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EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical preview

This Sunday we have the first (second depending on where you stand on the Community Shield debate) silverware up for grabs in England. The EFL Cup Final has arrived once again this season. On one side, a club whose appearance in this match has become somewhat of an expectation in recent years: Manchester City, who beat city rivals Manchester United 3-2 in the semifinal. Their opponents this year are newly promoted Aston Villa, who reached the final by overcoming Leicester City 3-2 in the semifinal as well.

Aston Villa have a huge task on their hands to stop Manchester City, who are looking for their third triumph in succession in this competition. On top of this, City came out 6-1 winners in this fixture only just over a month ago at Villa Park.

In this tactical analysis preview, we will take a look at where both sides can look to find an advantage in this match. We will focus on Villa’s defensive set-up and counter-attacking tactics while looking at City’s focus on winning the battles in wide areas. This analysis will also include a specific look Jack Grealish, who will be looking to lead his side to a fantastic final victory.


Both sides will have plenty of reason to be up for this match. For Villa, this final represents a massive opportunity in a season where they have been consistently fighting against the potential threat of relegation. Dean Smith will be looking to pick his best team for an occasion that could have a huge positive impact on the team morale as they enter the final stretch of the league campaign. Tyrone Mings will be looking to lead the side from the centre of defence. Ahead of him, Douglas Luiz will be offered another chance to give Pep Guardiola something to rue about his departure in the past summer. Club captain Jack Grealish will most likely start on the left side of midfield but will have the freedom to move around the pitch as he sees fit.

Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Pepe Reina; Targett, Mings, Hause, Guilbert; Douglas Luiz; Nakamba, Drinkwater; Grealish, Samatta, El-Ghazi

Guardiola’s side are coming off a stunning 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League tie at the Bernabeu. On top of this, big names such as Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, and David Silva all started the match on the bench. This being said, expect a very strong side from the defending champions, who will be looking at this cup as a chance to salvage what has been a very up and down campaign thus far. Claudio Bravo will start in net for City, and Aymeric Laporte will be missing due to picking up another unfortunate injury midweek. Otherwise, City’s side will be strong and present many problems for Villa on this afternoon.

Manchester City (4-3-3): Bravo; Cancelo, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Zinchenko; Gündogan, David Silva, de Bruyne; Bernardo Silva, Agüero, Sterling

Lessons learned for Aston Villa

In the matchup between these two sides in January, we saw Aston Villa use a different set-up than their first encounter in October. They opted to use a 5-3-2 formation in this match to have the defensive solidity to keep City quiet. However, this plan seriously backfired, and the visitors ran rampant against this structure.

There are a couple of key reasons to the 6-1 defeat Villa fell to. The main point comes from the lack of protection the midfield and forward lines offered to the defensive line. With the home side sitting deep for large portions of the match, City looked to drop players into deeper positions to look to create overloads to progress play into the final third before looking for the final ball. This often included Sergio Agüero dropping into more of a centre-forward role. When he dropped, none of the three centre-halves were comfortable with following him into this area in fear of leaving a gap in behind. As well, none of the midfielders dropped in to block off the option, as they were occupied with City’s midfield. Essentially, Agüero had the freedom to roam around the pitch away from his starting position and look to combine with teammates.

In large part to this defeat, it is likely we will see Aston Villa revert into their 4-1-4-1 formation. Immediately, the presence of this holding midfielder in between the defensive and higher midfield line solves the issue they faced in this second Premier League encounter. This set-up also proved its worth in the match at the Etihad earlier this season. Villa frustrated City for the majority of the first-half in this set-up. Their compact structure in the centre of the pitch made it difficult for City to generate any attacking avenues here, and they were forced to look to different areas of the pitch.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Aston Villa’s 4-1-4-1 formation limit’s City’s central space [Credit: tactical-board.com]
Above you can see how this set-up would look in-game against City’s side. With Douglas Luiz occupying the hole in between the lines, Agüero is not given the freedom to look to drop in this space as often. The Brazilian’s position also allows him to sit and read the game in front of him, looking for opportunities to jump forward to intercept a pass and get his side on the counter.

Manchester City’s wide movements

Manchester City are known for their wide array of attacking potency throughout their side. The wide areas are often where they are able to create a lot of this threat to oppositions. When attacking, City are patiently waiting for opportunities to shift the opponent’s defensive block in ways to allow them to quickly move possession into weak areas. This can frequently come in these wide areas of the pitch.

When City hosted Villa earlier this season, this proved to be the case. With the 4-1-4-1 structure we discussed earlier, Villa forced the defending champions to look wide in order to attack. Guardiola’s side were able to generate multiple quality chances from these avenues only to be wasteful in front of goal, and it is likely we will see this again. 

