Soccer is a fickle world. Mere months ago, Aston Villa under Tim Sherwood were playing exciting football, with 4-0 wins against Sunderland and a come from behind victory against Liverpool in a cup semi-final at Wembley. Sherwood was planning on building something over a period of time at Villa, already having put into place steps to promote more youth players to the first team. Yet now he’s out of the job, after six consecutive losses.
Simplifying it, teams that are at the bottom end of the table either can’t score or can’t defend. Villa have experienced both extremes in the space of little more than a year. Paul Lambert set Villa up in a hugely negative way, regularly with less than 40% of possession, even against sides with the same stature as them.
At times, this structure did translate into fast-pace counterattacking with Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann at its forefront, but too often it was stale and uninspiring. Lambert won less than 30% of his games in charge, but drew almost a quarter of them. For a club with Villa’s resources (9th highest turnover and 9th highest wage bill), that’s poor to say the least.
Tim Sherwood entered and immediately scrapped the old formation. Gung-ho to the point of obduracy, he played a far more expansive game. This season, Villa regularly earned over 50% of possession, and had no trouble scoring. The club have scored the same amount of goals as Liverpool and more than a Watford side that sits 7 places above them with triple the points. The problem is that they keep conceding, even when discretion is the better part of valor.
At times this season, Sherwood played with three strikers on the pitch, and during games earlier this season he consistently withdrew midfielders for forwards, including in two games that were lost at Leicester and Crystal Palace. Removing a defensive midfielder in Carlos Sanchez against a team that breaks quickly in Crystal Palace was a mistake, and bringing on a forward in Jordan Ayew for a midfielder in Carles Gil against Leicester unbalanced the team when they were looking comfortable to win three points.
Even against Swansea on Saturday, Sherwood started with three strikers and Jack Grealish, none of whom do much defensive work, in his front four. And when one striker in Gabriel Agbonlahor was withdrawn, he was replaced by former Barcelona forward Adama Traore. Villa had no problem creating chances. They shot roughly the same amount of times as Swansea, were not drastically out-passed and had far more crosses, their preferred method of attack on the day when Rudy Gestede was the most central of their strikers.
But they did not devote much time to shutting Swansea down, and when a side’s offense revolves so much around physicality and battering opponents with big strikers and lung-bursting runs down the wing to provide crosses for them, it is natural that gaps will appear as players tire late on. It wasn’t surprising to see nobody keeping up with Andre Ayew as he was first to a cross to bundle in a late winner. Keeping this in mind, the fact that Sherwood only made two substitutions, and both offensive ones, was criminal, especially when Villa had scored first.
Tim Sherwood did the right thing when he first arrived in Birmingham in making the side more open. After all, scoring a point a game isn’t enough to keep Premier League status when there’s three points at stake. And it’s telling that even after six defeats on the trot, his win percentage of 35% is far higher than Paul Lambert’s. However his refusal to take a backward step, to get the first goal and then man the barricades was costly.
It’s a pity for Villa because when a new manager comes in, the first thing he’ll naturally want to do (as a signal to the press that he’s a steady hand as much as anything) is tighten up at the back. Villa will be more compact. Jack Grealish may go unused, and creativity will be a very low priority.
But this may merely bring Villa back to the problems they had before Sherwood arrived in that their negativity was preventing them getting into winning positions. A new manager shouldn’t batten down the hatches immediately, but rather tweak things so as to ensure the club doesn’t squander the good positions they were getting into.
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