Aston Villa got back to winning ways on Boxing Day in what was a tightly-fought encounter at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll break down the key aspects of the game and how Aston Villa’s solid defensive shape helped them on their way to three points.
Both teams went into the EFL Championship match on the back of 3-2 defeats and both of which after taking the lead. Aston Villa threw away a 2-0 advantage against Leeds United while Hull City came back from a 1-0 deficit to end Swansea’s hopes of a third consecutive victory.
Two teams who have leaked goals in recent weeks, Aston Villa have shipped 12 in their last five while the Swans have let in 10 so you might have expected something of a goal-fest between these two sides.
However, both sides looked like they recognised their defensive vulnerabilities of late and adjusted accordingly.
Swansea City manager Graham Potter has used a wide range of different formations already this season. After showing weakness against counter-attacks at Hull, he ditched the 4-2-3-1 system he’s used in the last 3 games in favour of a 4-3-3.
By contrast, Aston Villa also made a slight change, ensuring they matched Swansea’s three-man midfield.
Having used a 4-1-4-1 for the most part of his spell at Aston Villa so far, manager Dean Smith dropped his two central midfielders in the back four alongside Whelan in the defensive phase. The two wingers – Bolasie and El Ghazi tucked in behind the lone striker, Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham.
Aston Villa control the midfield and force Swansea down the sides
Like they did at Hull last Saturday, Swansea City dominated the opening 30 minutes, but Aston Villa’s solid defensive structure meant that they did little with it.
Aston Villa’s two wingers move inside to help them stay compact. Number 22 – El Ghazi is available to press Swansea’s left-back Kyle Naughton if the ball comes back to him.
With Swansea City’s two wide midfielders – Leroy Fer and Jay Fulton closely marked and Matt Grimes being pressed, the holding midfielder is forced to go long and diagonal.
Aston Villa were effective at forcing Swansea City to play down the sides. When they did, they ensured that they outnumbered them in these wide areas. To combat this, Potter’s side looked to play long balls down the sides for the wide-men to chase in behind.
Swansea’s number 27 – Jay Fulton acts as the link between the defence and right-sided attackers. The midfielder was usually looking to receive the ball from a centre back and play first-time passes to Celina or Roberts – either short to feet or long for them to chase in behind.
The need to press Matt Grimes
Matt Grimes was Swansea City’s deep-lying midfielder and pulled the strings for the home side in their early dominant spell. Showing an excellent wide-range of passing, Grimes was accurate with long diagonals which helped his team bypass Aston Villa’s congested midfield and get in behind down the right side.
Aston Villa’s compact defensive shape
It was no wonder that Dean Smith was pleased with his side’s defensive performance in the game, keeping a rare clean sheet after leaking goals in recent weeks. Of Swansea’s 19 shots in the game, 11 of them were blocked and it’s not hard to see why.
As Swansea City approach the final third, Aston Villa drop back while McGinn pushes out to press Leroy Fer.
With plenty of bodies back, Aston Villa were able to block out a large number of shots, limiting their goalkeeper’s direct involvement.
Swansea’s risky attacking shape
This was something that we saw in their recent 3-2 defeat at Hull City, Swansea’s attacking shape and commitment to push players forward left space available to counter-attack.
Once again, we see Aston Villa’s strong midfield block. It’s the two wingers that drop back in the example below – alongside Whelan, with McGinn and the match-winner Hourihane pressing forward.
From Villa’s point of view, they have Bolasie available in space to attack into (below) if Grimes attempts (and fails) with a long diagonal. Swansea are at risk with Bersant Celina (in the white circle) and full-back Connor Roberts moving forwards into the opposition’s half.
Aston Villa are also at risk if Swansea can get the ball into the space in between the lines (Celina). In this situation, they press the player on the ball well, forcing the ball back to Grimes and then across to the near side (left-back Kyle Naughton) and away from the key danger area.
Aston Villa’s main threat from crosses
With Aston Villa’s quality in wide areas and possessing a tall target man in Tammy Abraham, Dean Smith’s side were always going to offer a threat from crosses.
Their best chance of the first half came from a cross that was nodded down by Abraham but McGinn’s close-range effort inside the six-yard box was brilliantly saved by Erwin Mulder.
Villa had a similar chance early in the second half too. Another cross that was headed across the six-yard box but McGinn can’t make contact.
Loss of possession in middle-third costs Swansea again
Swansea City were punished for losing possession just inside their own half at Hull and it was the same again against Villa.
As is so often the case in open play goals, a similar situation usually occurs before it. In this case, Leroy Fer did lose possession moments before doing so a second time that led to the winning goal being scored.
In Fer’s defence in the first case (below), Tottenham Hotspur loanee Cameron Carter-Vickers plays a long, low pass into his feet when he’s already surrounded by three Aston Villa players. They smother him, win possession and break forward.
In the build-up to the winning goal, Swansea City are playing quick, one-touch passing football in a congested area over on the far side. As the ball comes to Fer, the home side look to switch the play away from the congestion and over to the right side where Celina waits in space.
Fer, looking to let the ball run alongside him rather than take a touch, is dispossessed, allowing the counter-attacking opportunity. The dotted-line below shows Fulton’s forward run and as a result, he has far too much ground to make-up to back-pedal and provide support against the attacking break.
As the attack quickly develops, the aforementioned Fulton isn’t in the picture. Leroy Fer (white circle) is also too slow to track the run of goalscorer Hourihane who demonstrates the threat of late runners into the penalty area.
Alan Hutton does well here to provide the overlap for the speedy Bolasie who plays a perfectly-weighted ball in front of the left back, allowing him to put in a first-time cross that Hourihane running through the gap can head home.
Swansea go direct after Villa take the lead
Instantly after the goal, Swansea City go more direct, looking to release Jefferson Montero down the left wing. Their other route forward was moving Oli McBurnie further upfield alongside striker Wilfried Bony to win route-one balls from the defence.
Swansea City also increased the intensity of their high pressing and this presented them with a Bony shot on target from 20 yards and another saw Nathan Dyer getting in behind Villa’s defence down the right.
Graham Potter sacrificed midfielders Jay Fulton and Leroy Fer shortly after the goal in favour of attacking re-enforcements. After playing wide-right of a front three, Bersant Celina dropped deeper alongside Matt Grimes while substitutes Dyer and Bony pushed up in an attacking 4-2-4 shape.
In the deeper phase, however, Dyer had to drop back and more central after the large hole left behind following the double substitution.
Aston Villa continue to outnumber Swansea in wide zones
As mentioned earlier in this tactical analysis, Aston Villa were wise to ensure that they outnumbered Swansea in the wide areas. As a result, Jefferson Montero, who came on just before the goal – replacing Dan James, couldn’t offer much of a threat on the left wing.
It was nowhere near Aston Villa’s best performance of the season but they will be happy with a clean sheet and a win after the loss to Leeds.
For Swansea City, it was a case of same-old – missed chances (including a 90th minute missed penalty) and their counter-attacking weakness cost them dearly.
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