Sunday league tactics, home truths and managerial dilemmas.

Had the years of mediocrity and just god-awful performances not already conditioned the brain into an absence of optimism, the loss to Wolves might have given an optimist an overwhelming sense of damnation – a feeling the pessimist, or pragmatist has already been acclimatised to. Those that might be familiar with my work will recognise the latter – pragmatism – as my default setting, let it be known that I did not choose to be this way.

Various observations can be taken from the loss; both good and bad, more cases of bad if I’m being completely honest but we’ll cross that bridge. The first noteworthy point was the change in formation; who ever said social media doesn’t influence, eh? The calls for a Sunday-league revolution, lumping two strikers up front with no real thought at the impact in other areas of the pitch had been a bandwagon I’ve always stayed clear of. It’s not a new trend for Villa fans but one that has become increasingly louder over the past few weeks.

Much like expected, the change to a 4-4-2 diamond formation hadn’t turned up trees and there seems to be a reason why most Premier League teams don’t typically play with two strikers. Looking at the average number of goals across the season for teams playing with a two-man strike-force compared with those who do not, show there is no correlation with number of strikers to an increase in goals. That being said, the first half showed promise in retaining the ball against a technically superior side which was quite surprising considering a measly 26% share of possession against Chelsea – another top six side – a week before.

It was admittedly a welcome sight and the first half was controlled by the Villa midfield in my view although from the outset a lack of penetration into the final third of Wolves was apparent. The most obvious exponent of a system like the diamond has been Leicester City, much to our dismay the 4-1 loss at home in the league showcased how it could be utilised but despite an early midfield dominance, our display was anything but dominant. Villa ultimately lacked the attacking fullbacks to make the formation an attacking success in absence of natural wingers and the front two pairing of Keinan Davis and Ally Samatta didn’t work together albeit Davis having a pretty good afternoon – particularly first half – bringing others into play and looking strong against a very good back-three.

A fine toothcomb could be passed through the game and squad, leading to a barrage of home truths but I think the majority of fans are aware of the difficulties we face. We seem to be able to be good, or at least somewhat competent in either attack or defence, but never both and the restart has typified that notion with us conceding less goals per game that beforehand but appearing timid when on the offensive.

Whether it be a 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, the problem remains the same, the team lacks a clear tactical and systematic approach to games. There have been positive aspects to three of the four fixtures since Project Restart; against Sheffield United we were the better team and didn’t look like conceding in a slow-paced return to action. A high-press was in place for a trip to St James against Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United. We’ll not discuss Chelsea and we managed to find some form of ball retention against Wolves, but none have all come at once and it appears that Dean Smith has not got the ability to implement all factors within a single 90-minute match.

Teams are defined by certain characteristics, aspects to the way they play football that rarely change whether that be from a formational or tactical standpoint. For example, Liverpool have their ‘Gegenpressing’ system headed by three high forwards, a mobile midfield and marauding full-backs; Sheffield United have a 3-5-2 featuring a ridiculously fluid setup with overlapping centre-backs and Burnley play with a traditional and hardworking 4-4-2 designed to funnel opponents’ shots into the width of the goal with a low-block. Aston Villa have Jack Grealish.

There’s no secret that John McGinn isn’t back to full match fitness and with the exception of the mercurial Douglas Luiz – finally showing his true quality at the base of midfield with added an exuberant Brazilian flair – our midfield seriously lacks ability in the likes of Conor Hourihane and Marvelous Nakamba (in my opinion). Recruitment has been a widely criticised aspect of Villa’s season; Matt Targett has produced little in the defensive department despite forming a half-decent relationship down the left with Grealish, centre-back recruitment has left wanting and forward options on the wing and up front beg the question, why did we not just spend the extra money on players that fit the mould and are relatively proven (e.g. Said Benrahma and Neal Maupay).

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I may be sat here typing up a piece about survival in six games time however it’s hard to see where a point may come from and the plan to capture as many of them as possible seems to be working their way through an exhaustive list of plans and formations in the hope they strike luck. It’s simply not an efficient way to play your way through the Premier League after being promoted. The main gripe however has been effort, and since the restart it has been an understandable and inescapable fact that matches have been played at a lower intensity but with relegation looming, it makes the lack of intensity on display infuriating.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND – JUNE 27: Dean Smith, Manager of Aston Villa gives his team instructions during a drinks break during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park on June 27, 2020 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The way forward is not a clear one and the questions over Dean Smith’s tenure at Villa have already been asked with more voices coming to the fore as time goes by. The questions that are being asked are right to be asked but the answer is pretty clear in my mind; no, he should not be sacked but he does deserve to be. Let me explain.

Results are what matters in this ruthless sport from a club’s perspective and performances are yearned for by the fans. For the most part, neither club nor fans have been properly satisfied. With brief exceptions, the side have lacked a clear tactical plan in all aspects of play from shape, pressing, formation and roles and unfortunately that can only be attributed to lacklustre coaching.

One of two cases could be made for Dean Smith that even transcend back to last season; one, Smith deserves credit for getting us promoted and changed the way we played football which arguably has some merit considering the brand of football Mr Bruce had us playing. Two, the promotion largely hinged on Grealish’s return with performances and results only picking up upon his return to the side. Added to this, Brentford have continued to play a fine brand of football under Thomas Frank suggesting the system at the London side was more institutional rather than managerial.

Both arguments have merit and I’m neither here nor there, but Villa were cutthroat in the summer with large approval from fans at this approach. Sacking Smith would embody the new approach no matter how shallow Christian Purslow and co’s words have been but once again, it seems fans have tinted glasses on and despairing at the very thought of his Smith’s departure. Looking at the situation objectively, Smith’s Premier League record is grounds for his dismissal however with only six games left, what would be the bloody point?

Stay up and he should go, go down and he stays.

By Jack Cudworth – @JackCudworth

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