Two months ago, Dean Smith walked through the doors of Aston Villa hoping to transform the club’s promotion-chasing fortunes as they struggled to shake off a damaging summer.
A play-off final defeat to Fulham in May, near financial capitulation and key players lost, were only some of the things the supporters had to endure over a strenuous period.
Here, we analyse why Villa are scoring more goals under their new forward-thinking manager:
Starting the engine…
If you have a quick glance over Bruce’s record in the Championship this season and compare it with his successor then that in itself will tell you an alarming story. In 11 games under Bruce, Villa scored 19 goals, secured three wins and recorded 15 points in the process. By contrast, in nine encounters under Smith, his side have scored 21 goals, secured five wins and picked up 17 points.
In the image above, you can see one of the more favoured formations Bruce utilised this season as he struggled to find the balance and consistency within his team. The formation above was used during Villa’s 2-2 draw at home to Brentford in August when Smith was still in charge of the London club.
In the next illustration, you can see the formation Smith has installed since making the switch from the capital to the second city. The formation above was used during Villa’s dramatic draw at West Brom last Friday. One distinct change is how high the wingers operate in Smith’s system and how deep Bruce instructs his wide men to play. Added with that, under the latter his midfield was more compact, whilst Smith allows his players to express themselves more in the middle of the park.
Putting your foot on the brakes…
During the previous campaign, one of the biggest criticism’s Bruce faced was his inability to showcase to the supporters what his style of play was. Furthermore, he was more focused on the defensive side of the game rather than giving his team the freedom to express themselves. It needs to be remembered that Bruce had the most expensive squad ever assembled in the second tier of English football at his disposal.
In the image above, you can see how deep Villa’s defensive line is during their visit to Hull City at the start of the season. Added with that, the club’s midfield trio, who are expected to make the ball talk going forward, are on the halfway line.
The next illustration is more alarming and ironic in a way because Villa are playing against their soon-to-be appointed manager. With the scores level and ten minutes left on the clock, it is the away side who have the opposition locked deep into their own half. Once again, Bruce’s reluctance to take risks and push forward is proving to be harmful to his side. Brentford go on to take the lead minutes later before Jonathan Kodjia levels the scores in stoppage time.
Accelerating below the speed limit…
A deep defensive line wasn’t the only issue troubling supporters. It was Bruce’s unwillingness to attack in numbers, push the full-back’s high up the pitch and allow his midfielders to overload in the penalty area.
As you can see from the illustration above, during Villa’s 1-1 draw at Blackburn, star man Jack Grealish has the ball in the opposition half. One major issue is that there are no attacking players ahead of him. Striker Tammy Abraham is deeper than he should be. Wingers Albert Adomah and Ahmed Elmohamady are also deep-ish because Bruce instructs them to carry out high defensive duties.
The image above backs up the defensive duties Bruce expects his players to produce. In Villa’s first season in the Championship (Bruce was appointed manager after 11 matches), Adomah was known to be slack in the defensive side of his game. However, after working under Bruce for a significant amount of time, last season saw his defensive work rate improve dramatically. In his first campaign, the former Middlesbrough man made an average of 1.6 tackles per game. By contrast, he made a remarkable 2.5 tackles per game last season with Villa finishing in fourth place.
Above are more examples of Villa relying upon individual brilliance to produce a goal rather than attacking in numbers. The latter would soon come into effect when Smith walks through the doors of B6.
Re-starting the engine…
As mentioned above, Villa have scored more goals, picked up more wins and points in Smith’s nine games in charge than they did under Bruce’s 11 encounters. One key aspect of Smith’s game is passing out from the back and trying to regain possession as soon as possible. Under Bruce, Villa had an average possession of 54%, that has risen to 58% under his successor and expect that number to rise even further.
Under Bruce, Villa’s defensive line were positioned deep into their half along with the full-backs. But as you can see from the image above, Smith has made a major change. Before, Villa’s midfielders were on the halfway line, now centre-back duo, Axel Tuanzebe and James Chester occupy that place. You will also notice that the full-backs are not in the picture. The reason for that is they are tasked to push high up the pitch, so they can suffocate their opponents.
Accelerating over the speed limit…
From driving below the speed limit, it is safe to say that Villa are now putting their foot on the accelerator in their race for promotion.
The first image above demonstrates that perfectly. As you can see, Villa are now attacking in numbers out wide and in the penalty area. One of the most pleasing aspects of that picture from a Villa perspective is that midfielder John McGinn is making attacking runs into the penalty area.
In the next illustration, during Villa’s home win against Bolton, midfield duo Grealish and McGinn are ahead of Chelsea loanee Abraham. That phase of play led to Grealish opening his account for the season. Under Smith, he has found the back of the net on two occasions and provided three assists. Under his predecessor, he only managed a single assist and that was from a corner.
It needs to be remembered that Smith has not been given easy fixtures since his arrival in October. At least six out of the nine teams his side have played are vying for promotion to the Premier League this season. But perhaps the biggest game of them all so far has been the 4-2 win over bitter rivals Birmingham City.
In that hotly-contested fixture, Grealish was once again finding the back of the net. As you can see from the image above, Villa have overloaded in two areas of the pitch. Out wide and in the penalty area. Grealish can be seen on the far left of your picture, with Adomah about to receive the ball (bottom of your picture). As a result of the double overload, the home side are able to put a perfectly-weighted cross into the box with Grealish heading home at the far post.
Villa’s academy product hasn’t been the only one making runs into the penalty area and finding the back of the net. As you can see from the image above, during Villa’s 3-0 win at Derby last month, McGinn scored with a header from inside the area. Further indication that Smith’s new attacking style is working and one of the many reasons why they are scoring so many goals.
Driving on and on and on…
There was a key statistic that came out prior to Villa’s draw with West Brom last Friday. It showed that Villa have won the ball on 29 occasions in the attacking third under Smith. They won the ball on only 17 occasions under Bruce.
The first example above demonstrates why that is happening. Away at QPR, midfield duo Grealish and McGinn are practically pressing the opposition in their own area. The reason behind this is simple. To win the ball in the attacking third or force the opposition into a mistake.
Trying to win the ball high up the pitch was also seen at the Hawthorns. Left-back Neil Taylor is in the opposition half, whereas under Bruce, he would have been defending deep in his own area. In the end, it is Yannick Bolasie and Grealish’s press that helps them win the ball high up the pitch.
Another reason why Villa have been scoring so many goals under Smith is the ruthless nature they have showing under his stewardship. During Villa’s trip to Pride Park, they are winning the contest 2-0 against Frank Lampard’s side with ten minutes left on the clock. Rather than sit back, McGinn is doing his utmost best to win the ball high up the pitch.
As you can see from the two images above, he wins a foul just outside of the penalty area and that subsequent free-kick was put away by Hourihane to make it 3-0.
Attacking. Ruthless. Risk taking. Adventurous. Villa have been all those things under Smith hence the reason why they are finding the back of the net more often than they did under their previous manager. Even when Villa are leading 2-0 away from home against a promotion rival, Smith is not satisfied. And it is that mentality which is giving opposition teams nightmares. And Villa hope that a top-two finish is still a real possibility.
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