Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Positives from defeat: Villa's compact defense and high line frustrated Chelsea

Despite losing 2-1 to Chelsea, Paul Lambert will take pride in another excellent Aston Villa performance this evening in a contest his side deserved a point from. Three crucial decisions from referee Kevin Friend went against Villa. With the score at 1-1, Branislav Ivanovic could have been sent off for an arm into the head of Christian Benteke. Moments later a powerful Ivanovic header from a Lampard free kick stood despite replays showing the Serbian defender was a fraction offside. In stoppage time a Villa header struck John Terry's hand which was in an unnatural position above his head.

Still, as gutted as Lambert will be about the unlucky defeat, he'll be able to draw on another overwhelmingly positive performance away to a top four side. He should be particularly pleased with his team's performance on the defensive side of the ball. Last season Villa finished with the third worst defensive record behind relegated clubs Wigan and Reading. They were famously beaten 8-0 in this fixture last season during a week that also saw them lose 4-0 to Spurs and 3-0 to Wigan. Although they've conceded in both of their first two games this campaign, the defense looks far less porous and allows them a platform on which to spring their explosive counterattacks.

Villa's solid defensive performance owed to their excellent team shape. They lined up in the same 4-3-3 formation used in the win over Arsenal. Defensively, it turned into a 4-1-4-1. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Fabian Delph, Karim El Ahmady and Andy Weimann formed a midfield bank of four with Ashley Westwood sitting in the middle of the park just in behind Delph and El Ahmady to form a central midfield triangle. That triangle moved as a unit and stayed very compact, taking away forward passing lanes for Chelsea. When the ball was played to Ramires on the right side of Chelsea's center midfield, Delph would apply token pressure and El Ahmady would drop in closer to Westwood on the weak side. When it was reversed to Lampard on the left, El Ahmady would step to ball and Delph would drop in on the weak side. This defensive movement did two very positive things for Villa. First, the token ball pressure meant Lampard and Ramires could freely play the ball horizontally to one another but didn't have the option to pick out a forward pass with a defender stepping directly to them. Secondly, Westwood, Delph and El Ahmady staying so compact ensured Villa had enough bodies in the middle of the park to block off passing lanes to Oscar sitting in the middle behind the striker and Mata and Hazard cutting inside. Chelsea play with three extremely fluid attacking midfielders that all like to drift inside and overload the middle of the park so the presence of three compact center midfielders made space difficult for the likes of Hazard, Mata and Oscar to find.

The screenshot below shows a good example of Villa's movement. Ramires is in possession for Chelsea. Delph applies token pressure to Ramires, simultaneously taking away the passing lane to Hazard. El Ahmady is in position to cut out any pass aimed at Mata cutting in from the left. Westwood is denying any pass forward into Oscar. Ramires ends up on the ball for a full 6 seconds looking for a forward passing option. One never opens up and he's forced to play a square pass to Lampard.

Hull City also played a 4-3-3 in their 2-0 defeat to Chelsea Saturday but it took a very different shape defensively and led to Steve Bruce's side being completely overrun. Unlike Lambert, Bruce had his two box-to-box midfielders Robbie Brady and Robert Koren both press Ramires and Lampard high up the field, leaving much more space between those two and the holding midfielder David Meyler. With Hazard tucking in from the left, Kevin de Bruyne tucking inside from the right and Oscar all occupying central areas high up the pitch, Meyler was overwhelmed and Chelsea controlled possession high up the pitch in dangerous areas. In the first half against Hull, Chelsea completed 81 passes in the attacking third. In the first half tonight against Villa they manged just 46.

Along with sharp defensive movement from the midfield, Villa also kept space very compact by holding a high defensive line and pressing relentlessly when Chelsea advanced the ball past the midfield line. As a result, Mourinho's side had very little space between the seams to operate and were therefore left to try to hit long balls over the top to Demba Ba. This evening Chelsea played 64 long balls and were caught offside 5 times compared to just 46 long balls against Hull and one offsides.

In Weimann, Agbonlahor and Benteke Villa have three explosive attackers capable of getting at opposition defenders on the break. Agbonlahor and Benteke combined for the first goal. Benteke and Weimann would have combined for two others were it not for some brilliant goalkeeping from Petr Cech. If Lambert's side can continue to keep things tight defensively, Villa will be a very difficult team to beat.

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