Dean Smith – Aston Villa – Tactical Analysis

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After surviving relegation by a single point in 2019-20, many would have tipped Aston Villa to go down in 2020-21. So even though it is still early days in this season’s Premier League, Dean Smith could not have dreamt for a better start to the season. After beating Sheffield United by a narrow margin, thumping Fulham and then most recently, breaking records in a 7-2 thriller against Liverpool, Aston Villa look a much improved side from even just a few months ago. With their recent performances, many think that Aston Villa could be in for their best season in the top flight in over a decade. Here is a Tactical Analysis all about Dean Smith’s Aston Villa.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3

Throughout his time at Aston Villa, Dean Smith has preferred the 4-3-3 formation. But with the arrival of Ross Barkley, it is a bit unclear how exactly Smith will tamper with the system to allow for his new talisman to get on the ball and make his magic happen. In Barkley’s debut against Liverpool, he operated mostly as a ‘number 10’ when the team were in possession, attempting to create overloads down Liverpool’s weaker right-hand side. In defense, Barkley joined alongside Ollie Watkins to help the team create a 4-4-2 mid-to-low block. This is a unique shift away from what would otherwise have been a 4-5-1 in defense, potentially allowing Villa to win possession back higher up the field and have more natural outlets immediately after winning the ball. That said, if Villa decide to stick true to the 4-3-3, Ross Barkley could easily operate as either the left or right-sided central midfielder, as he did intermittently for Lampard’s Chelsea.

One of the key features of Smith’s Aston Villa in 2020-21 have been the massive upgrades in every major department. The Lions went about their summer business very intelligently and made some shrewd summer signings in a few key areas of the field. Rather than splashing the cash to make massive upheavals to their eleven, they’ve kept faith in the same mix of players, while adding some much needed improvements only where they felt necessary. The first of those new signings in the lineup is Emiliano Martinez. The Argentinean keeper performed admirably in Bernd Leno’s absence last season at Arsenal, so much so that many thought he might challenge for the starting birth this time around. However, he was given a new lease of life at Villa and has gotten off to a flying start for his new club, keeping 2 clean sheets in 3 matches. Despite that great start, Martinez hasn’t had a terrible amount to do in between the posts (3 saves per game and 2 goals conceded), as a result of Villa’s improved back-line. Matty Cash has been an excellent addition at right-back, after spending four seasons in the EFL Championship with Nottingham Forest. He was the club’s player of the season in 2019-20, and it’s easy to see why given his contribution at both ends of the pitch and the relative lack of holes in his game. Tyrone Mings continues to improve by the game and continues to knock on the door of Gareth Southgate’s eleven, while Ezri Konsa was a massive reason why Villa stayed up last season, and has carried his form over to 2020-21. At left-back is ex-Southampton youngster Matt Targett. He failed to breakthrough into Southampton’s first team due to the presence of the immaculate Ryan Bertrand. But now at the age of 25, Targett is a very steady Premier League left-back that Villa know they can rely on.

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In front of the back four, former Manchester City man Douglas Luiz acts as the pivot and ‘number 6’ in the team, alongside two left-footed central midfielders with an eye for a pass in John McGinn and Conor Hourihane. Both have made excellent contributions to Villa’s start of the season and frankly don’t deserve to lose their place to Ross Barkley, so it will be interesting to see where the former Everton and Chelsea man fits in. Perhaps Barkley may also find himself on the right wing, where Egyptian winger Trezeguet has held down a place since helping Villa overcome their relegation battle last season. The 26-year old is incredibly hard working and has made significant improvements in his defensive contribution since joining Smith’s side, so he doesn’t deserve to lose his place either. Finally, the two men who Villa will be resting all of their laurels on this season – Ollie Watkins and Jack Grealish. Grealish has largely operated on the left wing, what some might consider to be “out of position” for a man so capable of creating chances from central areas. So far so good for the Villa captain though, as he’s earned his first and second call-ups to Gareth Southgate’s England squad and has formed a formidable partnership with Ollie Watkins, last season’s top scorer in the EFL Championship for Brentford. Watkins showcased his work ethic and mobility in both of Villa’s opening games (something desperately missing last season), before hitting the mark with a hat-trick against Liverpool. Not a bad way to start life in the Premier League by any means.

So those are the players, now let’s delve deeper into the tactics!

VERTICALITY & QUICK ATTACKING TRANSITIONS

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A major feature of Aston Villa’s play this season has been the fact that they look almost destined to score every time they advance the ball into their opponent’s half. They’ve had a very vertical approach to life in the Premier League this season, favouring long-balls and through-balls to get the ball forward quickly, rather than a slower build-up in which they switch the ball from side to side, looking to shift the opposition like Everton or Tottenham. They aren’t a typical counter attacking side, but they also don’t hang onto the ball for terribly long. Their approach is very systematic and although it favours the left, they look to get the ball forwards as quickly and often as possible. That is further evidenced by their 16 shots per game (3rd best in the league) and 7 goals from open-play (2nd best in the league), despite their possession only being 47.5% (14th best in the league). Relative to their possession, they are incredibly effective at creating chances. The running power, ability in tight areas and dribbling speed of players like Jack Grealish, John McGinn and now Ross Barkley, will continue to be important to their play. But their vertical passing and movement off-the-ball to get forward is perhaps even more significant. They’ve attempted 64 long balls per game so far in the league, the fifth highest. Without a target man like Wesley Said or Keinan Davis, whose number 1 job is to engage in hold-up play high up the pitch, they haven’t been as successful at actually completing these attempts. But it still demonstrates an important feature of Aston Villa’s play and one of their key mechanisms for creating the high volume of chances that they have done so far this season.

