We would like to welcome back Attacking Centre-back for a one-off article as he analyzes Steve Bruce and Aston Villa’s tactical approach so far this season.
After experimenting with numerous players and formations at the start of the season Villa is now unchanged in four games and have won all four. Of course, it’s easier to keep the same team when you’re winning but there’s something to be said for maintaining some continuity in the team.
Bruce seems to have gone back to basics somewhat when it comes to his tactical approach, playing 4-4-2, defending in 2 banks of 4 and getting the ball into the 2 forwards.
The return of Jonathan Kodjia has made a big difference – he’s the outstanding player in an attacking sense and Keinan Davis has emerged as a suitable partner. Both are similar physically – big, strong, powerful and it’s noticeable how keen Villa is to get the ball to them at every opportunity.
This doesn’t necessarily mean just lumping aimless balls forward but clipping balls down the line or into the channels, often from the full-backs. They don’t really play out from the back though. When the ball goes back to Sam Johnstone, they generally push out and go long and are happy to clear the ball when under pressure, rather than risk conceding possession in dangerous areas.
Both forwards are good in the air and both are excellent at holding onto the ball and protecting it with their back to goal. Villa can feed them the ball, bypassing the midfield at times and know that they’ll likely keep possession, allowing others to go and support, getting Villa up the pitch. Even when they don’t win the ball, they make it difficult and cause problems for defenders.
Kodjia is usually the one to drop into the hole to receive the ball. He’s the more complete player of the front two, has good feet, is excellent at carrying the ball and looks to find space where he can turn and run at the defence.
In counter-attacking situations, this can be particularly dangerous if he’s given space to run into and has support from Davis, Albert Adomah and Robert Snodgrass. He is quite capable of getting the ball with his back to goal, shrugging the defender off, turning and creating something dangerous from nothing, as he did for the opening goal against Nottingham Forest.
Apart from the Bolton game, against a team who is bottom of the league and don’t keep possession anyway, Villa has had less of the ball than the opposition in the last 4 games, most significantly against Barnsley and Forest. They were generally happy to allow the other team to have the ball at the back and regain their shape but they do look for opportunities to press and force a mistake. Not a bad tactical approach from the manager if you ask me.
Apart from the Forest game, where they gave up a few chances in the second half, Villa has looked very comfortable defensively in those games. The problem last season, however, was scoring goals but they’ve now scored 10 in 4 games. They have scored first in each of those, which makes things easier. They were able to sit back and be patient at times and haven’t faced the toughest opposition so it will be interesting to see how they fare against a better team (such as Wolves this weekend) or if they go behind and have to force the game a bit more. Will Bruce go back to the tactical drawing board and make changes or stick with a system that seems to be working for them?
There appears to be a good balance in the current team. Out wide, Adomah is more of a runner where Snodgrass is more creative and in the middle, Glenn Whelan is more workman-like while Conor Hourihane is more technical and capable of scoring from midfield.
One area where Villa can definitely improve is set-pieces. Last season they conceded just 9 goals from set-pieces (second-best in the league) but only scored 8 (the worst in the league). They have only scored 1 so far this season and that was Hourihane’s free-kick against Forest – considering the aerial threats they have in Davis, Kodjia and Terry, they should be doing much better.
After a big turnaround of players in the summer and a shaky start, Villa now appears to have a settled side and that look capable of challenging for promotion. There are, of course, other players to come back in, such as Henri Lansbury and Jack Grealish but Bruce will probably be reluctant to mess too much with the current set-up. It remains to be seen whether they can mount a challenge for the automatic spots but there has certainly been an improvement.