Aston Villa started their Premier League campaign with a laboured 1-0 win at Villa Park against a 10-men Sheffield United, courtesy of a second-half goal by Ezri Konsa which proved just enough to settle a dour match. Last time when the Blades faced Villa, it was a glitch in the goal line technology that vexed Chris Wilder’s men. While this time it was an early red card for the Blades’ captain John Egan and a moment of class from the former Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez that helped Villa hold on to a slender lead and win their first match of the season. Villa pressured the former EFL side from the word go and looked to keep their defence on their feet. They looked the better side even before the dismissal of Egan. Without their captain, the Blades switched to a back four. Thus, Villa gained more control in the game and tried to turn the screw.
This tactical analysis will show you how Villa earned the three points in their opening fixture of the season and how Sheffield continued their disappointing start to the season. The analysis will also show you how Dean Smith’s tactics helped Villa to control possession and keep Sheffield’s attackers at bay.
Aston Villa finished 17th last season, and they aspired to do much more than repeating last season’s escape from relegation. Thus, all of Villa’s new recruits started the game and showed their value. Martinez started in between the goals, commanded his area well and participated boldly when Villa started their build-up from the back. The former club record signing Ollie Watkins lead the attack line cleverly. Matty Cash made a good impression by regularly supplying crosses from the right side for Villa. The talismanic club captain Jack Grealish started on the left wing while Trezeguet occupied the opposite flank. We saw Matt Targett slotting in at the left-back position and Tyrone Mings and Konsa started as the centre-backs putting in a solid performance. While Douglas Luiz, John McGinn and Conor Hourihane formed the midfield trio for Villa who controlled the ball in the middle of the park for Villa.
The Blades started the match in their usual 3-5-2 formation. Even though they got reduced to 10-men in the 12th minute, John Lundstram had a chance to equalize for the Blades in the 36th minute. Martinez saved his penalty. Chris Wilder made three changes to the side after their last week’s defeat against Wolves FC. New signing Oliver Burke started in attack with David McGoldrick and, Billy Sharp and Oliver McBurnie made their way to the bench. Sander Berge was picked ahead of Oliver Norwood and started in the heart of the midfield five. While Egan took the captain’s armband and slotted into the heart of the defence. The Blades named new loan signing Ethan Ampadu from Chelsea on the bench. They switched to different formations throughout the match after Egan was sent off. This is something we’ll be looking at as well in this tactical analysis.
Villa’s build-up play
As we all know, Sheffield is a team which possesses a very simple yet effective pressing scheme. They like to press high up the field and with high intensity. In this match, Sheffield defended in a 5-3-2 formation without the ball. McGoldrick and Burke were tasked with pressing Villa’s centre-backs. Dean Smith used different tactics for Villa’s build-up play to beat Sheffield’s high press. We will now have a look at them.
For the first eleven minutes and from the 68th minute till the end, Villa made use of this build-up play tactic. As you can see here, Luiz slots in between the Mings and Konsa who have split out wide and, receives a pass from Martinez. In such scenarios, we would see McGinn or Hourihane (both not in picture) drop to link up play as a single pivot. This would create a 4 v 3 situation as a United midfielder would follow McGinn or Hourihane. Thus, it allowed Mings or Konsa to move up and progress the ball with ease. In the second half after the 68th minute, it became relatively much easier because Sheffield was a man down and got outnumbered in the middle third.
There were times, Sheffield committed more men and pressed with even higher intensity. As you can see here, Luiz forms a double pivot with Hourihane. Hence, they gave passing options to their defenders, but Sheffield didn’t hold back, and they went man to man. Then we would see, McGinn (not in picture) dropping from the centre of the pitch to give an extra option. He dragged another Sheffield’s player with him. Then, he had the option to play a first-time simple pass to either Cash or Targett on their respective flanks. In this way, Villa could advance the ball using their full backs. They were free to break forward as the two lines of pressure were beaten.
The Blades lost their captain, Egan because of a red card in the 12th minute. It became relatively easy for Villa to move the ball around as the opposition was a man down. In the above picture, we can see McGinn moving up and has positioned himself in between the second and third line of press. He operated in a more advanced position to provide an extra attacking option. Sometimes he was also found on the shoulders of one of the opposition defenders.
Villa’s attacking tactics
Both teams created a fair share of chances in the match, the Blades had a xG of 0.9 while Villa possessed a xG of 1.45. Most of Villa’s attacks were through the middle and the left flank, 28% and 48% respectively. Luiz was the player most involved in Villa’s build-up play and attacks. He sat in his usual deep-lying playmaker role and completed 87 passes at an impressive accuracy of 94%. His distribution was excellent and looked to spread the ball out quickly and crisply.
