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Analysing Villa’s midfield play against West Bromwich Albion

Villa’s midfield were awful against West Brom - and they didn’t have much luck go their way.

Wigan Athletic v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Aston Villa deployed a midfield trio of Glenn Whelan, Conor Hourihane and John McGinn on Saturday with Whelan operating behind Conor (on the left) and McGinn (on the right). It seemed to be a more aggressive setup than the one used in a 1-0 loss to Brentford on Wednesday but was it anymore successful?

In a word, no. West Brom were able to operate with cool and calm precision while Villa rushed in full of blood and thunder to make mistakes. A key mistake defined the game, but it should not be singled out. Once more, Villa were wasteful up front and impatient in attack and this is not a good formula for success, to say the very least.

The numbers do not read brilliantly for Villa’s midfield. None of their players were existent in attack, with 0.25 xG of Villa’s expected goals coming from a combination of McGinn, Whelan, Hourihane and his replacement Jacob Ramsey. McGinn was Villa’s most effective tackler, with the other three almost none-existent, however McGinn, Ramsey and Hourihane were equally as wasteful, losing the ball all over and 6 times between them in Villa’s own half which is catastrophic. All showed they could press and win the ball, but it came to nought. For the final statistic, Hourihane was punished as Jay Rodriguez finished the sequence off by burying a particularly soft effort. This is a particularly brutal warning for all of Villa’s midfielders - that wasting possession can and will be punished.


Aston Villa for the most part would build up attacks patiently - with movement mainly depending on a midfield trio of Glenn Whelan, Conor Hourihane and John McGinn. Whelan would drop deep to collect and recycle possession to Hourihane and McGinn who would usually then look for a run from a wide player and play them in on goal. The highlight of this would be within the first minute of action when the trio combined well with Andre Green to force a shooting chance. And that’s it.

Whelan is able to collect the ball - and play into McGinn who would have fashioned a shooting chance for Conor Hourihane as shown above. Hourihane is open, but the tempo of the game slips both himself and Hourihane and the pass is played behind the attacker. That isn’t the end of the move though, as both midfielders redeem the situation by instantly counter-pressing to claim the ball and provide a shooting chance for Andre Green (pictured left)

Shortly after, Hourihane would find himself creating another opportunity by raising them tempo of the attack and slotting in Andre Green with a first time pass. Green, shown on the right of the screen had started his run early and was pulled back for off-side, but it was an encouraging sign early on for Villa.

Unfortunately, these opportunities were few and far between and Villa would have to work a lot harder than West Bromwich Albion in midfield. That’s us done with the highlights.

Hard work and high tempo leads to mistakes more often than not and Glenn Whelan was found wanting on one occasion when his missed tackle was followed by a scoring opportunity for West Brom. Kortney Hause had moved to press the ball, but Villa’s midfield were unable to remove it and Mason Holgate slipped past Villa for a shot.

Villa’s midfield press would find no success either - and in situations when Villa were closing down a player, West Brom would simply negate it by passing the ball slower and asking Villa to commit to following up.

As shown below, West Brom could simply distill pressure by playing the ball back to Gareth Barry and allowing him to operate in space without breaking a sweat. Forcing Villa to back off less they open up a channel was credit to West Brom’s attacking prowess.

What worked well for West Brom wouldn’t work from a Villa perspective. Gareth Barry was allowed runners and time when playing the ball from deep. When Villa mirrored this, John McGinn would be unable to connect with anyone - and Villa lacked presence in the box. The only option here is Andre Green, but the ball is played beyond him. With more bodies in the box, Villa could fashion a chance and test West Brom.

It was of course an early cross that opened the lead up for West Brom. As mentioned above, Villa’s early ball needed a free runner (not happening). West Brom were able to complete these passes and score - with Hal Robson-Kanu hitting an unanswered header from an incredible position.

There is no defending these goals - and it only stops if Andre Green blocks a cross.

Above, we discussed wastefulness in possession - and even though Conor Hourihane is in ‘possession’ of the ball for 1/10th of a second, he loses it via a reckless tackle. This combined with West Bromwich’s advanced press resets the state of play in the final third and forces an ill-positioned Villa defence (as seen below where the ball is lost behind the defensive midfielder with right-back Alan Hutton filling in, in the middle) to adjust.

While a soft chance is allowed, it actually goes in after taking a deflection. Again, this is the biggest warning shot that could have been fired to Villa. Hourihane was punished for this, and deservedly so - but Villa’s other two midfielders can judge themselves as lucky that they were not punished for their wastefulness.

At the very least Villa pushed forward in the second-half, with McGinn and Hourihane actually encroaching the opposition area with a full-back in possession of the ball.

They may well have been rewarded for this after a corner was forced - with the resulting effort clattering the cross-bar.

Hourihane was substituted (and the jeers and absue for whatever reason are completely unacceptable) after a sub-par performance for Villa and Jacob Ramsey replaced him. Young Ramsey looked to spark an attack when he came on, but ultimately, Villa were dead and buried. Villa’s best chance would fall to John McGinn who would ask questions of Sam Johnstone with a long-range effort.

Villa’s plan changed late on to include Jonathan Kodjia as a striker and thus Ramsey was moved to a wing position and McGinn and Whelan would form a double pivot. McGinn would have more success fashioning chances, but Villa still lacked presence in the box and while his pass would set Ramsey free, it would come to nothing - like everything Villa attempted on Saturday.

After this, the match fizzled out. Villa were on the back foot - and two explosive match incidents threw West Brom into an unquestioned lead.

What is the big problem here? Well - it’s that without Jack Grealish, a lot is asked of Villa’s midfield and they cannot replace Grealish. Simply put, while Villa can fashion a ‘10’ or an ‘8’ to ‘replace’ Grealish, we have to remember that nobody can do what Grealish does. McGinn and Hourihane line up horizontally and this creates a static game-state. Grealish drifts between these lines and allows the other team to try and press him, allowing wide players space for runs. While McGinn and Hourihane can do this, it only allows for a sidewards pass and halts Villa’s momentum. Both were effective in releasing wide players, but Villa did not fashion a major chance from either of these movements.


It’s extremely difficult to diagnose a singular problem here - and I’d ask that we refrain from demanding that players ‘try harder’ as this usually results in more errors. It’s perhaps more productive to ask for more patience. Blood and thunder football can be pretty - but it involves chucking two players to the lions and demanding an error-free game. From the basic stats available to us all - I can tell you that that is not possible.

Ideally, a bit of luck might go Villa’s way over the next few weeks. We do have to recall that Villa gave away big chances against Derby, Birmingham and Boro but were unpunished and managed to convert at the other end. That isn’t happening anymore.

Villa improved their playing style, but were impotent. If we are looking for something, we should inspect Tammy Abraham’s missed (or a good Johnstone save? You decide) effort early on. Villa once more made the chances, but failed to do anything with them. On the weight of chances, it could be argued that Villa had better chances (West Brom buried two soft goals, remember) but did nothing with them. This is quickly becoming the definition of 2019 and there doesn’t seem to be quick fix coming.