Last season Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti spoke candidly about the need to find the right ‘balance’ between defence and attack, “It was a problem of balance. There was a lot of space between our defence and midfield” Ancelotti mused.
The veteran Italian boss had won four Champions League titles with Milan (two as a player and two as manager), but he struggled to find the right formula in his early days at the Santiago Bernabeu. That was, of course, until Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso returned from injury which gave Madrid the balance they needed.
Paul Lambert’s ‘balance’ problem, in contrast to Ancelotti, is that his team are struggling to create enough chances despite keeping three clean sheets this season. The issue of creativity is a problem that has persisted from last year where Villa averaged two shots on target per game. This season Villa are statistically worse with seven shots on target from the opening five games.
Focus has mainly been drawn to the team’s defensive record after positive displays against Stoke, Newcastle and Liverpool, but having failed to score against Newcastle and Arsenal, the Villa manager must now look for improvement in the attacking third.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Villa are missing Christian Benteke who is due to return from injury imminently, but the Villa manager must find a way for his team to become more effective as an attacking unit.
Villa’s strikers Gabby Agbonlahor (18 touches of the ball) and Weimann (11 touches of the ball) could not get into the game against Arsenal with Sanchez, Richardson and Weimann guilty of carelessness in possession and a lack of composure.
Much was made of the fact that Agbonlahor only completed three of his five passes, but in his defence, he didn’t receive much support from the five players in midfield. Only Delph appeared willing to link play by breaking through the lines and exchanging passes with the strikers when the game was still 0 – 0.
Of the six chances Aston Villa created, four were from set-pieces and two were from open play. Villa have to create more chances as a team and not rely on set-piece deliveries.
Time for Grealish to Step Up?
The second issue that Lambert faces is that he simply must find a way to include Jack Grealish in the starting line-up.
The 19-year-old played within himself in the second half against Arsenal (following team orders to keep the score down) but he showed enough flashes of ability, composure and technique to demonstrate that he should have a more permanent place in the team from now on.
Grealish completed all of his 14 passes and disrupted Arsenal’s flow by holding onto the ball and attracting fouls from Callum Chambers.
Grealish was an oasis of calm in contrast to the more frantic Kieran Richardson who completed only 53% of his 17 passes. Richardson also seemed to lack composure as six of his attempted forward passes failed to find a teammate which helped Arsenal dominate possession.
The experienced Colombian international Carlos Sanchez also fluffed his lines on a number of occasions, but in fairness to him he has not had much of a pre-season and looked short of match sharpness.
Ashley Westwood (the man Sanchez replaced at the last-minute) has been a calming influence in the middle of the pitch with an ability to slow down play which was missing on Saturday, after he was the most important victim of the virus that plagued the Villa squad.
The Benteke Void
One of Villa’s problems, when Benteke has been absent from the team, is that the forwards have failed to keep possession of the ball or make intelligent decisions. Villa are missing a player in the final third of the pitch who has the close control and composure to find the right pass and maintain possession. Jack Grealish possesses these attributes and in my opinion he should be handed the number ten role by Paul Lambert.
Grealish’s ability to play in a central position is not in doubt. The youngster regularly ghosts in between the lines, evades tackles and uses his balance and body position to protect the ball. Grealish has developed increasingly impressive combination play with his teammates and never looks rushed on the ball.
In addition, the 19-year-old midfielder has a picture of the play around him and shows intelligence beyond his years in the attacking third. Retiring Villa academy director Bryan Jones told The Guardian last week,
“He has the gift, something most players just haven’t got: awareness, he sees passes other players don’t see.”
Grealish’s ability as a creative player could be seen in his performances for Notts County last season and throughout pre-season for Aston Villa. In a match against Colchester the leggy winger dribbled from within his own half, beat Tom Eastman (twice), dragged the ball back and executed a delicious pausa before playing a through ball to Gary Liddle who scored. Against Port Vale, Grealish made two assists for Jamal Campbell-Ryce following equally impressive dribbles.
For the first assist, Grealish showed that he can penetrate defences and create a numerical advantage in the box. The youngster beat two defenders with close control, a pivot and a feint which caused the Port Vale defender to go to ground. Grealish was then able to execute a simple pass to the unmarked Campbell-Ryce who scored. Grealish further disrupted Port Vale’s defensive line for his second assist as Vale defenders didn’t know whether to commit to a challenge or maintain shape as the youngster drifted in between lines. Grealish’s ability to attract defenders opened up space for Campbell-Ryce to arrive late in the box and collect the winger’s perfectly waited pass which he neatly slotted home.
A Grealish Formation
The 19-year-old winger, through a sequence of attacking moves, shows that he can add much-needed penetration, intelligence and ‘la pausa’ to Villa’s attacking play. However, there is a trade off when playing a youngster in the team and sufficient protection will be needed as Grealish adapts to the pace and intensity of the Premier League. It is likely therefore that Lambert would need to adapt his formation to get the best from the talented youngster.
In the next fixture Villa are playing Chelsea and Lambert would be forgiven for taking a cautious approach. Villa must deny Chelsea space to play through the middle and prevent Hazard and Oscar from cutting inside and having a shot.
Grealish could operate as a 10 behind Agbonlahor with the protection of a three of Westwood, Delph and Cleverley in a 3-5-1-1 formation. The threat of Grealish’s invention and Agbonlahor’s pace on the break would pose Mourinho’s Chelsea some interesting questions. The combination of Grealish and Agbonlahor would be less predictable than Weimann and Agbonlahor who are similar players in many ways.
Grealish’s former teammate, the pacy Jamal Campbell-Ryce, enjoyed the ball to be played inside the full back to sprint onto, similarly to both Weimann and Agbonlahor. Grealish’s second assist for Campbell-Ryce versus Port Vale demonstrates that he is capable of utlising the pace of his teammates in an intelligent way to make the team more effective.
The youngster’s clever decision making should benefit the likes of Weimann and Agbonlahor, whilst his ability to hold up play and maintain possession could assist Villa’s midfield runners, Delph and Cleverley.
Paul Lambert’s quest for ‘balance’ therefore should look no further than the beautifully balanced Jack Grealish.
The concept of ‘la pausa’ which Grealish has in his locker is the moment when the top players seem to put others around them on hold while they pick their next pass – experts include David Silva and Juan Mata. It’s an ability to put the brakes on, to feint and bluff the opposing player that’s trying to tackle you, who will then be committed and taken out of play.
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