What has gone wrong at Aston Villa? Promoted from the EFL Championship after a 2-1 win at Wembley against, at the time, Frank Lampard’s Derby County, they have spent almost 150 million pounds on players. Pundits, fans, and neutrals all felt this was the year for Villa to finally make their mark and establish themselves in the top tier of English football, The Premier League. This tactical analysis scout report will look at the way Aston Villa employ their tactics, what is going wrong and try to establish why it has gone wrong.
Back to the beginning
Villa finished last season in the 5th position. Many people at this point felt they were the team to watch out for in the play-offs due to their free-scoring style of play. They were the 3rd top scorers in the Championship with 82 goals, and 25 of those goals coming from Tammy Abraham. They were a team to be feared – in their playoff semi-final against West Bromwich Albion, they prevailed on penalties after a 2-1 home win and 1-0 away defeat.
What awaited next was the playoff final, the so-called most expensive game in world football, with the winner moving on to riches of the Premier League. Aston Villa prevailed 2-1 on the day, but what was really impressive about Villa’s performance was their ability to switch the play as the precision and the speed of this were what allowed Villa to have more time on the ball to be able to put in crosses or work opportunities.
As you can see from the above image, the ball would be played into Mings and he would take a touch to set himself then play a beautiful diagonal pass across to opposite flank with such precision.
Mings was very much the ball progressor for Villa, with his natural ability on the ball and eye for a pass. Above is another example of how Mings would be given the ball, giving him the option to either carry it to create room for Villa’s midfield or create an opportunity to once again switch the ball to the other flank.
As you can see above, 78% of Villa’s attacks were made down the flanks and that amounted to 15 crosses over the 90 minutes. This proved to be successful as the first goal came just before half time and as a result of Villa’s ability to put in good deliveries on a consistent basis.
Another example is the 2nd half of Villa’s ability to move the ball quickly from one flank to another – the ball was dropped into the feet of John McGinn, who all in one movement, played a first-time half volley to the left flank, which actually resulted in Villa scoring their second goal.
The above image is a moment later. You can see the ball has been switched to the left flank, Anwar El Ghazi cuts in, Neil Tylor overlaps to bring the midfielder with him to create space for El Ghazi to run into and take a shot at goal. McGinn, who played the original pass out to the left flank, makes a dart into the box and is the eventual goal scorer, but from what you can see, the quickness that Villa manage to get bodies into the box can cause real problems and cause real problems.
Not only does this create chances from which Villa were unlucky not to score more, but it pushes the opposition team back. A team which can create a consistent situation in which the opposition team have to retreat out of respect for your ability can only be positive. For example, it will reduce the ability of the opposition’s counter-attacks as the attacking players for the opposition are isolated, which ultimately makes things easier when counter-pressing and trying to win the ball back. It will also mean the opposition team will be tentative to push forward, as they will be very much aware of what will happen if they lose the ball.
Moving on to the Premier League, Villa were very much aware of what would face them, the struggles they may have. Top scorer Abraham would be returning back to Chelsea and they would need to replace these goals if they wanted to continue with the open, expansive style that had got them promoted in the first place.
Second only to Real Madrid
Over the last two transfer windows, Villa have splashed the cash on 25 new signings amounting to £143,000,000, with 21 players leaving for a more modest £3,600,00. This put Villa second in net spend only to Real Madrid, whose net spend was £186,000,000, which is astounding based on where both teams are on the football scale.
The Most notable signings Villa had made for this season were Wesley (£22,500,000), Tyrone Mings (£20,000,000), Douglas Luiz (£15,000,000), Matt Targett (£13,950,000), Ezri Konsa (£11,970,00), Marvelous Nakamba (£10,800,000), Mbwaba Samatta (£9,450,000), Trezeguet (£9,000,000), Anwar El Ghazi (£8,100,000), Tom Heaton (£7,920,000) and Björn Engels (£7,200,000).
You can see a list of all their signing above. Although no massive outlay on any one individual’s player, there is a lot of players, characters, and personalities to integrate into one team, especially as many of these signings were made in the interest of them being in and around the first team.
This was not deemed as concerning as it should have. Signing players from different parts of Europe, with the majority of these players being unknown quantities due to their age and previous experiences is already an issue.
The big Brazillian
Let’s focus on the biggest signing they would have expected the biggest impact from – Wesley, 23 years old, 6ft 3 in, was signed as a direct replacement for Abraham. In Wesley’s time with Club Brugge, he scored a total of 32 goals in 107 games, compared with Abraham who scored 25 goals in 37 games for Villa in one season. Both very similar in stature, both strong, fast but in terms of their eye for a goal, Wesley definitely lacks in this area over the course of his career, but why is this?
