It’s been almost 15 weeks since Chelsea Football Club’s last competitive match this season. This pandemic hasn’t just impacted our daily lives, it’s also impacted the sport we all know and love. To see things slowly return, while still having to adjust to new guidelines, is a positive step forward from a bleak three month period of isolation.
After such a long wait, Chelsea will be returning to the Premier League by taking on Aston Villa at Villa Park. The Blues are still in the Top Four (in 4th place) with 48 out of 87 points in 29 matches (14W, 6D, 9L), while the Villans are still in a relegation battle (in 19th place) with 26 out of 87 points in 29 matches (7W, 5D, 17L). Also, Chelsea’s goal difference (12) is staggeringly bigger than Aston Villa (-22).
Having won the home fixture in December, what should we expect from the Villans tomorrow?
Let’s start of by looking at Aston Villa’s style of play, then their key players, before making a prediction on their line-up.
ASTON VILLA UNDER DEAN SMITH
The Villans have struggled a lot over the past few years. From the 2011/12 season the club has struggled in a relegation battle in the top flight, before being relegated to the Championship in the 2015/16 season. Following mid-season struggles in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 campaign (under both Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Bruce), Villa sacked Steve Bruce in October 2018 and appointed Dean Smith soon after.
When the former Walsall and Brentford manager joined Aston Villa as head coach, the club was sitting in 14th place in the Championship. His first big action was to convince John Terry to retire from playing and appoint him alongside Richard O’Kelly as assistant head coaches, which was successful. Then came the task to bring Aston Villa back into the Premier League, which started off well. After the controversial 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion, the club were sitting in 8th place with two points from the play-offs. However, in that game their star player Jack Grealish came off with a shinbone injury that lasted until the 28th February, and Villa struggled without him. By the time Grealish came back from injury, the club were in 11th place, eight points from the play-offs. On March 2nd, the 23-year-old was given the captaincy and guided the Villans to 10 consecutive wins, and, no matter what happened in their remaining two fixtures, the club would reach the Championship play-offs. Victory against West Brom in the play-offs semi-final and Derby in the play-off final allowed them to be promoted to the Premier League.
However, despite trying to avoid doing a Fulham in the 2019 summer transfer window, they had no choice but to sign twelve players to replace the loaned and ageing squad. This created an issue as this upset the squad balance from the 2018/19 season, which is quite evident now as they are sitting in 19th place (which could send them back to the Championship), but are sitting two points from 17th place.
STYLE OF PLAY
The English manager’s main formation has the appearance of a 4-3-3 formation.
Offensively, the shape is more of a 2-1-2-5: the holding midfielder (generally Nakamba) screens behind either two attacking midfielders or a balanced central midfield pairing (where one is more defensive and the other is more offensive); the full-backs push up the pitch into the forward area to provide crossing opportunities for the natural forwards; the wingers drift into central attacking midfield to provide more depth; the striker stays central and gets in behind the opposition centre-backs to provide goalscoring opportunities, which in turn allows the central midfielders and wingers to rush infield, exploit the space left behind by the striker, and create shooting opportunities from just outside the box. Smith wants his team to dominate the opposition’s half (especially draw fouls in that area to provide a set-piece threat) and play the ball in the wide areas.
Defensively, the shape is more of a 4-1-4-1. While the holding midfielder breaks up attacks and protects the back four (like Wilfred Ndidi at Leicester or Fabinho at Liverpool), Smith favours relentless pressing high up the pitch: the full-backs press the wingers; the central midfielders press the opposition’s holding midfielder(s); the wingers press the opposition’s full-backs; and the striker presses the opposition centre-backs. It can also become a 4-2-3-1, where in a more balanced central midfield pairing the more defensive central midfield drops into the holding midfield role, and the more offensive central midfield moves up into the central attacking midfield position.
Now, it’s clear that this type of relentless high pressing could create issues for Blues in defence, so it’s extremely important that this line of press is bypassed easily. When it is, this leaves the Villans extremely vulnerable to counter-attacks. They also rely heavily on the performance of Mings at centre-back, so much so that should any of them struggle the team has been known to concede (and most often lose). Finally, there’s been several lapses of concentration when dealing with the opposition’s crosses, something both Reece James and Olivier Giroud have the ability to thrive on.
