This week’s PA Playing Styles focuses on Paul Lambert and Aston Villa, who finished the season in 15th place on 38 points.
Aston Villa Football Club has endured massive upheaval in the last five years. Under Martin O’Neill they finished regularly in the top six and were returning to the better days when they were winning European titles. Then came O’Neill’s resignation in 2010 and what followed was two very disastrous years under Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish where the club was nearly relegated on both occasions.
Paul Lambert was brought in after a successful campaign with Norwich and completed what looked like the impossible by keeping the Villains in the league. His recruitment drive for the club has been extreme and direct in its approach to rejuvenate the squad with young, cheap players. He has fared better with them this term but it still wasn’t until the third last game that their Premier League status for the next year was confirmed.
Established Premier League players like Stephen Ireland, James Collins, Shay Given, Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia have either been sold or demoted to the reserves under Lambert in exchange for a fresh injection of youth in the squad. So great has the change been that a standard starting eleven from O’Neill’s time has been decimated to the point that only Gabby Agbonlahor remains.
Villa have predominantly played with a 4-1-2-1-2 formation or with a 4-4-2 diamond as it is also called. This involves playing with four central midfielders and two strikers in front of a standard back four. Of the four midfielders, one usually stays in front of the back four and another behind the two forwards. The other two midfielders play slightly wider but come infield to receive the ball, but these positions aren’t that fixed so they are free to roam. This formation allows the team to keep two strikers on the pitch while also not being outnumbered in midfield for the possession battle. The major drawbacks of this formation is that there are no wide men in the team so the full backs are expected to provide any side of width in the team.
Sometimes Lambert will adopt a 5-3-2 formation if he has injuries and plays his three central defenders at the same time. A third option that the Villa manager has sometimes used is a standard 4-3-3 formation where he would play Andreas Weimann and Agbonlahor as wingers with Christian Benteke playing as the central striker.
As they play with no real wingers or wide midfielders of any kind, all attacks go through the midfield. When in possession, Villa try to keep the ball and move the opposition’s midfield around when they are chasing them. As the Villa midfielders do not stay in fixed positions, the opposition will be pulled out of position when trying to mark them or they will give them time on the ball to pick a pass if they drop deep. When they can get close to the box they like to either shoot from distance or give the ball into the forward players’ feet and wait for midfield runners going into the box.
Another tactic they sometimes employ is the long ball up to Christian Benteke and let him use his size and skill to hold the ball up and bring others into play.
Villa’s biggest strength is their danger on the counter attack; they have a lot of pace in the forward areas of the pitch with Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann and Fabian Delph running from midfield. They usually leave three players up the pitch at times so when they break on the counter they already have enough men to hurt the opposition. The passing of Ashley Westwood is key to this as he is the man who usually ends up with the ball.
Crossing is not a big part of Villa’s play as they don’t play with wide men. They prefer to play through the middle of the pitch. They sometimes cross from infield positions but they rarely come to any use. It is surprising that they don’t try to incorporate crossing more into their game seeing as their best striker Benteke is a monster of a man and is extremely proficient in the air.
Villa play with either four or five at the back. They regularly change the personnel of their defensive line with Lambert swapping the players in the centre half and full back positions. They usually try to leave one man sitting in front of the back four, e.g. Ashley Westwood. However, he does not play the traditional defensive midfield role, but more of a deep lying playmaker role, i.e. the Pirlo.
Their tendency to play a counter-attacking game affects the team defensively as well. They try to keep three players in advanced positions up the pitch so they only have seven outfield players back defending for them. This is usually the back four and three central midfielders so when defending out wide the midfielders are forced to come across and leave themselves very stretched defensively.
When their opponents dispossess them high up the pitch, they try to press them very quickly and they will narrow their approach to try and win the ball back as quickly as possible.
From set pieces they defend zones across the six-yard box and mark the oppositions’ target men at the edge of the box. They do not have any men on the posts.
Best team and formation:
Guzan; Lowton, Clark, Vlaar, Bertrand; Westwood; Delph, El Ahmadi; Weimann; Agbonlahor, Benteke
I have stuck with Villa’s tried and tested 4-1-2-1-2 formation that allows them to counterattack so well. The back four was hard to make up Lambert changes it so often but Vlaar is the leader of that defence so he gets in. Clark is aggressive in the air and has genuine pace so he gets the nod. Bertrand is a left back of proven quality and Lowton is a good, efficient user of the ball.
The other six positions pick themselves, not because of obvious quality but due to the small squad that Villa play with. They have a few players of genuine quality: Delph has wonderful feet and a great turn of pace. Benteke is a proven goal scorer and has obvious world class talent, but this season he seems to be believing his own hype as he keeps trying to do more extravagant things on the pitch and beat players when it is easier to pass to a teammate.
The main man at Aston Villa is Ashley Westwood, however. He uses the ball very well and sets the tempo for Villa when they are attacking. His passing is also very accurate with him being the one that usually sets the others off on their classic counter attacks.
Gavin Nolan, Pundit Arena.
So, what do you think of Gavin’s assessment of Aston Villa? Do you agree? Leave any opinions you have in the comments section below. Next week, we will be analyzing Southampton.
Featured Image By Dagur Brynjólfsson from Hafnarfjordur, Iceland (Aston Villa-FH 318) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.