In Aston Villa’s first home game since their return to the Premier League, they met a Bournemouth side eager to make amends for their disappointing home performance the previous week. The home side were ultimately made to rue a shocking first fifteen minutes, which saw two errors give Bournemouth a 2-0 lead from which Aston Villa never recovered. Furthermore, Villa’s tactics initially played into Bournemouth’s hands, which indicate a dearth of tactical analysis on their part.
Despite Villa controlling the ball, Bournemouth kept them at arm’s length for the rest of the first half. The Villans did, however, look much more dangerous in the second period. Dean Smith will likely be content with his team’s second-half performance, though not with their profligacy in front of goal. Eddie Howe meanwhile, will be happy to record an away win. However, Howe should have concerns about the ease in which his team were pushed back in the second half. This analysis will examine the tactics of the match and why the Cherries were able to record their first win of the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Aston Villa played a 4-1-4-1 formation. The only change from their defeat to Tottenham was the introduction of new signing Douglas Luiz (formerly of Manchester City and Girona) at the base of their midfield, replacing Conor Hourihane. His inclusion proved an early indication of Smith’s intent to keep the ball & play a controlling, attacking tactical game.
Bournemouth meanwhile, changed their formation from a 5-2-3 to a 4-4-2 and with it two players after their toothless display on the opening weekend. Howe dropped centre-back Chris Mepham in favour of introducing Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson onto the right side of midfield. Charlie Daniels replaced Diego Rico on the left side of defence.
Bournemouth in possession
Whether Bournemouth intended from the start of the game to cede so much possession to Aston Villa is impossible to determine. However, their early goal from the penalty spot forced the home side to chase the game. In response, Bournemouth were willing to seek to control the space in their half rather than the ball.
Their attacking approach was similar in principle to how they attack in most matches. It changes little whether Howe uses a 4-4-2 or a 5-2-3. When playing a 4-4-2, it becomes more of a 4-2-2-2. Howe expects little attacking output from the central midfield duo, Jefferson Lerma and Philip Billing. Instead, they sit in front of their centre-backs and disrupt their opponents in transition. The full-backs, Daniels and Adam Smith, are tasked with providing width. This allows their wide midfielders, Harry Wilson and particularly left sided midfielder Ryan Fraser, freedom to roam inside. Josh King & Callum Wilson provide depth, aerial prowess and a threat in behind up top.
Nevertheless, Aston Villa’s formation and approach provided some interesting dilemmas for Howe’s team, albeit dilemmas that they had clearly anticipated. Villa outnumbered Bournemouth 3 to 2 in the centre of midfield. Cognisant of this, the Villans aggressively pressed high up the field. They opted to go man to man in the midfield as Jack Grealish marked Lerma and John McGinn marked Billing, knowing they had Luiz spare.
Their front three initially sought to occupy Bournemouth’s back four zonally when the ball was in the centre of the park. However, the front three shifted over aggressively to one side once the ball was passed wide to a full-back, pinning Bournemouth on one flank.
Unable to play through Villa’s aggressive press, Bournemouth’s approach focused on long balls up to their strikers. Crucially, instead of playing those balls for the Villans’ centre-backs to contest, the balls were sent into the areas occupied by Aston Villa’s full-backs or the extremely isolated Luiz. Both Wilson and King had the better of those aerial contests. As a result, many of Bournemouth’s most dangerous moments in attack came from this approach. It appeared to have been a deliberate ploy, as Bournemouth would invite the Aston Villa players onto them before going long.
Bournemouth’s first goal was a product of this. A long ball was played towards King, who beat the isolated Luiz in the air. At this point, normal service resumed. Bournemouth worked the ball to Fraser, their creator-in-chief. He then threaded a pass in behind Villa’s defence to the rapid Wilson. Tom Heaton, in his first home game for Villa, rushed off his line and conceded the penalty from which King gave Bournemouth the lead.
As the game wore on, Bournemouth increasingly depended solely on exploiting Aston Villa in transition. This will be explored more in depth later in the tactical analysis. Their second goal was the result of a turnover in Villa’s own half, leading to a deflected long range strike from Harry Wilson. Late in the second half, Dom Solanke sent Ryan Fraser free down the left side after good hold up play. Fraser failed to finish the chance.
