We take a bit of a deeper look into the tactical tweaks and individual details from Aston Villa’s 2-2 draw with Burnley.
Old habits are known to die hard, but new habits are said to inspire. There is a time to stay the course, and there is a time to throw caution to the wind.
In any case, the tactical tweak rolled out by Dean Smith against Burnley last weekend made more than a few scratch their heads – out of confusion or excitement – as the team sheets were announced. Maybe a new look formation wasn’t throwing caution to the wind at all, but more so identifying when and where to shake things up.
Change is generally a good thing, but it doesn’t happen ‘just because’. In football, a small change or tweak can be unimaginably important.
Dean Smith has preached with the Power of the Pope in regards to his 4-3-3 system; the areas of the pitch he likes his team to attack, the tireless effort that he demands from his players. You can curse the results to this point, you can be disappointed with Aston Villa’s league position, but you cannot ignore that Aston Villa have not been blown away by an opponent so far this season.
In most games to this point, the side are setting the pace early and showing what they are about in the first half of games. Dean Smith knew that something different was needed against Burnley and placed Jack Grealish “out wide“, a small change that did provide a number of positives. It allowed a horizontal tandem of John McGinn and Conor Hourihane, with Marvelous Nakamba riding just behind them.
Grealish did not look out of place, registering an 80% passing accuracy, in turn, a 100% accuracy in passes into the final third. It was vintage Jack, but provided another example of how Aston Villa’s talisman is becoming a more complete footballer. Gone are the opportunities he was afforded in the Sky Bet Championship, and Jack is growing to learn that in the Premier League.
Anwar El Ghazi, who scored with a tidy finish against Burnley in the 33rd minute, featured on the right flank. Generally, Jota or Trezeguet would fill that position for Villa. El Ghazi looked a threat throughout the game with his amount of shots created but didn’t do a great job of one-on-one duel opportunities. Anwar only won eight of twenty-two duels, but that may be due to playing on the opposite side of the pitch. El Ghazi was cutting into the centre of the field when he was afforded time and space. It seems like a very small detail, but to a footballer, switching their position on the field generally causes a bit of in-game confusion. If El Ghazi is more comfortable on the right flank than the left flank, the Villa coaching staff should give a definitive look to keeping him there was much as possible moving forward.
Marvelous Nakamba is getting better and better by the game. Nakamba started his third consecutive Premier League game in a central defensive midfield role. You’ll find that people have strong opinions about what differs between a 4-3-3 and a 4-1-4-1, but Nakamba was definitely playing as a central defensive midfielder against Burnley. Seven interceptions generally don’t happen every game unless you’re locked into the game mentally and physically.
Nakamba completed 45 of 50 passes for the entirety of the game against Burnley. A handful of those passes were absolute peaches, finding wingers 30 to 35 yards ahead of him and across to the opposite side of the pitch. One pass to Anwar El Ghazi in the first half looked as if Nakamba didn’t even have to look to find his teammate. It has been a real joy to see Nakamba get better on a game by game basis. It is no disrespect to Douglas Luiz, but he has to show a lot more in this specific position to shake Nakamba free of the role he is starting to take as his own. Just have a look at the combined heat-map of Nakamba’s first three Premier League games.
John McGinn continues to do John McGinn things for Aston Villa. The midfielder is arriving late into attacking areas with his pitbull like running style. McGinn is merciless, unrelenting and absolutely playing some of the most forward-thinking that Villa supporters have seen from a midfielder not named Jack Grealish in quite some time. McGinn scored as well against Burnley, but the tactics seem settled for him: hunt the ball, use your body to fend off opposition pressure and never stop looking for an opportunity to run forward. It’s starting to look like no matter what system John McGinn plays in, his personal style stays the same way. That is the mark of true talent, and it is not insane to feel that the Scottish midfielder is one of the more impressive midfield players outside of the “Top 6” sides in England.
While not a massive change to the Aston Villa system that Dean Smith is hellbent on, there were a few tiny changes that made the difference against Burnley. A 2-2 draw against a team such as the Clarets is probably a good result, but Villa supporters are crying out for more. The frustration is starting to set in, but Dean Smith looks like he is working diligently to figure out just the right combination of players to start winning, and more importantly, putting a team away once his team has a lead.