Why attack is the best form of defence for Aston Villa


Sometimes, attack really can be the best form of defence. Aston Villa have epitomised this since football returned from lockdown. In the 13 matches played, Dean Smith’s men have conceded, on average, one goal per game. Before lockdown, the Villans were conceding two goals per 90. 

It’s been a remarkable turnaround and one that very few teams manage for a number of reasons. More often than not in football, teams looking to defend will sit deep and soak up pressure. They forfeit space and possession and instead look to clog up the centre of the pitch. 

In theory, this does make sense but teams are then overly reliant on players keeping their full concentration for the entirety of the match. When a team sit so deep, one mistake can undo all of their hard work. Goal difference matters and come the end of the season, a 1-0 loss could be what saves a team from relegation. The margins are sometimes that fine. 

The problem with that, however, is it’s difficult to go through the gears when the possibility to do so is there. If a team spends 80 per cent of their time defending a compact area, asking them to defend a larger one can cause problems. Especially if the adjustment comes during the season.  

But lockdown presented Smith and his coaching staff with an opportunity to tweak a few things. They certainly made the most of it.  

Aston Villa's average positions in the Premier League before and after lockdown.

The graphic above shows average positions, based on touches. It’s evident that Villa have been far more aggressive in their style since Project Restart. Their entire defensive unit, and that includes the defensive midfielder, are further up the pitch. The goalkeeper is ever so slightly advanced too. There seems to be a far greater balance to the midfield and the forward line.

The space between centre-backs and the centre-forward is now smaller, meaning there are more players in a more condensed area. It’s easier to press as a team and dictate what the opposition can or cannot do.

Passing networks in the Premier League before and after lockdown.

It’s a similar story with the Villa pass maps. The full-backs are higher, the defensive midfielder, Douglas Luiz, is much more involved and Smith has orchestrated it so that Jack Grealish has even more team-mates supporting him. When the England international has players nearby and runners to pick out, he can reach his devastating best.

Grealish put on a creative clinic against Liverpool in the emphatic 7-2 win, linking up superbly with Ollie Watkins, Ross Barkley and Matt Targett on that left flank.

Aston Villa's defensive action areas in the Premier League before and after lockdown.

The defensive zones per player graphic, seen above, highlights where defenders do most of their work. Pre-lockdown, the majority of their actions arrived in their defensive third. Post-lockdown, though, they’ve been much more advanced.

It’s a high risk, high reward approach but the sooner you can stop attacks, the easier it is to control the game. Villa are proactive in their approach and are now looking to engage more frequently near the halfway line.

Shots against map in the Premier League before and after lockdown.

This style helps with negating the opposition. The shot maps above show those faced by Villa. This sort of graphic is heavily influenced by volume and the fact the sample size for pre-lockdown is larger than post-lockdown will skew things a little. But, what you can quite clearly see is that Smith’s side aren’t allowing as many efforts inside the six-yard box. Furthermore, the goalkeeper is making two fewer saves per 90 while having a better clean sheet record. It’s all positive.

This all stems from Villa moving their team up ever so slightly. This tweak has improved their defence and unleashed their attack. The additions of Barkley and Watkins, along with the return of John McGinn will only improve their chances.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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