As you can see, 19% of Wesley’s distribution contributions in his career are aerial duels. This is something that, at first glance, potentially suits Villa’s direct approach, in which they spread the ball wide quickly and then get crosses into the box.
His ability to win the ball in the air, bringing other players into the game is something they wanted from the big Brazilian. In his career, 38% of his shooting opportunities were from his head and in terms of goals contributions, 17% of his goals are scored as a result of him heading the ball.
Villa were signing a player that was ultimately a typical penalty box striker, as you can see, 42.9% of all his shots come from in and around the penalty spot.
Worryingly, 53.3% of the time, the ball is aimed towards the centre of the goal. When analysing Wesley’s goal record, you can see why he may not have reached the heights that he could potentially have done based on this, having only scored more than 10 goals twice in his career – when he scored 11 goals and 13 goals, which is not exactly prolific, especially given the level he was plying his trade at.
Unfortunately due to Wesley’s injury, he will be unable to finish the season, but this being said, he had been underwhelming at best. You would expect a player of his size and stature to be able to force himself into the game more, which he just does not do. This causes big issues for Ason Villa since as an attacking force, they are unable to hold the ball up with confidence, unable to have the ability to counter effectively and when presented with opportunities, they will not score as many as what they could.
Welcome back Mings
Mings was signed on a permanent deal from Bournemouth, and the 6ft 5-inch defender, who has recently turned 27, spent the season on loan at Aston Villa when he joined them in January 2019. He made 15 appearances, scoring two goals, and was hailed as a massive part of their Promotion push. He had been transformed into a centre-back at Villa, but due to his past as a full-back when he was playing for Ipswich and early stages at Bournemouth before long term injuries, he was comfortable on the ball and a natural at bringing it out.
Mings was deemed as the most important signing, and having been at Villa for the 2nd half of their season, he already knew the club, the system Dean Smith would employ, plus as previously mentioned, he is a vital clog in the Villa system as his ability to carry the ball out and spray it to either flank is very important.
As you can see he averages around 46.3 passes per 90 with a pass completion of just under 80%, which reflects on Villa’s style as they don’t base their style on ball retention. When comparing this to the best centre-backs in the league, where ball retention is required, for example, Virgil van Dijk, he averages 85.4 passes a match, with his completion just shy of 90%, so you can see Mings and Villa are some way off of that.
The numbers are very much a reflection of how important he is to Villa in the heart of their defence this season. He averages 5.8 clearances a match, which is the fourth-highest average in the premier league. This demonstrates his ability to read the game and his positional discipline. He averages 1.7 shot blocks a match, which is the highest average of any Premier League centre-back. This season he has only managed to perform an average of 0.5 tackles and 0.8 interceptions per game which is very low amongst Premier League defenders.
Mings with his huge frame is expected to be dominant in the air, and he actually delivers in this area. As seen below, he wins 60% of aerial duels he enters.
The ability to do this is very important. When Villa are in a deep block, pushing sides to the flanks and dealing with crosses in the box, Mings having the ability to win the ball will relieve a lot of pressure on his side, which they will be grateful for.
Now, although this may be deemed a positive, it does not tell the whole story, Aston Villa forcing themselves into a deep block means that his underlying numbers for clearance will seem phenomenal, when in fact as a team they have to defend far more, naturally this will mean, the defenders are busier, hence him having one of the higher averages. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, his light does not shine the brightest. His underlying number for tackles and interceptions are very low, this can mean one of two things.
One, his midfield is doing their job, winning the ball, making things difficult, remaining compact, as a result, the ball does not enter his zone, or two, his ability to time challenges and read the game needs work. The fact that Aston Villa has conceded the most goals and faced the most shots, I think we can rule out the first option for sure, we know the midfield are not doing their industrial duties. As a result, so far, Tyrone Mings does not seem good enough for this level, although he may have got his first England cap, this may be more down to lack of quality in our squad, rather than individual form deserving a call-up.
Why are they underperforming?
Aston Villa this season have been very much below what was expected of them. They have conceded the most goals in the league (56) and have the 2nd worst goal difference in the league (-22), but why is this? We will take a closer look at their defensive shape, what they should be doing and where they are going wrong.
As you can see above, Oliver Norwood of Sheffield United gets the ball played into him, and not only does he have enough time to turn and scout the whole field, there is no pressure on him at all.
