Aston Villa are the only side in the Premier League not to score a headed goal this season.
Words: Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon
Standing at 195cm and 194cm, respectively, Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels are 8th and 11th tallest outfield players in the Premier League. Kortney Hause comes in at 191cm and Wesley stands at 190cm, with El Ghazi standing almost as tall at 189cm.
Konsa, Elmohamady and Jack Grealish all have imposing physical stature, too.
Indeed, lining up against Brighton on Saturday, Aston Villa held the height advantage of the Seagulls, with an average size of 183cm for the Villans in comparison to Brighton’s 182cm. It’s a small margin of course, but in a game where a stray shoelace can rule you offside these days, those margins can make a big impact on the pitch.
Villa still working on aerial dogfights
Against Brighton, despite having the taller team Aston Villa won less of the aerial duels overall – 47% went Villa’s way, whilst 53% were won by Brighton. To be honest, this wasn’t out of character for either team. Graham Potter’s Brighton have won 55% of their aerial duels this season and Villa’s 48% is close to the average they achieved at the Amex.
Put that into the context of everyone else in the Premier League and Aston Villa are “13th best” at winning headers/aerials per 90 minutes:
- Burnley (25.6)
- Sheffield (24.8)
- Everton (22.9)
- West Ham (22.5)
- Wolves (21.3)
- Newcastle (21.1)
- Southampton (20.7)
- Crystal Palace (20.3)
- Bournemouth (20.3)
- Watford (19.9)
- Chelsea (18.9)
- Liverpool (18.5)
- Aston Villa (17.9)
- Brighton (17.7)
- Spurs (17.0)
- Leicester (16.9)
- Man United (15.2)
- Man City (14.3)
- Norwich (14.3)
- Arsenal (13.0)
Route one v Total Football
If you compare that list above with the passing accuracy % of each team, some similar patterns start to form:
- Man City (88.8%)
- Chelsea (84.5%)
- Liverpool (83.8%)
- Arsenal (83.6%)
- Man United (82.6%)
- Leicester (82.6%)
- Spurs (81.5%)
- Brighton (81.5%)
- Norwich (80.9%)
- Wolves (79.0%)
- Aston Villa (77.9%)
- West Ham (77.4%)
- Bournemouth (77.2%)
- Everton (77.0%)
- Crystal Palace (76.6%)
- Watford (75.0%)
- Sheffield (74.5%)
- Newcastle (73.0%)
- Southampton (71.9%)
- Burnley (68.6%)
It looks like there is a bit of an inverse relationship between the number of times a team wins aerial duels per match, and the passing accuracy of that team. Having a high passing accuracy and winning a lower number of aerial duels generally suggests that a team (at least tries to) play shorter passes or what might be deemed as quite “progressive” passing football. On the opposite side, those teams who have a lower passing accuracy %, but a high number of aerial duels won per match are often called “tough to beat”, physical sides – Sheffield United, Burnley, West Ham, Wolves.
There is some variation, of course, and a middle ground where some teams mix both the “hard to beat” style with some “progressive football” and passing accuracy.
Despite Aston Villa having height in the team, the emphasis seems to be on keeping the ball on the ground rather than winning aerial duels.
Short, accurate passing – the game has evolved
How do you think the passing accuracy chart looked 10 years ago? Well, in 2009 Chelsea won the league with an 82.5% passing accuracy. That puts them in the same passing-accuracy category as Brighton, by today’s standards! Indeed, the only team who have actually gotten worse at passing over the last decade seem to be Burnley, who managed to complete 68.7% of their passes in the 2009/10 season. Meanwhile, Man City’s development and departure from the long ball is shown by their increase in passing % from 76.0% in 2009/10, to 88.8% this season.
While this doesn’t explicitly answer the question “Why don’t the Villa score more headers?”, it does explain some of the rationale. Aston Villa play a different style of football to the classic Premier League rough-and-tumble of 10 years ago – just look at how differently Villa played football:
|Season||Passing %||Aerial duels won||Top scorer|
The two top scorers hint at a difference in talisman and a sign of the times. Grealish is a number 10 who feeds off of players helping him to create pockets of space. Agbonlahor, in his prime, used his pace and power to run in behind or score headers from crosses. In that same 2009/10 season, Villa had John Carew as their second-most-potent hitman, with 10 goals – very much a traditional number 9 and one of his main threats was in the air.
“Classic” strikers are a dying breed
Harry Kane is fantastic in the air. So is Tammy Abraham – but they’re also fantastic at lots of other things; shooting, passing, linking up play with their teammates.
In truth the “Classic” strikers in the Premier League now are a level below the traditional number 9s of yesteryear – for example; are Chris Wood, Jay Rodriguez, Glenn Murray and Dominic Calvert-Lewin really on the same level as John Carew, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Emile Heskey, Alan Shearer and Didier Drogba? No. No, they are not…
Perhaps it’s the success of players like Aguero, Wayne Rooney, Van Persie and Alan Shearer – the guys who (in their prime) could score every type of goal, and also set their teammates up – which has made it more difficult for strikers to get by just on their brute skill in the air.
Moving focus back to Aston Villa, the last successful “Target man” that Villa had was Christian Benteke – who has struggled to have the same impact on the Premier League in recent years. Indeed, Liverpool had Benteke at his peak but found the answer in a more rounded set of players which began with the quicker, more skilful but equally powerful Sadio Mane, and the complementary “nippy” characteristics of Firmino and Salah. Meanwhile, Aston Villa found greater success with the less powerful, but far more potent Tammy Abraham and his all-round game than Rudy Gestede (who peaked when he headed numerous goals in for Blackburn before Villa’s relegation season).
Football has changed and many headed goals come from defensive players – but heading efficiency is low because of crossing accuracy
It seems that the years from 2011-2016 have seen a decline in the number of crosses in top European football from around 17.5 per match in 2010-11 to 15 in 2016-17. This is largely because crossing is somewhat a game of chance – not only do you need to actually win the ball and have your players bury the chance, but you have to actually get the right ball into the box to give your players who are attacking the ball the right chance.
Using Opta stats, this study found that the most successful crosses were put just outside the six-yard box. That is to say, if you can hit the right spot in the box to make your crosses most effective, you’ll convert about 2-8% of those chances.
Sounds good, right? But don’t forget, you have to actually get your crosses into the right place in the box – the more inaccurate the cross, the less accurate your headers will be.
Villa could score more headers, but the emphasis is probably on creating chances through the centre of the park and crosses are less about attempting to score headed goals and more about just getting the ball in front of goal. Dean Smith has already expressed grievance for Jack Grealish’s controversially disallowed header against Burnley – meanwhile, Konsa missed a golden chance against Leicester when a perfect set-piece delivery could only rattle the bar, and Bjorn Engels has missed chances, too – notably against Bournemouth. Wesley had an exceptional headed chance against Watford as well.