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How Villa produced one of the great Premier League wins

7 Dec 2023
Aston Villa celebrate

Alex Keble explains how Emery's team beat the champions to move four points off the top

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In the 11th minute Erling Haaland forced a double save from Emiliano Martinez and the Villa Park crowd wondered if it was a sign of things to come. It was to be Manchester City’s final shot on goal.

No team have ever dominated Pep Guardiola’s Man City to such an extent. In fact, a Guardiola side have never been outplayed like that, full stop.

In Aston Villa’s 1-0 victory on Wednesday evening Man City attempted only two shots, the fewest ever by a Guardiola team in a match within Europe’s big five leagues. They also faced 22 shots, the joint-most ever against a Guardiola team in a match within Europe’s big five leagues.

Those records cover 535 matches; Guardiola’s entire career.

This wasn’t just a win that puts Aston Villa firmly in the top-four race. It wasn’t just a damaging fourth consecutive winless match for Man City. It was one of the all-time great Premier League performances.

But every good performance has an equal opposite bad performance, and there were tactical mistakes from Guardiola that were just as crucial to the result as Unai Emery’s successes.

Here’s how Villa beat Man City.

McGinn and Bailey capitalise on Rodri absence

Villa had struggled for fluency in Sunday's 2-2 draw at AFC Bournemouth, with Nicolo Zaniolo playing alongside Ollie Watkins, so Emery decided to start Youri Tielemans just behind Watkins and move to a 4-2-3-1 that swarmed the City midfield.

"What City midfield?", you might ask. Guardiola is renowned for his control of matches and yet despite Rodri's absence he decided against picking a single central midfielder in the No 6 position, leaving Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic on the bench.

Manuel Akanji was tasked with covering the defensive midfield zone entirely on his own in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Phil Foden, Rico Lewis, Julian Alvarez and Bernardo Silva in a flat line behind Haaland.

It meant that as soon as Villa gained momentum and a foothold via their extraordinary press they could overwhelm the Akanji zone. Aston Villa won possession in the final third 13 times, more than any team have ever managed against Guardiola’s Man City.

Tielemans’ placement in the right half-space helped, but of greater significance was the way John McGinn and Leon Bailey were positioned as the wingers tasked with drifting infield to receive a pass behind the four-man Man City wall and either side of a struggling Akanji.

In just one of numerous examples, Pau Torres played a pass over the top of the Man City four and into McGinn, who was all alone, forcing John Stones to race out of position towards him.

Seconds later, McGinn clipped a ball over the top for Bailey to go one-on-one with Ederson.

Leon Bailey chance

Bailey was unplayable on the other flank, and he benefited from the extra space that was available on the inside of left-back Josko Gvardiol – where Rodri would no doubt have come across to cover, had he been on the field.

Bailey touches
Early pressure and flurry of subs come to nothing

Guardiola tried many different ideas at Villa Park but nothing worked. “Aston Villa played better than us,” was his short response when Amazon Prime asked him what had happened.

Aside from the surprise 4-1-4-1 formation and the fault with leaving Akanji alone in midfield, Man City failed to capitalise on some early pressure when they consistently played longer balls towards Haaland in an attempt to break Villa’s high line.

These came frequently in the first 15 minutes, leading to those Haaland shots. But once Villa began to comfortably evade the press thanks to immaculate performances from Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara, Man City couldn’t fashion the opportunities.

Guardiola’s first change, at half-time, was to swap Silva with Lewis, moving the Portuguese into a central area and seemingly instructing him and Alvarez to drop deeper when Man City’s centre-backs had the ball.

Sure enough Silva began to pull the strings, only for Villa to once again find their rhythm and push the champions back.

Substitutions followed, with Nunes and Kovacic on for the final 20 minutes, but there was just nothing in the tank for the visitors, and both players were virtual passengers. As the flatness of the below graphic shows, Man City never found their triangles.

Man City's tactical formation
Man City tactical formation

Villa saw out the contest comfortably to equal a club record of 14 home league wins on the trot, which they last achieved in 1931.

This is their best start to a league season since 1980/81 – the year they won the title and then the European Cup the following season.

They surely won’t repeat that, even if a glance at the Premier League table has Villa fans dreaming. But a top-four finish has never felt closer.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
4 Aston Villa AVL 26 +21 52
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