If you know anything about Sheffield this season, Norwood essentially plays in the hole, dictates the tempo and pushes them forward with his vision and passing range. Villa standing off him is just inviting pressure and playing into the hands of Sheffield.
If they pushed 10-15 yards further up the field, they could be making the game a lot harder for United. This way, they would have a better field position to be able to press and suffocate room in which they must play, therefore forcing errors from the newly-promoted side.
As you can see below, Villa is trying to defend their 18-yard box and not be forced to push back any further than this. This, in theory, is great, gives keeper more room to come for the ball, also would take a technically brilliant pass to break this down. The issue with this example is Villa defend so narrow that it almost defeats the object of defending on the 18-yard box.
If you look at the above image, you can clearly see Norwood has so much time on the ball once again, Sheffield have overloads of both wings, on this occasion, Norwood decides to play a simple sidewards pass, if he would have looked up, he would have seen what could have unravelled if he played the ball to the left, there is a two against one overload, with so much room it is almost criminal.
The above image really sums up Villa’s intensity, in terms of duels won throughout the match, the only area in which Villa edge it, is aerial duels, this is only the case because Villa allowed Sheffield to cross 32 times, at which point, Villa won the majority of these duels in the air.
Villa defending in this way is not just a tactic they employed against Sheffield, but it is something that they do consistently. That’s a very odd way to go about things when it clearly is hampering your team’s chances, especially when your team lacks the pure pace to be able to hurt teams on the counter-attack. Believe it or not, in this game, Villa managed to have zero shots on Sheffield’s goal, both teams had been promoted in the summer, but both teams heading in very different directions.
Villa’s ability to adapt is poor, as you can see above, this is a good example. Aston Villa started with the ball while their own player was down injured, they had refused to kick it out, some moments later, Watford had won the ball back and the ball was played into Ismaïla Sarr, he had far too much time on the ball to play the simplest of passes into Troy Deeney, who simply ran onto the ball, this eventually ended in a penalty.
If Villa would have slid across the field, this situation would have been dealt with in a calm manner and not left them 2-0 down with 30 minutes left, not to mention they were already playing against 10 men at this stage.
Villa have a goal against xG of 61.47, which is 5.47 more than what they have conceded, the reason this is a cause for concern is that they already concede the most goals in the league, but based on xG, they should of have conceded even more goals.
Alongside the fact they are fortunate to not have conceded more goals this season, whether it is too blatant misses or world-class saves, they are not helping themselves by averaging almost three shots more on their goal per game.
At this point, it is clear to see, the style in which Aston Villa decide to play, impacts their ability to really sustain attacks. Villa being the kind of team to try and get behind the ball as soon as possible means that when they try to attack, they need to find an exit pass to work from. Wesley and Samatta are not good enough for this unfortunately, they should be able to put themselves about and create more chances for the likes of Grealish and McGinn to get onto the ball.
As the saying goes “The best form of defence is attack”, which can be true. Villa has a team, that does have the legs, the steel and the work rate to be able to put themselves about and try and press teams and making things difficult. This would then push Wesley further up the field to be on the end of opportunities, on which as we have seen, he is better when inside the box. This then relieves the pressure on their defence, which can only ever be positive.
It is clear to see from this analysis that Villa is facing the strong possibility of relegation at the first attempt back in the Premier League. They can potentially consider themselves fortunate that they remain with a chance of staying up.
As focused on, Villa’s style is very negative. For a team that spent in the region of £150,000,000 on new players, you would like to think they would play with a bit more ambition.
Dean Smith deserves credit on doing a fantastic job on getting them promoted in the first place, so does deserve a chance to keep Villa up, but unless he can make amendments to the way they play, I cannot see anything other than Villa being relegated.
What does Villa need to do? First and foremost, they have very capable midfield, with good technical players. They need to make sure they are on the front foot, push their defensive line 15-20 yards higher, this will suffocate opposition teams, forcing errors or causing the opposition to play it long.
Secondly, get their best players on the ball. Grealish, McGinn, and Hourihane are all capable with the ball at their feet. If they can consistently get their creators on the ball, then they will always be in with a chance, Grealish, in particular, is one of the most sought after players in the Premier League, if Villa gets relegated, he is as good as gone. He creates on average 2.7 key passes a game and completed 2.2 dribbles a game.
If they can start to implement these features, then, by all means, they are well in with a shout come the end of the season, unfortunately, the signs do not look good, the fact of the matter is, the team that conceded the most, go down, no team this millennium has stayed up when conceding the most goals.