The Problem of Aston Villa’s Jekyll and Hyde Midfield and Other Concerns

Good, Bad and Ugly of the Villa Week

By Phil Shaw

I think it’s time for a good old-fashioned huff about Villa’s performance versus Watford, followed by complete bemusement at how well they played against Brighton in the Good, Bad and Ugly of Villa’s week.

The Good and Bad

Hmmm… Even the most ardent Villa watcher can’t help but describe the last two performances as Jekyll and Hyde.

Aston Villa were horrendous against Watford and efficient against Brighton, with minimal lineup and formation changes in between.

So, what was the bottled lightning that was harnessed against Brighton?

Against Watford, the issues with midfield were obvious.

From a bird’s-eye view, there’s too much space when Villa don’t have the ball. Teams don’t need to do anything special to cut through Villa’s midfield except force an error and look up.

When Cash and Digne, attack and play high, Ramsey and McGinn slide across to cover the full back position, or at least in theory they do.

If they aren’t disciplined enough to do so, they drift into the middle and end up in a halfway house between, full back cover and a narrow midfield.

This leaves any team countering Villa with a wide open berth between Douglas Luiz and either of his fellow midfielders to hit. Hit this, and you are straight onto Villa’s two centre backs.

If Luiz is the one caught upfield, the issue is compounded, as he isn’t even at home.

The eagerness to join up with the attack has to be tempered with the discipline to perform in a midfield role, and currently this is what is killed Villa against Newcastle and then Watford.

Naturally, the line-up announced for the Brighton game had people scratching their heads, as it appeared the same.

Yet, the performance was anything but. The difference was night and day.

Gerrard’s tactic is a risky formation, but not one beyond the players. What the system doesn’t account for is desperation.

It’s all about control. Everything should be done with patience and a level head.

Against teams Villa should be beating, a kind of panic sets in, and the fundamentals that make the formation work, get ignored.

Against an equal or better team, the desperation to score with every possession isn’t there, and you can see the weight being lifted from the players.

You see simple passing, Ramsey and McGinn in their proper positions and Douglas Luiz, mostly shielding the back four, instead of being bypassed.

Against Watford, the decision-making in the final third was poor.

If you look at Watford’s goal, the simple thing to do is criticise Young, for not tracking his man.

Flip this on it’s head and just look at how many times, Villa players get into the same position as Saar at the other end and do nothing with it.

Sarr simply floated a decent ball into the area and Dennis reacted first.

I can think of at least three or four occasions when Villa were in an equally advanced location and the ball didn’t come in, the cross was overhit, or it was recycled and lost in midfield.

Skip to Brighton, and Villa looked deadly every time they approached the final third.

It can’t be as simple as Buendia missing out, can it?

Buendia has been excellent in recent games, and his omission from the starting line-up was a bit of a surprise.

Without him, you then had the much maligned Watkins and Ings partnership, but here was the slight difference.

Watkins was back in his familiar focal point of attack, showing the one man pressing machine qualities that had him around the England squad.

Ings, dropped into a deeper role, and because he has such an accomplished footballing brain, was able to play, not as a ten, but a supporting striker.

Ings, joy at Watkins goal, showed someone who knew what his role was on the day.

What this means for Buendia moving forward will be interesting to see.

Villan of the Week – Matty Cash

Maintaining the theme, Matty Cash had a horror show against Watford, getting hooked after a completely ineffective display.

Then he was a man reborn against Brighton, scoring an exceptional goal and dedicating it to his international teammate, stuck in Ukraine.

The decision to book him for the celebration was tone-deaf to say the least.

Cash conducted himself perfectly for the rest of the game and avoided another booking.

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The Ugly

It’s more the missing ugliness this week…

For about a decade or more, Villa Park has been an easy away day for sides. It’s no wonder Gary Neville lists it as his favourite away ground.

Nice ground, pitch like a carpet and good facilities.

Better than that, the home team don’t make it difficult for you.

The last two home games have seen ridiculous levels of game management from both Leeds and Watford.

While they’ve earned the right to do this, they are being let off the hook far too easily by the referee and in turn by Villa.

Could you imagine an away team doing the same at Old Trafford, The Etihad or Anfield? No chance.

The apathy around weak referees, time-wasting players and gamesmanship needs to end at Villa Park immediately.

From the coaching staff, to the players, Villa have to push the boundaries and make their home an ugly place to visit.

If a player, lies down an inch from the line for treatment, ‘help them’ over the final inch. At least make the referee do it.

When the opposition team are on a counter, stop them early.

Most importantly, force the issue.

Force the referee to make a decision, make the opposition keeper make a save, get deliveries in that actually make their defence work for a living, and the rest will come.

If Villa Park continues to be a holiday camp for away sides, then ugly results like Watford will haunt Villa for another decade

This week, against a streetwise Southampton, Villa need to make Villa Park less hospitable.


Follow Phil on Twitter at @prsgame

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  1. Villa should take a look at Florian Wirtz of German side Bayer Leverkusen at 18 a regular starter Already capped 4 times at National level with all the Grealish attributes, the ability to carry the ball and drag the whole team with him before releasing the killer ball or striking himself a really extraordinary talent at such a young age, glides across the pitch low centre of gravity hard to knock of the ball and a consistent performer, don’t know if we could afford him though. UTV

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