Probably no Premier League team has had as difficult a start as Aston Villa. They have already played away to Arsenal and Chelsea, while hosting Liverpool and Manchester City with Tottenham on the horizon. They’ve managed two wins and have been in each of those games. But I’m going focusing on the last three games in which their star Belgian forward, Christian Benteke, has been injured (except for the opening 28′ of the first of them). Given Benteke’s likely return today against Tottenham, it may seem a pointless exercise to study what the team looked like in his absence; to understand why it’s not, you need to focus on Villa’s coach, Paul Lambert.
One of the great things about Paul Lambert’s 2011-12 Norwich City teams was their flexibility in terms of formation and personnel. But as Lambert’s rebuilding project at Villa has progressed, a favored formation has emerged: 4-3-3 with a relatively flat midfield trio (as opposed to a triangle with one holder, as is more common deployment; the typical starters are Fabian Delph-Ashley Westwood-Karim El Ahmadi) and a frontline of Gabriel Agbonlahor-Christian Benteke-Andreas Weimann.
Given the skills of this attacking trio, particularly the phenomenal Benteke, it’s easy to see how this happened. As was the case with Norwich, Lambert’s Villa is a counter-attacking squad, and Benteke’s hold-up play is critical to their success. He provides a constant outlet up top, particularly with both Agbonlahor and Weimann cutting inside to link up. Because both Weimann and Agbonlahor are also effective breaking down the flanks, giving Villa two more direct attacking options, Lambert can afford to play three defensive midfielders (which is also why they tend to play across the midfield–the point is to share the defensive load). As Adrian Clarke notes (in a sharp analysis of Villa’s counter-attacking tactics written right before their win against Manchester City), this defensive midfield makes sense in front of a frankly inexperienced back four (and one that earned its first clean sheet in a long time against Hull City).
Even prior to Benteke’s injury, Lambert demonstrated his willingness to change formation. Though technical difficulties meant that I missed the opening 12′ of the Norwich City game, both FourFourTwo StatsZone and ESPN FC agree that Villa started the game in a 4-4-2, the relatively unknown Aleksandar Tonev out left and Andreas Weimann right, with Agbonlahor joining Benteke up top. But by the time I was watching closely, Weimann was pushing up and Tonev tucking inside in a manner that looked suspiciously like Villa’s usual 4-3-3. Which is really no surprise; given the personnel and Lambert’s counter-attacking philosophy, this is an approach that makes sense.
With Benteke”s injury and withdrawal at 28′ in the game, things got a little more interesting for Lambert and his side. No one–and certainly not Lambert–would ever suggest that Aston Villa is a better side without Benteke in it. But not having that dominant force up front requires new innovation, and that can make for greater tactical interest.
Libor Kozak, Benteke’s replacement (against Norwich and going forward), is much more of a false nine than Benteke, dropping into the midfield more frequently (though it is worth noting that Beneteke, too, is willing to drop off and move around). Kozak scored almost immediately on entering the game, taking great advantage of the space created by Agbonlahor’s run to get off an initial shot and then receiving Agbonlahor’s cut back pass off the rebound. With a goal in hand, Villa shifted into a formation that was described at 4-4-1-1, but looked to me more like a 4-2-3-1, at least by the start of the 2nd, Agbonlahor behind Kozak and flanked by Weimann and Tonev. When young striker Niklas Helenius replaced Agbonlahor at 60′, however, Villa returned to something more like a true 4-4-2 (I’m ignoring his midweek Capital Cup pantsing by Vertonghen, but you needn’t).
The big shift for Lambert’s side came in the game against Manchester City, where they shifted to three at the back and earned an unexpected win. Missing both Benteke and Agbonlahor, Lambert opted for a 3-5-2 Weimann and Kozak up top and Luna and Bacuna as wing backs. The plan was probably to counter City’s two strikers, as having an extra man at the back is a common explanation for adopting such a formation. Interestingly, Fabian Delph played behind Yacouba Sylla and Karim El Ahmadi, perhaps allowing them to press Ya Ya Touré and Fernandinho while he remained free to clean up and support the defense. At the same time, Weimann and Kozak stayed central and interchanged positions, giving up the flanks to the wing backs who, in truth, rarely got forward.
Lambert’s tactics didn’t win the game for Aston Villa. El Ahmadi’s opening goal was actually offsides, and a better game from Nastasic might have prevented the other two. Beyond that, Manchester City probably should have been away by halftime rather than just a goal up. But what Lambert did do was to get men in the most important areas of the pitch, keeping three in the middle of the park and adding an extra defender at the back. It gave his team a chance to capitalize on Manchester City’s errors–and on the day, they did.
The game against Hull prior to the international break saw Lambert return to his typical 4-3-3, with both Agbonlahor and Ashley Westwood both returning to the side to slot into their typical positions, Kozak still deputizing for Benteke. Unlike City, who are near the top of the league in possession, or even Norwich, who are firmly in the middle, Hull and Aston Villa are both amongst the lowest possession in the league. As it happened, Villa had no problem controlling possession with an extra midfielder against Hull’s 4-4-2, and their edge in shots (on goal) was an overwhelming 18(4)-6(1). In the second half, Villa seemed to allow Hull onto the ball more, perhaps in hopes of creating counter-attacking opportunities. In the end, this was a game where Benteke’s finishing touch might just have made the difference. Instead, Fabian Delph and Tom Huddlestone battled for midfield dominance (Delph won the battle, but Huddlestone’s team were probably the happier to take a point).
One can hope that today’s Tottenham game will be more like the City outing than the Hull City affair. Villa, to be clear, are no more likely to win this one than they were to beat Pellegrini’s side. But with Andre Villas-Boas’s high line and the likely return of Christian Benteke, Aston Villa should have opportunities on the counter. I expect to see Villa again in a 4-3-3; but if the game against Hull City underlined Benteke’s importance to the side’s usual 4-3-3, I can’t say I’m entirely sorry to see Lambert reacting to his absence.
UPDATE (23 October 2013): Despite a losing scoreline, I think it’s fair to say the Tottenham game was, in fact, more like the Manchester City outing in terms of excitement for the neutral. Lambert did set his team out in a 4-3-3, though with Benteke on the bench. Villa actually looked the better team in the opening stages, successfully clogging up the midfield and leaving Soldado isolated up top. But a clever goal against the run of play (and one for which Lewis Holtby deserves at least as much credit as Andros Townsend for his head-ducking dummy of the cross-cum-goal) energized Tottenham. More prosaically, Paulinho started pushing up ahead of Sandro more consistently, shifting Spurs from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 and making their possession much more dangerous for the rest of the half. Given my recent comments about Andre Villas-Boas’s inability to respond in-game against West Ham, it’s worth crediting his team with this important tactical switch, and in this case he didn’t wait until the second half.
At the start of the second, however, Lambert shifted his team to a 4-3-1-2, Weimann moving inside beneath Agbonlahor and Kozak. The change seemed designed to respond to Sandro’s control of the midfield from his holding position by allowing Weimann to drop back onto to him when Spurs were in possession. The change didn’t really kick to life, though, until Benteke was subbed on for Kozak at the 61′. Villa immediately looked more threatening, and on another night it might have made the difference. But Spurs’ second goal at 69′, assisted by Paulinho, effectively ended the game. Even so, it shows that Villa may be willing to innovate moving forward without necessarily sacrificing their best starting XI.