Why Aston Villa Will Qualify for Europe by 2023 – Tactical Analysis

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After surviving relegation by a single point in 2019-20, few would have imagined Aston Villa to have such a stellar season in 2020-21. Instead of battling for relegation, they’ve been battling for a place in Europe, beating the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester City along the way. Perhaps most impressively out of anything, beyond the results which have unequivocally been spectacular, Dean Smith’s side have just been so much fun to watch. They’ve been tactically intriguing in their shifting systems and styles of play, but also just so full of life this season with Grealish and co leading their charge toward European football. Here is our latest Tactical Analysis all about Dean Smith’s Aston Villa, including why the Lions look destined for European football within the next few years.


Despite utilizing the 4-3-3 for the majority of last season and the opening few fixtures to great success in 2020-21, Dean Smith shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation following the arrival of Chelsea loanee Ross Barkley. It’s a bit unclear whether Barkley’s signing marked the shift in formation that Smith always wanted in order to construct a more fashionable attacking outfit; or whether Barkley’s signing prompted him to change his system and style to simply be more attacking. Perhaps it was a bit of both! The system has worked so well that they’ve even stuck by it without the former Everton and Chelsea man in their roster. Whenever Barkley’s been out of the side, Jack Grealish has moved inside to play the number ten role instead, a position that looks like an absolute dream for the Villa captain, who has turned into a world class player this season.

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One of the keys to success for Villa this season has been keeping a very consistent lineup and set of players. Ten of their players have played in nineteen or more matches and nine of those players have played the bulk of the minutes. Separating themselves from the pack even more, only twenty-one players have made an appearance for The Lions this season – the lowest in the league. When looking at their roster, it’s hard to see where the Lions can improve. Aston Villa made a series of highly impressive signings before the season began, including two of the first names on team sheet – Matty Cash and Emiliano Martinez. Since arriving from Arsenal, Martinez has featured in every single minute of action this season, taking over from Pepe Reina and Tom Heaton who never looked consistent enough in 2019-20. The Argentinean’s been arguably the best goalkeeper in the league, keeping a staggering eleven clean sheets in twenty-one matches. Matty Cash has also impressed since arriving from Nottingham Forest, and remains the team’s top tackler and one of the league’s prime interceptors. If it hadn’t been for Joao Cancelo’s impressive season at City, Cash would likely be the best right back in the league this season. That’s just how good the twenty-three year-old has been. Alongside the young Englishman, Matt Targett’s developed really well into his role on the left, continuing to keep out the more experienced Neil Taylor. With Targett’s recent performances and increased attacking relationship with Grealish, many are even tipping him for a potential place for England at this summer’s Euros.

Another man making those kind of waves is the team’s vice captain – Tyrone Mings. The six-foot-five hulking centre-back would be incredibly unlucky not to be selected for Gareth Southgate’s side at this point, enjoying his best season at the back for the club. He’s most often joined at the back by the impressive Ezri Konza, who like Cash is also only twenty-three. Kortney Hause has done well when he’s come into the side, but with John Terry’s apparent influence on the other two, the former Wolves man can’t get a game in. Ahead of the back-four, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz have been a formidable and consistent partnership in midfield. Conor Hourihane started life well in 2020-21 just as he ended 2019-20, but has since gone out on loan with the arrival of Barkley pushing him out of the side. Morgan Sanson looks to make an impression having just moved from Marseille, while Marvelous Nakamba could make a return to the side more regularly having now come back from injury. The Zimbabwean international in particular is a formidable tackler and could easily aid to Villa’s impressive defensive structure in key matches down the road.

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Ahead of the midfield two, Dean Smith has had a fair amount of rotation in his side, primarily due to injuries. Ross Barkley looks like a brilliant addition to the team, but he spent a few months out with a hamstring injury. This led to a complete shuffle of the attacking trio behind Ollie Watkins, Villa’s top scorer. With Trezeguet also out, Bertrand Traore and Anwar El-Ghazi came into the side as Grealish moved to the middle. But despite two key men missing, Villa only grew in confidence and performance. Traore and El-Ghazi revealed so much more talent than one would have assumed from two wingers who have spent so much time warming the bench. Traore’s now up to four goals and three assists for the season, while El Ghazi’s still got his impressive tally of five goals in six starts to brag about. Grealish also looked brilliant as a number ten, allowing him to drift all over the field rather than needing to start from the left and then drift in-field. Now that Trezeguet and Barkley are back, Smith has some tough selections to make, perhaps more than ever before. But one man who seems to be a guaranteed starter is the former Brentford talent Ollie Watkins, who is now up to ten goals in twenty-one matches, after hitting a bit of a dry spell before 2021 began. So those are the players, now let’s get more into how Dean Smith uses his squad to such great effect and why they look destined for a place in Europe.

