The exciting Friday night fixture between Aston Villa and Leeds United set the tempo for matchday six in the Premier League. Patrick Bamford’s formidable hat-trick was the difference between two sides that have massively impressed so far this season.
The outcome of the match was determined by a combination of the respective teams’ systems, as well as individual performances. Villa’s pressing in the first half was specifically aimed at nullifying Leeds’ systemic build-up play. Leeds fascinatingly responded to this by altering the length of their passes in the second half, ultimately overwhelming their opponents.
The overarching tactics were in tandem with individual moments, such as Marcelo Bielsa’s decision to substitute Pascal Struijik in the 20th minute. We provide a tactical analysis of an open 90 minutes played at a fairly high tempo. Our analysis particularly focuses on central control in various areas of the pitch.
Aston Villa’s 4-3-3 often transposed into a 4-2-3-1 off the ball, with Douglas Luiz and John McGinn operating as double pivots, and Ross Barkley playing as a roaming number 10. Moreover, Luiz was the deepest of the three midfielders on the ball, as their shape resembled a 4-1-4-1 moving forward.
With Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper both out injured, Bielsa’s Leeds set up in a 4-4-1-1, instead of their signature 4-1-4-1. Klich played deeper to provide extra support for Luke Ayling, who filled in at centre-back. Rodrigo was, therefore, the most advanced of the midfielders playing the ‘enganche’ role.
Bielsa believes that as matches go on, teams often look like mirror images of each other. This can surely be observed laterally in the following image. The average positioning of the players for both teams seems inverted on the four corners of the pitch. This is not a coincidence, as it details the friction between Leeds’ shape of four when passing the ball from the back, and Villa’s shape of four while pressing them. Furthermore, the difference in the average positioning of Struijik and Jamie Shackleton highlights the start of Leeds United adapting to solve problems posed by their opponents.
In addition, an equidistance can be observed in Aston Villa’s average positions. This has a tactical purpose due to Villa’s style of play which is detailed in the following section.
Aston Villa’s build-up and pressing
Aston Villa’s build-up play is noteworthy in terms of their focus on ball progression. When in possession, they tend to employ a combination of quick short passes, followed by a long pass. The nature of the long pass is a percentage ball i.e. passing it into an area where the target man is in a 50-50 with the opposing defender. This enables the team to move further up the pitch and have favourable second-ball situations.
In the above image. McGinn’s involvement in a sequence of short passes during a transition prompts him to make a forward run. Ross Barkley then plays it long instead of making the easier pass out wide. The quick percentage ball allowed Villa to progress the ball further, without making a large number of passes.
Having a low volume of passes in proportion to the time spent in their opponents’ half is quite indicative of Villa’s style of play. Consider the overall density of passes made by Villa in the following grid.
For a team that had 103 possessions, as opposed to Leeds’ 110, Villa had a significantly low number of passes. This is further highlighted in McGinn’s notably low pass frequency. Normally, the Scottish international is heavily involved in Villa’s attacks, despite having one of the lowest pass combinations with his teammates. This indicates that his involvement is manifested through forward runs, dribbles and positioning for shots. McGinn’s personification of Villa’s style has been noted by several data analysts in the past.
Off the ball, Villa’s press was designed to specifically counteract Leeds’ bread and butter of ball progression. When passing it from the back, Leeds like to move the ball through the formation of rhombuses on the corners of the pitch. This shape always gives them one extra man in the build-up. Villa’s midfield was set up to prevent these overloads and pressure Leeds’ shape.
Knowing Leeds’ exclusive use of the flanks, Luiz and McGinn form a double-pivot to track third-man runs, while Barkley serves as the extra player to block passing lanes upfront. This assertive approach brought Villa a lot of joy in the first half. In the following position, a combination of Aston Villa’s build-up and pressing are at play.
A percentage ball played by Villa resulted in a throw-in for Leeds on the right flank of their own half. Villa were willing to concede the central areas in this chunk of space is indicative of the homework they did. Leeds are the ones to normally concede the centre in these areas, occupying spaces surrounding them instead. Though Mateusz Klich slips into the centre to receive the ball, Villa’s restraint and positioning allowed them to win the ball higher up the pitch, leading to a chance.