City could find the most success through this in quick in to out movements. With the free roles the eight’s are given in this system, they are encouraged to move into the half and wide spaces in order to look to combine with the full-backs and wingers. You can see this idea in the image below. David Silva, who is likely to start given his role on the bench midweek, is one of the best players in the world when it comes to operating in these half-spaces. This image depicts an example of the Spaniard moving into this area. As he does this, it increases the opportunities for City to create overloads in these spaces. Raheem Sterling, in particular, is extremely adept at making runs in behind on the end of a passing move. If possession finds the England international out wide, a quick one-two pass between him and his central midfielder such as Silva while the Villa defence is attempting to shuffle over after a quick switch of play could give City the opportunity to create chances.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
City’s midfielders utilising the half-space to find the winger in behind [Credit: tactical-board.com]
We were able to see this on multiple occasions in the sides first meeting this season. Here is an example similar to the situation we described above. In this match, it was Ilkay Gündogan was deployed as the holding pivot in City’s midfield. In this example, the German pushes forward to present himself as an option to Sterling, with David Silva occupying a higher position in the half-space.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Gundogan offering midfield support as David Silva occupies space on the defensive line

Sterling sees his central midfield and plays a quick pass into the centre of the pitch. Ahead of them, David Silva makes a run inwards to draw the defender with him. This opens a gap in the defensive line for Sterling to run into, where he finds as Gündogan plays a perfect ball into the hole. The winger beats a player before squaring it to David Silva who narrowly misses the target.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
David Silva opens up space with a run for Sterling to get in behind

Villa’s attacking avenues

With a 4-1-4-1 formation for Villa, a major emphasis will be placed on the roles of the wide midfielders and striker. The absence of Wesley is sorely missed by the side, and Mbwana Samatta will need to be on top form for his team to be able to get a result this Sunday. An attacking avenue we could see Aston Villa using is having the forward getting into the channels around the outside of the centre-halves. Here, Mbwana can look to get around either centre-half or hold up possession and look for a teammate in support.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Aston Villa catch City with too many players up the pitch

In this image above, City have set up their attacking structure in Aston Villa’s defensive half. A sloppy pass gives Douglas Luiz the opportunity to burst forward, catching the home side out, specifically Gundogan who is playing as the pivot in this match. As soon as the Brazilian gets beyond the City midfield, Wesley makes a darting run to the outside of Fernandinho in defence. Luiz has attracted the attention of Joao Cancelo, leaving the right side of City’s defence exposed.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Wesley moves into the wide space vacated by the City full-back

Luiz plays in his teammate, who carries forward before holding up possession and allowing his team the opportunity to get forward in support.

The second method of attack Villa could look to use is in isolating their wingers on the full-backs of Manchester City. Jack Grealish is extremely adept in taking on his defenders, and this could play a major part against a side with such attacking full-backs as City has.

Grealish often likes to hug the left touchline when he is against a defender he is confident he is able to get the better of. In these situations, he waits for an opportunity to receive possession, before turning and going at his defender one-v-one. In the image you can see below, Grealish receives a pass in this area and has Toby Alderweireld marking him. Using his intelligence, he waits for the defender to commit his body position into standing the crafty winger up, before blowing by him out wide.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Grealish holding the width for his side as he waits to receive a pass, before beating his defender on the dribble

Grealish gets in behind the defensive line with ease and puts in a perfect cross to Douglas Luiz when he reaches the Spurs penalty area, only for the midfielder to miss the golden opportunity.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Grealish gets in behind the defence and puts in a cross to a teammate

Against a side like Manchester City, we could see similar situations arise. With the attacking-minded full-backs the club possesses, we can regularly see the holding midfielder or one of the centre-halves moving into wide areas when possession is lost in order to cover counter-attacks. In these areas Grealish could use his ability to get behind the City counter-press and create opportunities for his side.

Jack Grealish

A lot of the focus on Sunday will be on Jack Grealish. The England international has been in good form in Villa’s return to the top flight this season and has attracted interest from the Premier League’s top sides heading into the summer. Since his move from a deep midfielder role to more of a free left-winger, he has been able to express his attacking ability much more, and therefore make a greater impact on matches. Against one of Kyle Walker or Joao Cancelo in this cup final, he will have to spend a great deal of time sticking to his defensive duties for his side. However, he will undoubtedly get chances to push forward and represents Villa’s biggest threat to the title holders.

In Villa’s 3-2 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Grealish represented the threat he can provide to big sides in the league. Below you can see the home side’s pass map from the match. In this, you are able to see the major impact the Englishman had in the side, constantly providing an outlet for his teammates in deeper positions on the left side of the pitch.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Aston Villa’s pass map against Tottenham Hotspur [Credit: Wyscout]
Grealish was in fine form in this match and will be looking to go into Sunday in the same vein. The attacker completed four passes into the final third and two passes into the penalty area, having a 100% completion rate in both. You can see his individual passing map in the image below, and in this, you can truly see the freedom he is afforded to look for areas of the pitch to have the most effect for his side.

EFL Cup 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Manchester City – tactical analysis tactics
Jack Grealish’s pass map against Tottenham Hotspur [Credit: Wyscout]
We mentioned in the section above the role the winger could play in Villa’s attacking set-up, and he will be an essential part of their game in all facets in this final.


With both sides in much different positions in the league heading into this cup final, neutrals will be hoping Aston Villa come well prepared and ready to give City a tough afternoon. For City, they will be looking to carry the momentum from their victory midweek and creating a solid foundation to end the season on a high. In this tactical analysis, we looked at how each side can set-up to find success. With City’s wealth of attacking quality, it is likely it will once again prove too much for Aston Villa. However, you can never underestimate the magic of a lower team in a cup final. Expect this match to be a tight affair, where City come out 2-1 winners on the afternoon.