FAVOURING THE LEFT-SIDE 

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When they do hold onto the ball for a little while longer in their opposition’s half, they look to create overloads on one side of the pitch and combine quickly through triangular combinations and give-and-go’s. The most common area of the pitch for the team to create these overloads is (of course) down the left, where Jack Grealish has the freedom to work his magic and combine with his fellow teammates in tight spaces to create chances or win a free kick, as he so often does. Only Manchester United and Crystal Palace have utilized the left in attacking moves more often this season. The intricate one/two touch passing and moving on the left was exactly how Barkley scored his goal in the 7-2 thriller. It’s also why Jack Grealish had so much success in the match overall, combining with Ollie Watkins, who himself operated largely to the left. With the jack of all trades in John McGinn now operating on his favoured side, that could also produce positive outcomes for The Lions in continuing to overload the left. That said, Conor Hourihane is equally capable and McGinn has proven to be quite adept at getting forward and picking the right pass from his position as a right-central-midfielder.

SET-PIECES

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No player won more fouls in the Premier League in 2019-20 than Jack Grealish (166). To give some context, that’s 4.6 fouls per game, and a free kick for his team every 19 minutes played. The next highest free kick winner was Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, with 122 by comparison. Grealish’s teammate John McGinn is also excellent in tight areas and as a result, excellent at winning free kicks, and finished fourth last season in fouls per game (2.4). With the two of them contributing to Villa’s overall approach of verticality and quick attacking transitions, the opposition often have no choice but to make a foul. This makes Aston Villa a major threat from set-pieces, whether intentionally or not, simply from the sheer volume of set-piece opportunities they create.

But beyond that, they have several players who can deliver. Conor Hourihane has been the most reliable, assisting three goals and creating 19 other chances last season from free kicks and corners. Trezeguet meanwhile scored 4 goals from direct free kicks last season, offering a different threat when given the chance. John McGinn, Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley also have immense quality in delivering from set-pieces, which makes the job of the big men at the back all the easier when they go forward to try and head it home. Including some of the names above, ten different players scored goals from set-pieces last season for Smith’s side, totaling 15 of their 41 goals. Only Liverpool (17) and Manchester City (17) scored more from set-pieces last season. In 2020-21, they’ve already hit four set-piece goals, with four different scorers. Only Everton have scored more goals from set-pieces. Moreover, 6’5 Tyrone Mings and 6’0 Ezri Konsa have scored 100% of their goals from set-pieces the past two seasons, totaling 5 goals between the two of them. So this tactic is evidently something Villa spend a ton of time perfecting on the training ground and very intentional to the way they play, in trying to win free kicks at every opportunity (fairly of course).

MID-BLOCK + NO NONSENSE DEFENDING

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In defensive phases of the game, Aston Villa usually set up in a 4-5-1 formation. However, with Ross Barkley’s arrival at the club, Dean Smith appears to be shifting into more of a 4-4-2, as The Lions attempt to win the ball back slightly higher up the field. Aston Villa do not press from the front, and instead operate in a mid to low block, shifting and sliding with the movement of the ball from left to right. They remain relatively compact and so far this season have proven to be difficult to break down, conceding just 2 goals in 3 games…both of which were against the Champions. One of Aston Villa’s primary problems in 2019-20 was the relative lack of cover in between fullback and wing. However, Grealish and Trezeguet have both made strides in their defensive contribution so far this season. Grealish has made 3 tackles per game, compared to 0.8 last season; while Trezeguet has completed 2.7 tackles per game, compared to 1.1 last season. This not only highlights the improved positioning and defensive cover from Villa’s wide men, but also the area of the pitch in which the team win the ball back most often. Smith’s side are faring far better in 2020-21 at forcing their opposition into wide areas, where they are prepared to make a tackle, as opposed to the opposition going into the wide areas as a strategy to create chances. The former Walsall and Brentford manager quite evidently paid attention to their weak spots in 2019-20 and made attempts to fix them. Now, the 4-4-2 defensive block should aid in Smith’s quest to continue to step up their defensive resilience. 

When Aston Villa do concede opportunities to their opposition, they are very effective at dealing with the danger and clearing the ball away. This no nonsense approach to defending is one contributing factor to their high number of long-balls attempted per game, and also their ability to go on the attack right away. Other than Martinez’s goal kicks, the player with the most long-balls attempted and completed per game is Tyrone Mings, their no nonsense defender who is a bit of an old-school centre-back in that regard. Only West Brom’s Kyle Bartley has completed more clearances than Mings so far this season. Further, the Villa vice- captain has made the third most clearances per game (7.0), with his centre-back partner Ezri Konsa placing sixth in that category with 6.3. As a duo, they’ve made more clearances per game than any other pairing in the league, highlighting their no nonsense approach to getting the ball away from danger.

If Villa’s defense can continue to keep the ball out of the back of the net, they will likely have a much higher win rate this season and steer clear of the relegation zone for the second season running. 

CONCLUSION

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With their fantastic start to the 2020-21 Premier League season, Aston Villa look more than set to just survive by the skin of their teeth this season. After four matchdays, Dean Smith’s side sit second in the table, despite playing one less game than 80% of teams in the league. They’ve won three games from three and even smashed the former Champions by a shocking score-line of 7-2. Their direct approach, use of set-pieces and mid-to-low block have all been contributing factors. But perhaps most important of all is their willingness to play to the strengths of their top players, such as their silky superstar Jack Grealish, the robust Tyrone Mings and the box-to-box midfielder John McGinn. With a select few star individuals in a team of very good professional footballers, Aston Villa look set to do wonders this season and could be in for their best season since the days of Martin O’Neill.


So there it is! A Tactical Analysis all about Dean Smith’s Aston Villa. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analysis series and share your thoughts on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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