After seven years of trudging up past Villa Park in my school years, I can categorically tell you that Aston is a dull place. Grey and melancholic, the drones of the Aston Expressway resonate throughout the tower blocks of inner city Birmingham into the strange mechanical atmosphere of hopelessness. What is perhaps even worse is that said despairing atmosphere has been largely reminiscent of Aston Villa’s performances over the last couple of seasons, particularly last season under Alex McLeish. However, despite the surrounding atmosphere after their showing at St James Park, it is safe to say that there will be a 105m x 68m patch of excitement to spark life into Aston over the coming months.
Much of this has to be accredited to Paul Lambert. In the broadest of senses, he is the most positive manager Aston Villa have had in the past few seasons. Especially with his work in the lower divisions, he strived for an expansive and dominating game at Norwich and largely looks set to continue this trend at Villa Park. And despite a poor start to the season we can see Lambert attempting to drag the Midlands club into the 21st century tactically and revolutionize the way that Villa approach the game.
Initially, let’s look at the approach of Villa under the McLeish era. The maps above show all attempted passes in two home draws last season. As is obvious, the long ball was attempted a lot and to extremely limited success. The centre circle is sparsely populated with passes, and whenever Villa were able to get forward it was mainly down the flanks. Finally, the overall pass completion rate was at 71% and 66% respectively. Though only two games, these maps are indicative of last season’s Villa; uninspired long balls, unsuccessful wide play and unbearably wasteful in possession.
Now we can contrast this with Lambert’s Aston Villa, more specifically the pass maps of the two central midfielders in the disappointing loss to West Ham on the opening day of the season. Though the result was not pleasing for the Villa faithful, the signs were positive in midfield. The long ball was still largely unsuccessful, but also a lot less common a tactic among the central pairing, preferring to shift the ball around centrally than punt it forwards. To further evidence this, in the Newcastle game both Stephen Ireland and Karim El Ahmadi managed a 90% pass completion rate as the pair were positioned at the top and bottom of a midfield diamond respectively. Such high rates would not be possible if the long ball were a common feature of Villa’s play.
To further strive to control the midfield play, Lambert is using his traditionally wide players in this diamond formation in an inverted, central role. This is more reminiscent of Manchester City’s use of inverted playmakers than the wide play of Manchester United for example, and has helped Villa try to emerge victorious in the battle for midfield (one that was largely lost last season). Brett Holman’s pass map (above left) shows that for a wide player, he was present in all areas of the pitch and this has to be intentional by Lambert — the team’s narrowness evidently an attempt to control the middle of the pitch, and thus control the game. This places the need for width on the fullbacks and in an attacking sense this was partly successful against Newcastle with Hatem Ben Arfa having to drift central more often to try balance the play in the centre of the park. And if Aston Villa can dominate Cabaye and Anita in the centre, then most two man midfields in the Premier League will find it difficult against this system.
However, it is important to stress how far from the finished product Lambert’s work is. With the narrow midfield, the full backs were often left with little support, as evidenced by the number of crosses put into the box by Newcastle on Sunday – Villa only being saved by Brad Guzan’s aerial dominance. Furthermore, though both Ireland and El Ahmadi are incisive passers, neither have fully been able to combine effectively with the front pair, who were in turn often left rather isolated on Sunday (Villa had only had four shots on target before the Newcastle match). In addition, players such as Barry Bannan are yet to shake off the chains of the old style Villa, attempting a long range pass instead of playing to keep possession. However, through the centre of the pitch, Aston Villa look to be an improved side, and whilst it is close to impossible to predict how this Villa side will do this season, it seems that the games at Villa Park will at least be providing a bit more excitement and quality in the season to come.
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