counter attacking

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Aston Villa love to play on the counter. But if you had Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley in your team, not to mention exciting dribblers like Bertrand Traore and a powerful target man like Ollie Watkins, wouldn’t you like to do so as well? Of course you would. Aston Villa remain a side equally capable of playing both shorter and longer passes. They’ve played an abundance of long ball passes – sixty-three per game to be exact. That’s the fifth most in the league, but the only team that have played more long passes with more possession to their name is Brighton & Hove Albion. While Brighton use long-ball passes as more of a meticulous method in their build-up, Aston Villa are more likely to use it in quick attacking transitions after winning the ball. With a great hold-up striker at the top in Ollie Watkins (who has won 4.1 aerial duels per game), Smith’s side have a quick attacking outlet by which they can throw the ball up to and engage other players from either a knock-down or a run in behind.

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Beyond this long ball approach, it is fairly clear what Villa are trying to do when they win the ball. Quite simply, they look to advance toward goal. It doesn’t really matter who wins the ball, as they have so many players capable of dribbling. They can use a longer pass from a player like Mings or Targett to involve Watkins or Grealish, or they can use a twinkle toed dribbler like Grealish, Traore or Barkley to drive the ball forward at speed. Even McGinn and Douglas Luiz are very sound dribblers, as is the big man up top – Ollie Watkins. Although this does require a lot of verticality and quick movements up the field, Smith’s side are also very likely to utilize the wide areas after winning the ball and then look to deliver crosses or win fouls in dangerous wide areas. They’ve put in twenty-one crosses per game, the joint-third most at the time of writing. They’ve also won the most fouls per game, as opposition sides just simply can’t handle their speed and agility in transition. Their insane tally of 15.6 fouls won per game (yes, you heard that right) is 3.1 per game more than Tottenham Hotspur in second, and more than double that of Sheffield United in last (7.6). But if their opposition have no luck in bringing them down, Villa can be highly dangerous and ease their way into the opposition’s eighteen yard box. A high percentage of their shots (69%) come within the eighteen yard box (including those that come inside the six), to which only Leeds can claim a better ratio. This means that Aston Villa have no issue at all attacking at speed and reaching the eighteen yard box before the opposition have time to set up, or competing for all the crosses they deliver. The ease at which they create chances can also be evidenced by the fact that they’ve taken the third most shots per game (14.8) and second most shots on target per game (5.7) in the Premier League this season.

left side dominance

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Along with their inclination for width and crossing, Villa have a strong preference for the left side of the field in particular, looking to get their main man Jack Grealish on the ball at every opportunity. This means that Barkley and Watkins also frequently drift to the left to involve themselves and link up with the Villa captain. Barkley in particular will often have heatmaps that put him right on top of Grealish. This allows Villa to have their two or three most dangerous players in close proximity at all times, while still maintaining width for switches of play and an additional threat down the other side. Although they are flexible with their positioning, the left is also the side that John McGinn is more likely to operate on, the more attack-minded of the two midfielders. Only Manchester United have attacked down the right less than Aston Villa, highlighting their reliance on Grealish and the left. When looking at the areas of the pitch in which they take shots, it’s again important to note how much left-side dominance they have with Grealish and Barkley in particular. The Lions have taken 23% of their shots from the left, the highest percentage in the league. Again, this is even more than Crystal Palace, the only team who utilize the left for attacking moves more than Villa.

attacking & defending SET-PIECES

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Aston Villa arguably stayed up last season through their ability to attack and defend set-pieces. Some of those crucial games toward the end of the season were won through both their ability to deliver and defend from free kicks and corners. This season, they’ve taken that ability to new heights. Villa have won the third most aerial duels per game (20.7), which has massive implications for their ability to play a long-ball passing game, but also for their ability to do exactly what we’re talking about in this section. They’ve scored the fourth most goals from set-pieces this season (nine), following up from the fifteen they scored last season to finish third in the set-piece goals table, behind only Liverpool and Man City. With the big men they have at the back and newly added Watkins, is easy to see why Villa are so capable in making the most of their set-piece situations. But they also have so many players who can deliver a quality pass. Cash, Targett, McGinn and Douglas Luiz could probably all take set-pieces for a different team, but never will consistently for Villa because of the quality Grealish and Barkley possess in particular. Trezeguet also poses a threat from set-pieces and the currently out on loan Conor Hourihane has a reputation as one of the best crossers in the league from a dead-ball. This approach is also amplified by the fact that Jack Grealish wins so many fouls. He’s not just a key chance creator, he’s the one making the set-pieces happen in the first place more often than not. The 25-year old Englishman has won 4.6 fouls per game – which is the most in Europe’s top five leagues, and significantly more than the Premier League’s second highest foul earner – Wilfried Zaha (2.9). That equates to a foul won every nineteen minutes for his team, which is just so valuable, particularly for a team so good in the air. With 2.3 fouls won per game, John McGinn also sits in the top five in the league. Ezri Konsa and Douglas Luiz are two of the other surprise fouls winners, as is Ollie Watkins who remains an absolute handful for opposition teams to deal with up front. This means that at all times, Villa can pose a constant threat for their opposition. Even if they have trouble playing through the thirds or breaking their opposition down, they can still pose a threat and achieve something special from a scrappy situation.