Aston Villa in possession (first half)
Villa meanwhile, were able to keep possession much more effectively than their opponents. Bournemouth, having taken the lead, were content to sit in their favoured compact, zonal mid-block. They challenged Villa to play through them and protected the area in front of their penalty box. For much of the first half, Villa were unable to threaten.
This largely stemmed from the coalescence between Bournemouth’s disciplined defensive structure and the Villans’ inability to play with the aggressiveness in deep areas to complement Grealish and McGinn’s aggressively high positioning. During the first half, Villa’s attacking quintet was cut off from their defensive quintet by a disciplined, fluorescent yellow wall consisting of Bournemouth’s front two and midfield four. The strikers prevented Luiz from stepping up, forcing him to make a back 3. This increased the distance between Luiz and the more advanced midfielders.
Perhaps the reticence of Luiz, Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels (Villa’s central passers) was justified. Both Lerma and Billing had the quickness to screen McGinn and Grealish, who occupied the space between Bournemouth’s midfield and defence. Bournemouth’s wide midfielders also had easy access to Villa’s full-backs.
The gap between Luiz and his more advanced midfield partners caused them major problems in transition. Villa’s high full-backs compounded these problems. Though Villa did actually have a 5v4 overload if they managed to play through Bournemouth’s attackers and midfield, they had a 6v5 underload in defence if Bournemouth were able to win the ball high up the field. Villa’s high full-backs often meant that they faced a 6v4 or even 6v3 underload. However, Bournemouth’s own central midfielders rarely supported counter attacks. Nevertheless, Bournemouth threatened in transition on numerous occasions, and may have put the game out of sight had Harry Wilson converted a superb chance from a counter attack at 2-0.
Aston Villa in possession (second half)
Aston Villa were much the better side in the second half, controlling the game more effectively. There were two key reasons for this.
The first was an enforced change to Bournemouth’s personnel at half time. Howe removed Billing, fearing he would get sent off. Up until that point, he had dovetailed superbly with Lerma to prevent the ball reaching Grealish and McGinn. In his place was Andrew Surman. Surman is a completely different midfielder to Billing- though technically and tactically sound, he is far more passive as well as lacking mobility. His introduction as the right central midfielder with Lerma shifting across to the left allowed Grealish (playing nominally as the left central midfielder for Villa) to play an increasingly influential role in the match.
Villa meanwhile made a concerted effort to be a little more aggressive with their passing, whilst also encouraging McGinn or Grealish to drop deeper in order to help play through Bournemouth’s shape. Increasing tiredness from Bournemouth also meant they were marginally slower to shift across the field.
Furthermore, once they had established possession deeper into Bournemouth’s half, their man advantage in midfield proved useful. Whether creating overloads out wide or inside, Villa often had an extra body in dangerous areas. This forced Bournemouth further back. On occasion, Engels or Mings also stepped into midfield more aggressively.
However, despite having by far the better of the second half and creating numerous superb chances (19 shots, 7 on target and 1.75xG for the match), the Villans were unable to draw level. Unfortunately, shortly after Luiz’s wonder goal who had had a mere 0.02 xG, Dean Smith changed their shape to a direct 4-4-2. This negated Villa’s one man advantage in midfield and allowed Bournemouth to just about see the game out.
It is certainly arguable that Aston Villa had the better of the game. Nevertheless, the Villans will have learned that mistakes in the Premier League will be ruthlessly punished. Furthermore, their structures in and out of possession left Luiz hopelessly isolated for far too long. That allowed Bournemouth to play with a directness that suited their players well as well as enabling them to cut the supply off to the otherwise influential Grealish and McGinn. Villa’s average positions from the match tells the story.
Bournemouth meanwhile will be happy with the defensive discipline they showed, as well as their ruthlessness when Villa presented them with their chances. Furthermore, their attacking game plan perfectly exploited the Villans’ biggest vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Howe will still need to consider the value of the two man centre midfield he likes to operate with, especially if either Billing or Lerma are unavailable. Billing and Lerma’s mobility and defensive awareness enabled Bournemouth’s compact block to function in the first half. However, after Surman’s introduction and by playing more aggressively, Villa overran Bournemouth’s midfield.
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