As Gareth Southgate and Steve Clarke watched on in stony silence from the Old Trafford stands, Villa demonstrated why high, forward-thinking wing-backs are becoming the norm in the Premier League over the past few seasons.
A week after Matty Cash applied for a Polish passport, Southgate must have been reflecting upon the embarrassment of riches he possesses at right-back, so much so that Cash has never even been considered for a call up to the national team.
England are blessed with an abundance of right-backs and Cash would have to overcome players such as Kyle Walker, Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold, so it is no surprise to have learnt of this development.
Cash has performed superbly since his progression into the wing-back role, still fulfilling the defensive capabilities of a regular right-back, whilst being Villa’s main source of creativity down the right flank. He still sits 6th in interceptions and 2nd for tackles throughout the league showing how he has developed his game since his days as an out and out winger at Nottingham Forest.
On numerous occasions at the weekend, Villa caused Manchester United’s defence serious problems, constantly threatening the high line which United set up in. In the first half, the link-up between Cash and Matt Targett showed the difference in philosophy that Dean Smith has installed in these two players.
The perfect example was in the first half an hour of the game when Cash pushed beyond the United back four, looking up and seeing his defensive partner Targett waiting at the back post. Although Targett somehow blazed over from short range, this epitomized the bravery of Villa’s wingbacks against a side renowned for their counter-attacking prowess.
It is not just Cash who has thrived in this more advanced role, with Targett being just as influential down the left. 50% of Villa’s attacks came down the left side against Manchester United with Targett at times taking up positions not too dissimilar to that of a winger. Smith did not seem discouraged by this, as shown against Everton when he was happy to take Targett off for Leon Bailey with no change in the formation necessary.
As well as holding width in attack, Cash and Targett are joining the aggressive press which Villa are displaying. At times last weekend, Villa had seven players pressing the United back four, regaining possession on numerous occasions in the final third and almost resulting in a goal for Ollie Watkins.
Although Villa were confident in their press, Smith must be wary of leaving our back three isolated. On numerous occasions, Mason Greenwood utilized the abundance of space which Villa’s wing-backs had left and it would be a surprise to see managers targeting this weakness in the future.
Even though Douglas Luiz has an effortless sense of spotting danger such as this, it is only a matter of time before the team’s lure in this high press and finds a method of playing through it, leaving our back three extremely vulnerable to the counterattack.
Finding the balance between a successful press and a reckless press will be crucial for Smith over the coming weeks and could be instrumental in whether Smith pursues this newfound 3-5-2 formation.