As you can see in the above picture, Trezeguet has positioned himself in between the left centre-back and left wing-back and Watkins starts wide from the left flank, angling his run in between the right centre-back and right wing-back. As we know, the Blades like to use the channels to attack. Most of the times, their wing-backs operate in the final third to whip the ball into the box. We have also seen Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell join the attack by making overlapping or under-lapping runs. Thus, Smith instructed both to operate wide and angle their run inwards to exploit the spaces left behind the opposition defenders. Hence, Villa’s most creative players Grealish and McGinn were playing in between the lines to break the Blades’ rigid defence.
Dean Smith gave McGinn the license to roam in the final third. As you can see here, McGinn makes a diagonal run towards the left flank in between Egan and Basham. In such scenarios, usually one of Villa’s midfielders would play a through ball or a long pass into his path towards the corner flag. In this way, Villa could open up the Blades’ defence and get into the final third. Similarly, his dummy runs would stretch the opposition defence and allowed Targett to get in behind Basham and George Baldock. The midfielders would then play the ball into the path of Targett who would break into space and cross the ball into the opposition box. Apart from this McGinn did not have much of an impact on the game.
Villa’s captain was at the heart of everything throughout the match. He put up a very strong showing on Monday evening. Grealish completed eight of his 11 attempted dribbles as he tried desperately to muster up some magic every time. He attempted three shots out of which nearly twice he came close to scoring a goal. Grealish kept finding space to unleash his shots on to the opposition goal. The English midfielder was present all over the pitch as he tried to break the Blades’ defence and had a game high 15 touches in the penalty box.
The Blades’ defence was solid for most of the game even though they were a man down. 27 of Villa’s attacks were from the left flank which is a staggering 48%. As Villa could not score a goal, they started getting frustrated. Hence, they sent more men forward into the opposition box. Because of Grealish moving freely all over the pitch, Targett had the entire left flank to himself. He started the game well and tried to unlock Sheffield’s right side with some combination play with Hourihane and Grealish. Targett attempted a game high 10 crosses out of which only two were successful in reaching his teammates because of the lack of any physical presence in the opposition box. It was his corner which Mings flicked with his head, leading to the only goal of the game by Konsa.
Tactical decisions made by Chris Wilder
After the Blades’ captain received a red, they failed to recover, and their task had become much harder. Sheffield kept things tidy at the bad and their organisation was superb. Everything Villa threw at them, they pushed it back. They played narrow and kept it tight in middle with two banks of four, forcing Villa wide. We’ll now look at what all tactical decisions he made after the sending off.
As you can see here, Egan is tussling with Watkins, who looked to be in on goal to a downfield pass from Mings in the 12th minute of the match. Watkins did enough to induce a foul from Egan, thus Egan was dismissed for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
Sheffield made a positive start to the game, but losing Egan was a huge setback for them. As you can see here, the Blades switched to a 4-4-1 formation in which McGoldrick moved to the left side of the midfield four and Lundstram moved to the right. The wing-backs Enda Stevens and Baldock pushed back into the back four. Thus, they defended with two banks of four in front of their goal in a low block. Villa enjoyed a lot more possession now and picked their moments to attack the Blades.
In the 31st minute Wilder sacrificed McGoldrick and Ampadu slotted in as a centre-back releasing Basham into the right side of the midfield four and John Fleck moved to the left side. Lundstram released Burke on the left flank with a through ball from the middle. Burke cuts in field towards the centre and plays a love through ball into the path of Basham. Targett commits a foul by bringing down Basham. After a lengthy VAR review, the Blades were rewarded with a penalty in the 36th minute. Martinez flings himself full-length to his right to paw away Lundstram’s spot kick. Thus, the Blades failed to take advantage.
Sheffield switched to a 4-3-2 formation in the 68th minute when Ben Osborn was brought in place of Fleck and Basham gave way to McBurnie. Osborn slotted in as a left centre midfielder and was given the license to attack the space between Cash and Konsa. Wilder went for two up top with McBurnie alongside Burke in search of an equaliser.
Villa controlled 74% of the possession and played with patience by keeping it simple. They created many half chances, but an enduring Sheffield kept them quiet. The Blades looked threatening on the counter even though they were a man short and spilled the chances they got in the opposition box. Villa put them under pressure for most of the match, but the Blades could defend the series of dangerous crosses from them. Martinez enjoyed a serene start to his career at Villa and ensured that Lundstram did not ruin it. This defeat was Sheffield’s fifth in a row in the Premier League which started from the end of last season. Meanwhile, Villa continued their excellent form and are unbeaten in their last five Premier League matches.