighton fixed many of the deficiencies of the Watford and Newcastle performances, and this will still take time to develop, but there is little reason it cannot be used as a more possession focused style. There will likely be changes in the summer that better facilitate that style, but for the moment, it would appear Steven Gerrard and his coaching team have found a way for this football club to get back on track with and without the ball.