Classic Villa, eh! Win our first four games including a 7-2 thrashing of the reigning champions Liverpool, only to capitulate and quite embarrassingly so to Leeds United and Southampton. Without a win at Villa Park since 2004 against the Saints, the result shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise but let’s be honest, frustratingly, Villa don’t tend to do things the easy way.
The game really was one of two halves; the first being an absolute capitulation of all footballing sense from both manager and players, going into halftime 3-0 down. A second half resurgence followed, only after Southampton’s Danny Ings had added another to the tally, putting his side 4-0 up and entering the goal of the month running in the process.
Villa had a small chance of a miraculous comeback through none other than Jack Grealish who seemed to release the shackles that bound him in the first half. He started by dinking a cross over for Tyrone Mings’ second goal of the season before latching onto a second ball in Southampton’s penalty area, getting a kick for his troubles and winning a penalty that Ollie Watkins would convert.
To cap his second half brilliance off, Grealish finally got his goal in the 7th minute of stoppage time with a low 20-yard effort into the bottom left corner leaving keeper Alex McCarthy rooted to the spot.
Despite the late fightback which admittedly improved an angry and very reactionary mood, the performance on the whole, left a lot to be desired.
Gluttons for Punishment…
The first point of order would be to mention that Ralph Hasenhüttl is a seriously good manager and Southampton are a very underrated and well drilled side; they are organized, mobile and versatile in their initial 4-4-2 shape.
Quite surprisingly, Southampton controlled possession in midfield and that was largely due to wingers Theo Walcott and Stuart Armstrong drifting centrally to outnumber and overrun Villa’s three-man midfield which has seen much praise since the addition of Ross Barkley; an approach very different to Leeds’ assault on full-backs Matty Cash and Matt Targett.
Casting the mind back to last season, this isn’t a new tactic when facing Dean Smith’s Villa. Brendan Rodgers also utilized this at Villa Park as Leicester City ran away 4-1 winners with full-backs Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell providing the width on that day.
This also had the knock-on effect of leaving marking assignments at the back, specifically with the two Matts, in two minds whether to follow or let them roam. More often than not they seemed to be allowed to roam; Walcott found himself between the defensive and midfield lines on a few occasions.
Thankfully, in open play, Southampton didn’t create many clear-cut goalscoring chances as can be seen by a total game xG (expected goals) of 0.86 or the result could have been a lot worse. With that being said, match analysis should have shown that James Ward-Prowse is arguably the most prolific free-kick taker in the whole league and preventative measures put in place that would have seen the Saints’ set piece threat nullified. My word can Ward-Prowse strike a dead ball though!
In football’s current tactical state, a few aspects of play tend to appear throughout teams that generally occupy the top few positions more often than not. Two of these were things we didn’t do very effectively on Sunday; pressing and in-possession movement off the ball.
A coordinated press is a vital weapon and it’s sad to say – despite Villa Twitter claiming we do – that we don’t have a consistent plan in this area. Smith talks a lot about setting ‘traps’ but in my opinion, a wholesale coordinated pressing game would provide much better results as was in the second half with Ross Barkley joining Watkins in the forward line to maintain pressure on a relatively immobile centre-back pairing of Jan Bednarek and Jannik Vestergaard.
When doing so we matched the two-man midfield of Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu – who hadn’t received the same help from Walcott and Armstrong as in the opening 45 minutes – with John McGinn and Douglas Luiz having much more success with winning the ball back. This needs to happen a lot more if we are to continue with our fine start.
Our movement off the ball when in possession was also a worrying feature as we appeared static for most of the game with players holding position unnecessarily. Compared with Southampton and our other loss this season – Leeds United – they seem to be very fluid and don’t mind straying from defined positions to open spaces for others and receive the ball. We simply did not.
When watching Man City, Liverpool and even the likes of Sheffield United from last season, players are constantly moving. Not to say we are better than the former two however, Man City constantly have runners in behind and make dummy runs to draw their opposition out of position. Barkley and McGinn could become very useful in making use of this in similar fashion.
Not quite like Sheffield United, but not far off…
A flicker of life, a light from the depths of the abyss grew brighter upon staring down the barrel of a second successive humiliation. From somewhere, Villa woke up from their slumber and went after the Saints, a reaction not seen in the loss to Leeds which was comforting to witness.
