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Friday 27 September 2013

Talking tactics: Aston Villa's counter-attacking threat

Adrian Clarke looks at tactics employed by Paul Lambert ahead of match with Man City

  • Pic 1: Aston Villa's heat maps against Arsenal (left) and Norwich City

  • Pic 2: Villa tackles (red), blocks (yellow) and clearances (blue) v Norwich

  • Pic 3: Benteke's duels v Man City last season (left), Agbonlahor's touches v Arsenal

Former Arsenal player and now journalist Adrian Clarke looks at how Aston Villa have become a counter-attacking threat.

Paul Lambert has not had it all his own way since becoming Aston Villa manager in the summer of 2012, but despite their ups and downs he is moulding his side into one of the most dangerous counter-attacking forces in the country. Ahead of their Barclays Premier League with Manchester City on Saturday, let's take a closer look at how and why the Villains adopt the tactics they do.

Less possession, more success

For most Barclays Premier League clubs an average of just 41% of possession per match (the lowest in the division) would be regarded as a huge negative, but unusually it suits Villa to let their opponents have more of the ball.

In truth Paul Lambert's squad does not contain enough creative talents to play any other way. Their strength is not in keeping the ball and prising rival teams open with a clever pass, it is to defend with determination and hit teams on the counter-attack, utilising the dynamic attributes of their full-backs and attacking midfielders.

As they proved with excellent victories at Arsenal and Norwich City, and also with an outstanding display at Stamford Bridge, Aston Villa are adept at drawing skilful teams in, before exploiting the gaps which are left open.

Relinquishing possession to a team of Manchester City's class this weekend is potentially hazardous but if they can break as fast as they have done on their travels, this Villa side have proven they can be a threat.

See Pic 1 above: Villa spent long periods defending in their own half in both of their League wins this season

Total passes
Shots on target
v Arsenal 36.2%
211 10
Won 3-1
v Chelsea
32.5% 197 7 Lost 2-1
v Liverpool
47.6% 404 17 Lost 1-0
v Newcastle United 54.7% 367 10 Lost 2-1
v Norwich City 35.8% 183 16 Won 1-0

Resilient and surprisingly direct

Since enduring a horrendous Christmas period in 2012 that gifted 15 goals without reply to Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan Athletic in six days, Lambert's young side have focused hard on showing greater discipline without the ball.

The manager still asks his front players to close defenders down high up the pitch at the right times, but, in general, the team’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation swiftly retreats into a robust and organised 4-5-1 shape that is content to sit back and defend deep.

It is a dangerous game to play, and after going 26 Barclays Premier League matches without a clean sheet until last weekend, it is not proven to be wholly successful but they are definitely more resolute than last season. For example, Brad Guzan has had to deal with fewer shots on target than the goalkeepers at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United this term.

Aston Villa are not noted for being a 'long ball' team but when they win it back they do launch plenty of direct passes from back to front.

Christian Benteke's strength in holding the ball and his ability to knock it down for an onrushing team-mate makes this a tactic that works - so it will be fascinating to see how they cope without him for the next five to six weeks.

See Pic 2: Paul Lambert’s side are far more resilient this season, and proved it by defending bravely against Norwich City last weekend.

MOST long passses in premier league
West Ham United 15.9%
Cardiff City
Aston Villa 15.4%
Southampton 14.1%
Norwich City 13.7%

A style to suit the players

Which comes first, the players or the system? It is not always easy to tell but there is no question Paul Lambert is preaching the style of play that best suits his Villa squad.

The back four remains inexperienced at the top level, so the Scot has sensibly assembled a hard-working midfield unit that protects them. In Fabian Delph and Karim El-Ahmadi he has two of the division’s toughest-tackling players , while the discipline and calm-headedness of Ashley Westwood complements them well.

With that solid but not especially skilful spine in place, Lambert can then freely encourage enterprising full-backs Luna and Lowton to push forward and use their attacking instincts. Also, with the pivot of Christian Benteke leading the line (and winning most of his individual duels) a platform is provided for the pacy and industrious Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor to make incisive runs from different angles in support of the striker. On the counter attack when opponents are stretched, this can work very effectively.

See Pic 3: Benteke's strength and mobility troubled Man City last season, while Gabby Agbonlahor's free-spirited running power gave Arsenal nightmares on the opening day. Key - Benteke: red dots = duels lost, blue dots = duels won

Wilfried Bony (Swansea)
Edin Dzeko (Manchester City)
Christian Benteke (Aston Villa) 54.9%
Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)
Danny Graham (Hull City)
Libor Kozak (Aston Villa) 20%


  Tackles per match Total tackles
Aaron Ramsey 5.2 26
Lucas Leiva 5.2 26
Fabian Delph (Aston Villa) 4.8 24
Leroy Fer (Norwich City) 4.5 18
Marouane Fellaini (Man Utd) 4.3 13
Karim El-Ahmadi (Aston Villa) 4.2 21

Final thought

Paul Lambert’s game plans are usually built around the physical prowess of Benteke and the dynamism of his wide players, so it will be interesting to see if the Villa manager changes tact in the Belgian’s absence.

At home they are struggling (they have lost nine of the past 13 in the League at Villa Park), and with Manuel Pellegrini’s in-form City side likely to dominate possession this could feel like an arduous away game for Aston Villa. However, as I have explained, that might not be as worrying as it sounds.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke looks at the match between Aston Villa and Manchester City
  • Paul Lambert has employed tactics that have suited his side
  • Villa been successful despite letting the opposition having the lion's share of possession