The first key player for Aston Villa is Tyrone Mings. The former Bristol Rovers U18 player joined Yate Town in the summer of 2010, then Chippenham Town in the summer of 2012 (both on a free transfer), before joining Ipswich Town following a successful trial in December 2012. He struggled to get game time in his first two seasons, before seeing his game time increase in the 2014/15 season with the departure of Aaron Creswell to West Ham United. He performed so well that he joined Bournemouth for £10.2m in the summer of 2015. Unfortunately for him, he has struggled to get regular game time, so after four seasons he left for Aston Villa on loan in the January 2019 and signed permanently for £20.1m in the summer of 2019. Currently, the 27-year-old centre-back is Villa’s most crucial defender. He stands at 6’5” but his average aerial duels rests at 60% (James Tarkowski is 6’1” and his aerial duels and has a 76% success rate). He’s physically strong and has a high footballing IQ, which is shown through his number of successful duels (3.3 total per game) and his accurate pass success rate (79.7%). However, his tackling has been quite poor (0.5 per game) and is prone to a fair number of lapses in concentration. The Blues must capitalise on this and put as much pressure on the English defender as they can.
Another is John McGinn. The former St. Mirren Youth Academy product joined the First Team in November 2012, before joining Hibernian for £1m over two-and-a-half years later (July 2015). Three years later he left Scotland for England and joined Aston Villa for £2.8m (August 2018). The 25-year-old midfielder plays generally in central midfield (as an offensive midfielder) and embodies the style of play used at Villa. The Scotsman tends to receive the ball from the centre-backs or goalkeeper, before either carrying the ball forward or playing long balls (3.3/4.3 per game) to the wide players. Despite being very low in the pecking order for involvement in the build-up play (27.8 average passes per game at an accuracy of 82%), especially compared to other central midfielders, he’s been one of the most successful dribblers (2.3/3.2 per game) in the Premier League. What also makes him stand out is his attacking contributions (3 goals and 2 assists, 1.7 shots and 1.4 key passes per game), especially for expected goals (2.8 xG) and touches in the box (3.4 per 90). Above all else he’ll do his best to assist his teammates in the final third, by either moving into central areas of the box or moving wide to deliver a cross. In short, he’s an attacking midfielder with a low passing volume, but definitely a player to watch out for.
Finally, there’s Jack Grealish. The former Aston Villa Youth Academy product joined the first 13eam in the summer of 2013, and after a year long loan at Notts County in the 2013/14 season he slowly started to become a key figure in the squad, eventually becoming the captain for the Villans in March 2019. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder is capable of both playing in either central midfield (as an offensive midfielder) and left-wing (as a wide playmaker), which is very similar to Mason Mount yet with more Premier League experience. When he starts on the wings or in central midfield, he likes to rotate with the left central midfielder (generally Hourihane) or left winger (generally El Ghazi) respectively and likes to play in the half spaces. He also loves to take on his opponents: without the ball he knows very well how to underlap into the wide spaces; with the ball he dribbles past his opponents (2.2/3.6 per game), so much so that he’s either marked down (which opens up space for a teammate to exploit it, a similar trait to Eden Hazard) or fouled (4.9 times per game – in comparison, Hazard’s highest amount in a single season is 2.8 and Wilfred Zaha’s is 3.5). He can be a threat in the final third by playing one-twos with the wingers around the box to create goalscoring opportunities (7 goals and 6 assists, 2.0 shots and 2.7 key passes per game, 1.3 shots taken inside the box per game; 5.5 xG and 5.3 xA, so 0.20 xG and 0.20 xA per 90), and can make a lot of defensive recoveries (per game, 8.6 total duels won, 8.0 of which are ground duels and 0.6 are aerial duels), which are a lot more than most holding midfielders. Forget Aouar or Havertz: this is a player Chelsea should have on their shortlist for the Summer transfer window, as he could be a perfect replacement for the departed Eden Hazard.
Now I will predict Aston Villa’s Starting XI.
Despite an impressive campaign in the Championship last season, the Villans are struggling to avoid being relegated. They’ve conceded too many unnecessary goals and will have to fight tooth and nail to stay up.
Team wise, Bjorn Engels, Frederic Guilbert, Tom Heaton and Wesley are injured and Danny Drinkwater is ineligible for tomorrow’s game.
I feel like Aston Villa will play a 4-1-4-1 formation, and I predict this will be their line-up:
And that concludes my Aston Villa scouting report! If you’ve enjoyed it, don’t forget to like and share this article!
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[All statistics were used from WhoScored and SofaScore]
Edited by: Dan