Paul Lambert’s task as Aston Villa boss is to convert a club with an outdated British philosophy into one instilled with a modern style of passing and possession, writes Alex Keble, editor of tactics website thechalkboard.org.uk
Modern football is about mobility and versatility; independent skills, formerly divided between different positions on the pitch, have merged. Each player increasingly possesses ball control and passing as minimum requirements, as an ever-growing number of managers rely on a fluid, short-passing game.
Spain are the paradigm of this multi-skilled, dynamic approach, but every big club in football gets closer and closer to fielding 11 interchangeable all-rounders. As Jonathan Wilson notes in his history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid, “fluidity is all. The future, it seems, is universality”.
Formations are evolving to correlate with this phenomenon: the most popular tactic has changed from 4-3-3, to 4-4-2, to the now globally favoured 4-5-1; Spain even won Euro 2012 while frequently employing a 4-6-0. The composure and vision of the midfield is becoming more and more important.
For decades, a gulf existed between British football (with its robust, physical, direct style of play) and, for example, Spanish or Italian football (with its more patient, composed, technically gifted players). The latter mould has finally begun to saturate the English game, seeing an increased investment in ball-playing footballers and young managers with new philosophies.
Until recently, Arsene Wenger's vision at Arsenal was unique in England. Today, Roberto Martinez, Michael Laudrup, Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Mancini and Andres Villas-Boas all insist on a philosophy of short-passing, possession football reliant on a high defensive line and tireless pressing. All the teams that finished in the Premier League's top half last season play along those lines: Everton, Newcastle, Chelsea, and Manchester United all play this way, albeit more flexibly.
These tactics were on display in numerous games last weekend
Sadly for Aston Villa, after a succession of older British managers, they are not one of these teams. New boss Paul Lambert is looking to drag Villa into the new era.
Players with one honed skill cannot cut it amongst Europe’s elite, as passing and vision become the minimum prerequisites. The big No.9 of the past has been replaced by a forward who can create, cross, hold up the ball, and score goals (Shearer–>Van Persie), the ball-winning midfielder has been replaced by one that also begins attacks with intelligent passes (Makelele–>Carrick), and the lazy trequartista has made way for a deeper, more hard-working playmaker (Riquelme–>Modric). The modern player is malleable, a component of equal value in a team game of constant passing, and intelligent football.
Modric and RvP take part all over the pitch
The current Villa squad, however, is a conglomeration of the visions of Martin O'Neill and Alex McLeish, resembling the teams of the 1990s. Much more often than not, O’Neill (and McLeish by default) played a 4-4-2 featuring two lumbering centre-backs and two strong full-backs; pacy wingers on either side of a ball-winner and a passer; and up front, a big man and a small man. You simply cannot be a successful club any more with this kind of rigidity and specialisation.
Typical Villa last season: note infrequency of central passes
Of the current squad, Gabriel Agbonlahor is the pacy striker, Darren Bent the goalscorer, Charles N'Zogbia the dribbler, Stephen Ireland the lazy creator, Stiliyan Petrov the tackler, Richard Dunne the big stopper. This fits well with the O’Neill style, favouring direct attacking football that utilises the wings and demands goals from set-pieces and counter-attacks.
A similar trend can be found in Kenny Dalglish’s football at Liverpool. It's no coincidence that traditional No.9 Andy Carroll and deep playmaker Charlie Adam were signed by an old-school manager and are unwanted by their new, dynamic manager Brendan Rodgers.
Lambert’s visionFrom his first Villa signings and the style of football played in the opening game of the season, Lambert has already clearly illustrated how he aims to freshen up the club’s philosophy. Against West Ham, Karim El Ahmadi made more passes (77) than any other player, in a 4-2-3-1 system that saw Villa field a trio of central midfielders adept at passing. Fabian Delph and El Ahmadi passed the ball between each other a total of 38 times in the match, as Villa looked to build patiently from the back.
Both players passed patiently, often sideways and backwards
However, both at West Ham and subsequently at home to Everton, Villa clearly lacked a cutting edge, unable to convert their possession into goal attempts. It will be a tough task to make this side gel into a malleable unit with the fluidity to threaten opposition defences.
Villa have only created chances from long range
Villa’s biggest problem was their inability to utilise width, as their inverted wingers failed to stretch the play. The 4-2-3-1 system is not necessarily dependent on wing-play – Swansea play pacy dribblers, whereas Man City play inverted playmakers – but it seems that Villa will need to rely on this more, if the season is to end in Premier League survival.
Swansea’s wingers stick to the touchline, unlike Villa’s
The transition will be slow, and the one-dimensional, individual-role-based tactics instilled at the club will not be shaken off overnight. Using a target man, playing through the wings, tackling in midfield, hoofing from defence: these are all traits of a bygone era that O'Neill favoured, and McLeish (with little choice) relied upon.
Lambert's problem will not be fan unrest, or player discomfort. It will be shaking players out of their slumber, brushing off the negative influences of a succession of outdated managers, and making Villa into a modern football club. Early signs of progression are emerging, but the hard work has only just begun.
Alex Keble is editor of www.thechalkboard.org.uk, a website that provides in-depth tactical analysis of the weekend’s Premier League action. Follow @ak_chalkboard
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