Aston Villa have won their four games in the Premier League through very different means.
Words: Guest Writer | @hot_diggity_d
There is an age-old unwritten rule in football theory which states that every good team requires a fully rounded Plan B, lest their rigid ideology lead to demise. Up until lockdown last season and project restart which followed, a fair criticism thrown in the direction of Dean Smith’s Aston Villa was based in their inability to adjust their way of approaching a football match on a game-by-game, or indeed minute by minute basis. They had the Plan A, an all too often futile attempt to dominate the ball, switch the play and probe for openings. However, they lacked both the overall attacking talent and the composure to carry out this plan on a consistent basis at one end of the pitch, compounded by naivety in the defensive phase. This would ultimately lead to an over-reliance on Jack Grealish to pull his magic wand out and change the course of a game with a drop of the hips and a flick of a boot, and our experienced Premier League foe were having none of it. The word was out – stifle Grealish, stifle Aston Villa. From there they will crumble, and they all too often obliged.
The improvements made since Project Restart have been storied by many a commentator since. However, following their miraculous survival, one of the most interesting aspects of their climb to the top table in the division has been a new found ability to grind out victories in seemingly unique ways.
Whether an XI are fuelled by the tactical equivalent of delicious grass-fed T-bone and truffle fries at the posh Mailbox joint, or a wholesome mixed grill and chips from your local boozer, the aim is generally the same: to leave the table full and brimming with energy until the next feed. Aston Villa Football Club have made four trips to the restaurant during this young season, and each time they have delivered 3 points on the platter along with a 5-star impression. Yet quite unusually, in football terms at least, it can be argued that no single sitting has consisted of precisely the same dish.
Facing up to Chris Wilder’s gritty Sheffield United, Villa were fast out of the blocks and already the dominant force before Ollie Watkins’ first major Premier League contribution involved the petrification of John Egan, who’s resulting foul tempting referee Graham Scott to send the Sheffield captain for an early bath. What followed was a siege, punctuated only by a fortuitous penalty subsequently saved by the ever brilliant Emi Martinez. Despite said penalty and a sterling effort in defence by Wilder’s charges, it would take a brave individual to claim Villa were not worthy winners. This new look Aston Villa already marking a departure from recent failed attempts to break down a compact and organised 10-man block, stretching back as far as the playoff semi-final two seasons previous.
At a surface level, Fulham and Liverpool were relatively similar tactical set-ups, the meat of which consisting of allowing the opposition the lions share of the ball by design, combined with a narrow defensive phase set up to force their opponents into wide areas, demonstrating supreme confidence in the ‘keeper and backline to deal with crosses into the box, before striking in return with pace and guile. However, there were also subtle nuances to be found in the two performances. The 3-0 victory over Fulham was a more archetypal away display, with the Villans blitz counter exploiting a back line out way of its depth, ensuring the game was virtually over within 15 minutes. Surely Liverpool would offer more resistance?
The subsequent result may have been described in many quarters as a once in a generation fluke, but that description and the concentration on Liverpool’s admittedly below par performance fails to do Villa justice. The home side, setting up with two number 6’s in McGinn and Luiz allowing the newly signed Ross Barkley to take up the 10 role and be the fulcrum of Villa’s pressing game, seemingly took a leaf from their scouse counterparts and engaged them higher up the pitch.
By concentrating on cutting off passing lanes, forcing the off-colour Joe Gomez and the woeful Adrian into making crucial errors, again they struck early and kept striking, going for the jugular. They exploited the Liverpool high line where so many before had failed, committing at the right moments and showing faith in their defensive line to hold the fort even when stretched, as the potent Villa attack foraged. The score line, as they say, is history (for reference it was 7-2) but the impressiveness of the overall display should not be lost in the insanity of the moment. Dean Smith had pulled down the pants of one of the greatest coaches of the 21st century, in any sport.
A trip to the King Power next, and a more balanced display and tactical set-up. McGinn operated initially as an 8 creating a straight line from back to front. Leicester, clearly worried by Villa’s ability to ‘do a Leicester’ on them by popping direct passes into the channels and over the top for the pacey and lively Watkins, set up deliberately to nullify Villa’s counter attacking threat. Villa chipped away resolutely, however with 19-year-old Foxes debutant defender Fofana showing why he cost a cool £36m and Villa themselves again standing firm defensively, the game threatened to peter out into the first 0-0 draw of the PL season. Enter that little bit of quality that Villa so often relied on last season, only this time they had built a platform on which it would count for something other than a consolation. Ross Barkley fizzed in a cracker from 25 yards, Villa saw out the game with ease, and suddenly its 4 wins out of 4. Aston Villa are 2nd in the Premier League with a game in hand.
There is a thread running through all 4 victories, of course. 3 clean sheets demonstrating that if you get the job done at one end of the pitch, good things often happen at the other. The awakening of Luiz has been paramount, as has the addition of the aforementioned Emi Martinez sandwiching a pacier and more experienced back line, equipping Villa to be the only Premier League team to date to communicate on a consistent basis that they know how to defend. Their fitness levels have improved astronomically over the course of the previous 8 months too, enabling them to adopt any particular style they desire without fear of gassing out. More specifically, it can be shown via positional data against both Liverpool and Leicester that Villa were set up, either by design or organically, to suck the opposition attack down their right, leaning on the hard graft and defensive discipline of Trezeguet and Matty Cash to nullify the opposition threat before switching play and attacking down the left, with the mercurial Grealish and Barkley taking centre stage.
Perhaps there are themes which are to become the norm for Smith and his Villa team moving forward. Swashbuckling Leeds United will be another test and may require yet another different approach. However, one thing which cannot be denied is the versatility they have shown so far in these victories. An adaptability which much of their competition lack, backed up by the quality to make the most of whatever hand they are dealt.
How far this approach will take us in our quest for a renaissance remains to be seen, but I am sure you will agree with me when I say its looking like we’re in for one hell of a ride.