Therefore, the equidistance in Villa’s shape has certainly been enforced on the training ground. It allows them to be flexible enough to play short passes, be available for a long pass, press on the flanks and win second balls. While it served them well in the first half, Leeds picked them apart through exploiting the spaces between Villa’s players in the second half.
Leeds’ game management and problem-solving
A rule of thumb to understand Bielsa’s positional play is through his approach to controlling the centre. Instead of occupying it through their players, they surround it in anticipation of a favourable pressing scenario. Furthermore, conceding the centre permits them to have an extra man in the build-up phase.
The above image highlights how Leeds use their number eights to create an overload on one side of the pitch. They tend to form rhombuses to surround the centre of certain chunks of the pitch, and use rotations to maintain the flow of ball progression.
Against Villa on the day, however, they started poorly. This was due to a combination of their opponents’ pressing and the absence of Kalvin Phillips and Cooper. Bielsa’s reaction was commendable, as he made a few notable tactical changes. First, he brought Shackleton on for Struijik as early as the 20th minute. This was not only because Struijik was on a yellow card, but also because his average position was too advanced. Shackleton provided better defensive solidity and had notably better chemistry with Klich.
In the second half, Leeds played longer and slightly riskier passes, designed to test Villa’s shape. Seeing as Villa were so determined to block Leeds on the flanks, Leeds decided to occupy (instead of routinely surrounding) the centre to expose gaps in their opponents’ midfield.
After a quick switch permitted by a long ball, Leeds’ central midfielders got forward to occupy the central space, instead of surrounding the central space. This was surely a conscious tactical change at half-time, because of the respective positioning of Aston Villa’s midfielders. In terms of distance, they should each be able to track their opponents’ runs. However, their body positioning suggests that they are too focused on stopping an overload on either flank.
Leeds were, relative to their own style, more direct. They continued to employ their plan A with positional tweaks. Conversely, Villa’s inertia to react to Leeds’ tactical change was telling. In the above image, Leeds expose Matt Targett’s overextended positioning. In an almost autopiloted manner, Targett looks to block passing lanes to Helder Costa. However, Leeds trigger an overload that is more central. Consequently, Tyrone Mings has three runs to track; Mings saw a lot of Leeds players play on his shoulder, as he had a nightmare of a second-half.
Leeds kept knocking on the door – over and over again, and, while they had problems to solve at first, they eventually broke the door down.
With an outstanding 26 shots (10 on target) and an xG of 3.83 against a team that humiliated the champions, Leeds put on a tactical clinic. Klich was absolutely pivotal, with 10 recoveries. He further had the most successful passes, 47, and a pass accuracy of 85%. His match IQ was evident, as his leadership heavily contributed to Leeds imposing their will on their opponents.
Jack Harrison was arguably the unsung hero of the match. His work rate was at another level. He registered six deep completions, five key passes and four shot assists. He particularly linked up well with the hat-trick hero, Bamford. Out of the three goals scored, the striker’s individual xG was 2.35 – quite close to the scoreline, which highlights the effectiveness of Bielsa’s system.
Conversely, the presence of Villa’s individual talent in Jack Grealish was certainly felt on the pitch. Grealish had 10 touches in the opponent’s penalty area, and 12 out of 16 successful dribbles (by far the most of all players on the pitch). His dribbling skills bypassed Leeds’ strength in numbers, as one of his solo efforts would have been a goal of the season contender. Ultimately, however, Villa lacked the final pass moving forward.
This was a tale of one team solving their problems through a tactical change, and the other not adapting quick enough. Aston Villa were succeeding in their pre-planned approach until they conceded. Their defence was then unable to adapt to the positional changes made by their opposition. Leeds, on the other hand, simply overwhelmed their opposition time after time.
The average IQ of each Leeds player resonates with Bielsa’s complex demands. At this rate, it is not ludicrous to claim that Leeds could challenge for the top six of the Premier League this season. They are now three points behind Everton and Liverpool. Conversely, this was Aston Villa’s first loss in a more than impressive start. They would deem themselves as favourites against Southampton at home in their next game.
In this match report, we elaborated on the significance of the centre in a tactically rich game between two teams with unique styles of football. Given the tactical subtleties of the match, analysts would be in agreement on the positive progress made by both teams since coming up from the Championship.