If there is one club that has been active in the current transfer season, it has been Aston Villa. After being relegated from the Premier League in the 2015/2016 season, three years had to pass until they were able to return to England’s top league. They started last season led by Steve Bruce but after 11 games he was sacked and replaced by Dean Smith.
Smith, a boyhood Aston Villa fan, was able to achieve a formidable turnaround in Villa’s performance, finishing the season in fifth place. They qualified for playoffs where they flew past West Bromwich and Frank Lampard’s Derby County to claim a spot in the 2019/2020 Premier League.
As of this week, Aston Villa have spent over £100 million in acquisitions, and comparisons to what Fulham did last season are starting to arise. In this tactical analysis and scout report, we will go through the tactical challenges and expectations for Aston Villa this season.
The analysis will focus on reviewing their tactical performance last season, the signings they have made so far, how this case is different than Fulham’s and how should we expect the team to tactically confront their return to the Premier League.
2018/19 Season Review
Aston Villa’s last season went from a low to high performance. They started with an irregular form that showed a vulnerable team that was unable to get a consistently good football level. They even managed to save points on added time in several games.
After the 11th round of the Championship, Steve Bruce was fired, and Dean Smith was brought in to turn around a team that was unconvincing inside the pitch. And he turned them around very well. He consolidated the 4-1-4-1 the team was used to play, sometimes changing into a 4-3-3 but with a different style.
He looked for a much more attack-oriented game, with short passing and associative football, relying less on long-balls as they used to do with his predecessor. He gave even more importance to having a wide team, usually looking for numerical superiority on both wings. The image below shows a long ball played against Hull as an attacking strategy, frequently used under Bruce.
And what is even more interesting, he gave more freedom to his players to move across the attacking front while keeping the attacking structure. This resulted in several position swaps between his players that were very effective in confusing his rival’s defence.
The sequence below shows how Abraham starts through the middle and ends up wide crossing the ball to the goal area. At the same time, Adomah starts wide and ends up attacking through the centre. Worth noting how these movements pulled the defenders wide leaving the centre open without marking.
Defensively the team improved but remains their weaker side. They struggled against teams that used direct attacking and long cross-balls. Their wing-backs had a lot of difficulties keeping a tight marking and were usually caught bad positioned when facing a 1v1.
Add to that, because of the more offensive stance, midfielders could hardly provide coverage and the team suffered a lot with attacks starting on the wings. Also, although improved in the second half of the season, the team never had a goalkeeper that provided full confidence.
The image below shows the defensive lack of coordination, when the wing-back and the midfielder press the same rival, leaving another rival unmarked with spaces open.
Nyland started as the goalkeeper under Steve Bruce but had very unconvincing performances. Understanding the need to strengthen that position, in the winter transfer window Aston Villa kept Jed Steer, who had come back from his loan at Charlton, and they signed Lovre Kalinic from Gent.
After just a couple of games, Kalinic got injured and Steer became the man in charge. Although he was an improvement, and a hero in the playoffs against West Bromwich, he still doesn’t provide total comfort and is something that Smith and the board should think in terms of potential signings.
Under Smith, Aston Villa looked to impose their style starting with possession. They managed to win possession in most of their games, but they also suffered a lot when they didn’t keep it. This was especially true against the top four teams.
They were not able to beat any of the top four finishers during the regular season, Norwich City, Sheffield United, Leeds United, and West Bromwich, winning possession only in half of those games. Of the eight games against those teams, they lost five, the same number games lost against the remaining 19 teams, and tied three.
Still, the team was able to increasingly incorporate Smith’s style resulting in an improved quality of football and that translated into better results. They finished in great form and when counting the last eight games, they were top of the Championship with 19 out of 24 possible points.
2019/20 New Signings
Aston Villa has been very proactive in the current transfer window, with over £100 million spent so far. But it is fair to dig deeply into the details. Three players (Anwar El Ghazi, Tyrone Mings, and Kortney Hause) were already on loan and part of the squad that got promoted and were bought to be kept for his season. They account for almost £35 million of the total spent and should not account as net additions to the squad.
Also, several players left the squad, and new additions are coming as replacements of them, and not just crazy spending without a rationale behind. This is especially true, for example, with the departure of Tammy Abraham back to Chelsea and subsequent adding of Wesley.
Given the details explained in the review of their 2018/2019 season, expectations were to have new players brought into more defensive positions. With Mings and Hause staying plus Ezri Konsa, bought from Brentford, and Björn Engels from Reims, the centre-back positions should be relatively well covered.
Konsa and Engels have some similarities, both being better at space over individual marking. Engels is weaker at 1v1 duels and therefore his strength lies more on well positioning and intercepting balls. He averaged over six interceptions per game last season according to Wyscout.
The image below shows Konsa well-positioned covering spaces efficiently, what he does better than individual marking.
The next step was for the team to strengthen their wing-backs. Matt Target, left-back was bought from Southampton for £16 million. The 23-year old is a classic left-back with offensive orientation, as seen in the heat map below. Even though he didn’t play regularly in Southampton, he provided three assists and participated frequently in the offensive build-up.