defensive stability

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Perhaps the most improved aspect of Aston Villa’s game, Smith’s side have made great strides in defense this season. Other than Manchester City, no team has kept more clean sheets than Villa’s tally of eleven in the league this season. This has been aided by greater defensive stability in a double pivot of McGinn and Luiz in front of a very steady back-four. Both McGinn and Luiz are excellent ball-winners, as are both fullbacks in Targett and Cash. The former Nottingham man sits top in both tackles and interceptions as far as Villa goes, but also joint-eleventh in the league in tackles per game and fourth in the league for interceptions per game. Trezeguet is also a confident ball winner, and it is perhaps a key reason why Smith preferred the Egyptian to the highly adventurous Bertrand Traore at the start of the season. But the defensive stability of a midfield two in front of a back-four has been very important for the club. Firstly, it contributes to their ability to attack quickly – as Villa have several attacking outlets upon winning the ball, particularly one in a central area in Ross Barkley, and also those in wide areas in the wings, where the Lions more frequently win the ball. Secondly, it means the responsibility of a lone holding midfielder is mitigated as Luiz and McGinn can work together to shuffle the opposition into wide areas.

But Dean Smith’s side also don’t just sit back and invite pressure to come upon them. Their mid-block often takes the form of a 4-4-2 shape, with Barkley joining the first line of pressure alongside Watkins in trying to usher the ball toward Villa’s left side in particular, where Grealish can get on the ball right away. Against weaker sides, the defensive shape can also be pushed higher up the field as they adopt a slightly more vigorous pressing structure. In these instances, the fullbacks are more likely to join in line with the central midfielders in more of a 2-4-4 structure. As we noted in our analysis at the beginning of the season of Dean Smith’s men, both Grealish and Trezeguet have improved their defensive output and contribution, making the gap between wing and fullback much less of an actual gap. Again, this may be why Smith has preferred Trezeguet to Traore in the past, despite the stellar attacking talent of the Burkina Faso talisman. Watkins is also one of the top strikers when it comes to defending from the front, putting in excellent effort to help his team pressure the opposition and force longer passes. The way that they’ve shuffled play into wide areas and frustrated the opposition into making longer passes, benefits Villa due to their aerial presence and hunger to challenge for those types of balls at the back. If there’s one thing that need to improve from a defensive standpoint, it’s their ability to stop crosses from coming into the box in the first place. Although it’s a function of their excellent defensive block and not terribly detrimental given the size and stature of their players, this is the one area in which Smith’s side allow their opposition to gain too much of a potential upper hand. But that is a small blemish in a fantastic side that look destined for some European action next season, if they can continue defending as they have done throughout the season.


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Although Aston Villa aren’t the only surprise packages of the 2020-21 Premier League season (see Everton and West Ham), they have certainly been one of the most exciting, dynamic, tactically intriguing sides to watch this season. After smashing their first three games of the season with three straight wins and a 7-2 thumping victory over Liverpool, Dean Smith’s Villa have continued their fantastic form to be well within reach of a place in Europe. Their variety of methods for scoring goals has been a key feature highlight, as they can utilize counter attacking, set-pieces, possession or pressing as a method of scoring. Their defensive stability has also been sound, led by two banks of four in a mid-block and their fantastic aerial ability at the back. What’s perhaps most encouraging of all for Villa is that they may very well keep hold of all of their players for another season, when in a normal non-COVID year, they might have secured a place in Europe only to lose some of the key men that helped them achieve the feat. For now, we can all enjoy watching Aston Villa, knowing that Dean Smith is doing a phenomenal job leading the club to better times.

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

You might also enjoy…

-> David Moyes – West Ham United – Tactical Analysis
-> Brendan Rodgers – Leicester City – Tactical Analysis
-> Carlo Ancelotti – Everton – Tactical Analysis
-> Dean Smith – Aston Villa – Tactical Analysis

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