Sam Tighe previews Southampton's trip to the Midlands to face an Aston Villa side much changed from the reverse fixture at St Mary's. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
In the wake of selling star man Jack Grealish for a British record £100million last summer, Aston Villa have had a topsy-turvy time figuring out the immediate next steps.
In Grealish’s place came three new attacking players, then in January two more. There’s been a managerial switch from Dean Smith to Steven Gerrard too, plus multiple different formations utilised in an attempt to remould. The thing is, when a team is wired exclusively around one precocious talent, it takes time to forge a new identity.
Smith struggled immensely with that task, and while Gerrard’s fresh outlook has improved things, it’s still very difficult to know what to expect from Aston Villa on a week-to-week basis.
For his first seven league games Villa played a close-knit 4-3-2-1, removing space between the lines and squishing the middle of the pitch. It served them well; the only games they didn’t win were the ones played against the current top three.
Gerrard then opened up in midfield and, following the acquisition of Lucas Digne, Villa began to play expansively, culminating in a chaotic 3-3 draw with Leeds and consecutive losses to relegation candidates Newcastle and Watford.
These performances and results triggered a recent change: last time out against Brighton, Villa used a 4-4-2 diamond shape. Philippe Coutinho played at the tip, Douglas Luiz at the base, but most important of all was the fact the attacking forays of full-backs Digne and Matty Cash were covered by midfielders.
For the previous three weeks, that had been a major issue: Digne, in particular, had been hitting the final third to join the attack, leaving big gaps behind him to be exploited. It was a similar story with Cash on the right; they provided Villa’s natural width in attack, but structurally, their attacking intent wasn’t accounted for.
Last Saturday that changed, with Luiz deployed specifically to cover those spaces – particularly Digne’s on the left – and shifted the roles up front slightly. Brighton barely laid a glove on them as a result, failing to score and recording their fourth-worst Expected Goals (xG) tally of the season (0.6).
That said, some sloppy passing and some risky dribbling out from deep did hand Brighton the chance to craft some openings. Luiz had a few square balls intercepted, while Jacob Ramsey was dispossessed while trying to drive forward. A co-ordinated, well-timed pressing game like Southampton’s can force similar mistakes – and a more potent front line can make it count.
Villa’s new structure to cover for Digne and Cash can also be examined a little more closely; if any player is suited to finding the weak points and exploiting them, it’s Stuart Armstrong. Finally, there’ll be physical battles that catch the eye, with Ramsey and John McGinn sure to give Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse a good match in the middle.