On the right side, Frederic Guilbert came back from his loan at Caen, in France, and has left a good impression so far in training and friendly games. Although he has a less offensive stance compared to Target, he is very aggressive when marking and is usually mentally fast enough to be tightly marking his rival when he receives the ball, as seen in the image below. And this is quite an improvement compared to last season.
And then we have the additions of Wesley and the recent confirmation of Trezeguet, two interesting strikers. The team lost one of their best players of last season, Tammy Abraham, who returned to Chelsea back from his loan at Aston Villa. He scored 26 goals in the last Championship season in what it was a big loss for Dean Smith.
So, Aston Villa went quickly to find his replacement, spending close to £25 millions in bringing Wesley, a 22-years old Brazilian coming from Club Brugge. Wesley is a striker that can play as the sole striker, but he can move to the wings to play wide or as a target man.
He is not the type of striker that runs into spaces but more receiving direct passes, keeping possession, and using his physical strength to turn around or find a teammate to pass the ball. But this also results in him being anticipated more than usual.
Because of Smith’s style, he will need to play closer to the goal area, if not the team will lose the attacking reference that can stretch the rival’s lines. The image below shows how Wesley was usually positioned as the sole striker, receiving facing back. He needs to work in not being anticipated.
Aston Villa also secured the services of Trezeguet, 24-years old coming from Kasimpasa, and Mo Salah partner in the attack of the national team of Egypt. He usually plays as a winger on the left side. He is fast and quite vertical.
He looks for 1v1 duels and has the potential of creating a lot of spaces and dragging defenders out of their natural position. He averaged more than six dribbles per game last season, according to Wyscout, definitely a line breaker and very interesting addition to the squad.
Maybe one of his problems is that sometimes he stays with the ball more than needed, losing that space advantage he generated. The image below shows how a 1v1 duel ended with three defenders pressuring Trezeguet. That could provide an advantage as spaces are created.
Recently they announced Douglas Luiz as their last addition coming from Manchester City. A young Brazilian that plays as a defensive midfielder with not much experience playing in Europe. Will probably be a good substitute for Hourihane.
With the current acquisitions, probably the focus should now shift to the goalkeepers. As they fight to survive the Premier League, that position is going to become even more important, as the team will be facing much tougher attacking teams.
Although Steer was an improvement, the squad would welcome a higher tier goalkeeper that can manage well the pressure plus minimizing the chances of mistakes that could result in goals. They need a goalkeeper that can inspire confidence to his teammates.
With that, Aston Villa should have a decent squad, enough that if as a team they perform well, they should be able to avoid relegation and fight for a mid-table position in the Premier League.
2019/20 Tactical Preview
Tactically the team shouldn’t change significantly from what they showed last season. The team should keep the 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 they have been using, maybe changing it to a 4-4-1-1 when facing the top teams of the league.
Their defensive weaknesses described at the beginning have to be worked. The space between the defensive and midfield line have to be tighter to reduce the risks of mispositioning of the defenders. This will provide space and time for midfielders to provide coverage, a role that has to be reinforced by Smith to the midfielders.
The image below shows an uncoordinated defence that leaves a rival wide without marking.
Although attacking football is welcomed, defending becomes even more important then, because attacking teams tend to suffer more with counter-attacks and direct passing. To repel that form of attacking you have to have tighter lines, and increase pressure on the player launching the pass, roles that usually fall within the midfielders.
The image below shows how a lack of pressure in the middle resulted in a long ball and the defence is wrongly positioned. Three defenders and no marking.
The next image below shows how lines were usually too far, suffering against teams that had direct attacks. Players were getting late to mark and leaving plenty of space behind them, with no collective pressure.
Defensively, apart from tighter lines, the team should improve the focus and communication. Second balls were an issue last season, with very passive marking and lack of communication resulting in confused players. With the new signings, it will be more down to tactical cohesiveness more than individual quality, that was an issue last season.
The team will keep exploiting the wings with a sole striker, probably Wesley. Grealish, one of the best performers of last season, and a very smart organizer that manages space and time brilliantly will direct the attacking rhythm.
They usually start the attacks through the middle to open the ball beyond the middle line of the pitch. The freedom given to McGill to play wide or through the middle provides an important advantage, as rivals have difficulties knowing how to defend against him. The image below shows the team attacking through the middle, then opening wide and finishing through the middle also.
Is at the point of opening wide that the rhythm is accelerated or the wing is populated to provide numerical superiority. With the new names, these attacking shape should be kept, although could be less vertical if a 4-4-1-1 is used, where attacks should be more elaborated via short passes.
From analysing the tactics we can see Aston Villa have done a good job, reinforcing positions where individual quality was not at the level of the Premier League, especially the defence. On the attack, they are hoping Wesley and Trezeguet can replace the players they lost, a big bet for the team.
Still, there is some space for a couple of additions, as a new goalkeeper and maybe another wing-back in case any injury happens, and because the competition is always good. This is a potential lineup for Aston Villa for next season, with the current squad.
The squad changed a lot, and Dean Smith has a big task ahead of putting his DNA, his philosophy into several new players. These players need to start interacting tactically between them, a lot of players that don’t know each other.
Dean Smith role will be key, as individual names are ok for the team, but the step to make them competitive and not fight for relegation will come from the tactical cohesiveness he inspires.
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