There can be no coincidence in the way Villa started to dominate the game at will when imposing a consistent press as mentioned upon Hasenhüttl’s side. With Barkley committing to pressuring the spare centre-back, Grealish and Trézéguet’s marking roles became pretty straight forward too, leaving them 1v1 against their respective opposition full-backs. Something they were not able to do with any conviction prior. This not only gave Villa the chance of winning the ball back more often but it also stopped Southampton’s threat out wide.
In addition to this, and maybe a bi-product of holding a higher position when out of possession, I feel that Barkley became more involved within the final third when attacking. Matty Cash’s replacement Ahmed Elmohamady showed a little more attacking intent and endeavored to create overloads down the right flank as well as Matt Targett getting more involved down the left where the bulk of the play was focused.
Whipped crosses were duly swatted away by the towering figures of Bednarek and Vestergaard for the most part, however Trézéguet – at the back post he often finds himself in – was denied by Saints’ McCarthy three times to keep his side ahead.
Despite conceding three remarkable goals with another by way of a horrendously inept marking system (likely zonal based on numerous images supplied by James Rushton) which meant our smallest player (McGinn) was marking Southampton’s tallest (Vestergaard), the spirited second half display proved that we have the ability to finish the season as a top half team at the very least.
Looking at graphs from Ben Mayhew from ‘Experimental 3-6-1′ (@experimental361), we have a very ‘busy attack’ and are a ‘constant threat’ with one of the better attacks in the league alongside a more middle-of-the-road defence.
It’s not a personnel problem…
Admittedly, I am one of the most reactionary people in face of a loss and will likely continue to be so for the rest of my days, however even upon reflection, I believe the problems faced in the past two matches are a result of system and organizational issues rather than personnel, as I have seen many mention on social media.
This is not to call anyone out for their views as I simply disagree without any malice, yet it seems like a very lazy solution to suggest the remedy would be to replace players such as Luiz and/or McGinn with another midfielder; Hourihane being the most suggested.
A distinct lack of press wouldn’t have been altered by any other player’s presence; it was apparent it was a tactical instruction rather than consequence of personnel when maintaining the mid-low block that allowed Southampton time on the ball early on.
One of the most frustrating things about being a Villa fan is the inconsistency in our approach to games both defensively and offensively. One minute we press and hound the opposition dog chasing a ball before relenting and having our bellies tickled. This can be resolved by a clear plan that is consistent throughout the full 90 minutes.
Our trip to the Emirates in 2019 was probably one of the most crushing losses I have ever experienced in my lifetime, not due to the narrow 3-2 score line, but because we had dominated for large parts and collapsed as was so common last season.
This time around we face a different proposition. Arsenal’s defence under Mikel Arteta, much like our own, has seen a vast improvement and they have conceded the least goals in the Premier League (7). That change in form can partly be attributed to moving to a three-man defence, and this is one aspect that should be taken advantage of on Sunday.
Looking back at how Croatia handled England’s back three in the 2018 World Cup is the barometer I usually look upon when thinking of how to set up against a three-at-the-back team. It requires a lot of trust in the midfield and defence to manage the threat of wing-backs, and even more so in Arsenal’s case as they typically set up within a 3-4-3 formation. Villa’s front three need to man mark the Arsenal back three; aside from the England vs Croatia game where Croatia executed this perfectly, Villa themselves did this against Swansea City when Dean Smith first joined and was one of the most impressive displays of his tenure to date.
This would force Arsenal to bypass their defence and stop them from playing out from the back which has been an adopted trait since Arteta took over last season. If Thomas Partey and whoever should fill the other half of the double pivot midfield can be stopped from dictating play from that position, then Villa have to find a way of stopping overloads out wide where Arsenal have dangerous players. Although surprisingly, the North London side have only scored 9 goals this season compared with Villa’s 15.
In attack, I don’t see the need to change much considering we are joint 5th highest scorers in the league aside from more movement from the likes of Ross Barkley and John McGinn who can play the shuttling ‘number 8’ roles, looking to stretch Arsenal’s wide centre-backs with runs in behind.
Supporters have noted Smith doesn’t often utilize a ‘Plan B’, so props to one supporter – Daniel Raza from ‘7500 to Holte’ and their podcast the ‘Holtecast’ – for the inspiration of playing Grealish as a ‘false 9’. This would potentially draw one of Arsenal’s backline out of position, creating space for others to move into or allow himself to drop off and dictate play between the lines. This is a very real alternative which could also facilitate Jack dropping to midfield and outnumbering a strong Arsenal double pivot.
Regardless of the result and the previous two defeats, to quote the club’s motto from the bad ownership of Randy Lerner, I think we have “Bright Future”.
By Jack Cudworth