In the 2019/20 Premier League campaign, Aston Villa conceded 67 goals – the second-worst record in the league.
Mix-and-match centre-back’s were often labelled as the main contributor to the defensive mess. The injury crisis that ripped through Neil Cutler’s goalkeeping unit did little to help this matter too.
Overall, Villa shipped 1.8 goals (on average) per game throughout the season. However, this figure was even higher pre-lockdown, at 2 goals a game.
After the enforced break, Villa altered their style.
Although still susceptible to conceding, the average goals against (GA) plummeted during those summer months. At 1.1 GA during project restart, the management team had clearly focused on becoming more resolute.
Thankfully, this improvement has carried into the current season. Reaching 14 clean sheets with six games still to play, Emi Martinez and his defence may well better the club’s Premier League record set in 2009/10 (15).
Understandably, an improvement that takes you from the nineteenth-best defence in the league, to now fourth, the media narrative has talked of purely defensive solidity.
However, I’ve opted to take an alternate stance on the matter.
How important is Villa’s defence, in their attack?
The statistical take
The first figure to divulge is the expected goals and assists of Villa’s centre-backs.
Expected goals measure the quality of a shot by looking at how likely it will be scored. Expected assists are the same measure but from the angle of an assist. How likely is the pass going to result in the receiver scoring?
In total last season, Ezri Konsa reached a total of 2.1 – therefore meaning he could expect two-goal involvements from his offensive actions across the season.
Likewise, Tyrone Mings achieved 1.7.
Compare these numbers to the current campaign and they illustrate the increased attacking urge placed on the centre-backs.
Konsa’s total is 1.9 whilst his partner Mings has a sum of 2.4. With six more matches to play, we can assume these figures are yet to reach their maximum.
Beyond the basic attacking numbers posted by the players, their dynamics in Villa’s attack cannot be underestimated.
Behind only Jack Grealish, Mings has carried the ball furthest towards the opponent’s goal of the Villa squad. The manager encourages the swashbuckling nature of the defender, which has benefited the team many times.
Against Fulham earlier this month, his license to join attacks paid dividends. Breaking down the left flank, Mings crossed the ball into Trézéguet’s path who scored.
Stopper and Sweeper
What makes the Mings-Konsa pairing work so well for Villa?
In truth, it’s a simple explanation.
The footballing concept of a ‘stopper’ and ‘sweeper’ is evidently deployed by Smith.
Conventionally, the ‘stopper’ is a bigger player who often wins aerial duels as well as breaking up opposition play before they result in dangerous attacks. Most Villa fans will quickly associate these characteristics with the colossus figure of Mings.
On the other hand, a ‘sweeper’ is responsible for clearing up any loose balls the ‘stopper’ loses out on. Often characterized with an abundance of pace, Konsa usually restores order as the final outfielder in front of Martinez.
To back this up with league statistics, Mings has won 75.8% of his aerial duels this season than Konsa’s 60.6%. As well as this, Mings is responsible for stopping over half of the attacking dribbles towards him.
From the ‘sweeper’ perspective, Konsa has successfully tackled and stolen possession 18 times this season – Mings at 14 times.
Whilst defensive measures are always important in determining a defender’s capability, in the modern game, keeping the ball out the back of the net is just the start of a players role.
The Villa boss holds high expectations for his defensive pairing, as do the club’s hierarchy. Signing new deals this season, Mings and Konsa both committed their long-term futures to the club.
As Gareth Southgate observes – sooner or later Villa’s defensive paring may become the partnership of a watching nation…