Aston Villa 3-1 Blackburn Rovers: 4-2-3-1 beats 4-4-2
Aston Villa’s rampant first-half display blew away a poor Blackburn side at Villa Park, as Alex McLeish’s home debut ended with a 3-1 win. Villa lined up in a much more standard formation than their previous one away at Craven Cottage: a defined 4-2-3-1, with Stiliyan Petrov and Fabian Delph supporting an attacking four of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Emile Heskey, Charles N’Zogbia and striker Darren Bent. Steve Kean’s Blackburn lined up in their regular 4-4-2, with Martin Olsson at left-back and David Goodwillie’s pace complementing Jason Roberts’ strength up front. From the off, Villa looked the better side. Quite apart from tactics and formations, they just looked more comfortable and more technically accomplished than the away side. Blackburn were poor, excluding the likes of David Hoilett, and simply quite pedestrian for long periods of the game.
Villa dominate the centre…
Immediately obvious was the classic problem of a two-man central midfield up against a three-man variety. With Emile Heskey playing a deeper role than last week, he definitely counted as a midfielder, and the former England man’s strength and work-rate was a constant hassle. With Delph and Petrov already winning the midfield battle on quality alone, Heskey dropped deep to occupy Steven N’Zonzi, turning an uneven contest into an unfair one as David Dunn was overrun by sheer weight of numbers. This was exacerbated by their individual poor games, with Dunn’s passing mostly sideways. As his side’s creative force in the centre of midfield, Dunn should have been attempting to link his midfield to his forwards, but most of his forward passes were cut out. N’Zonzi, too, played badly, his good ball retention offset by bad ability in the air. Even taking into account the fact that his direct opponent ended up being Emile Heskey, the 6’4 defensive midfielder’s figures of 38% of aerial duels won is terrible. Villa’s deep midfield pair, on the other hand, struck up a good partnership. Stiliyan Petrov was more ambitious than normal, playing expansive passes down the centre of the pitch, whilst Fabian Delph mostly spread the ball wide to the flanks. Delph had an impressive all-round game, in fact, completing 33 of his 40 attempted passes and winning all 8 of his attempted tackles, as well as driving from deep to link up with the attackers often.
…and then attack down the flanks.
With the centre being firmly held by Villa, there was a stable platform for attacks down the flanks. Gabriel Agbonlahor, in particular, was back to his best on the left, terrorising Michel Salgado with his blistering pace. Whilst Salgado was at least given some cover by David Hoilett, who tracked back well in addition to his impressive offensive display, Morten Gamst Pedersen on the opposite flank provided little cover for his full-back Martin Olsson against Charles N’Zogbia. As a result, N’Zogbia had a promising game with as much time and space to run at his man as he pleased. As Olsson’s pace often allowed him to recover in that kind of situation, N’Zogbia was happy to dictate play from the right flank and link with Luke Young, completing 90% of his passes. The opening goal was partly due to this prevalence of attacking down the flanks. As Darren Bent found space in the left channel, his layoff found Gabriel Agbonlahor. Blackburn’s deep defensive line allowed him time to gather pace, and he cut inside, beating Michel Salgado in the process, before curling a fine strike into the corner. Agbonlahor continued to be involved, and Villa’s second was simple: his layoff to Emile Heskey just outside the box was converted with ease. Soon after, he picked up a slight knock, and was replaced by Marc Albrighton at the break.Although Albrighton is generally excellent defensively he was partially at fault for Blackburn’s solitary goal. The excellent Hoilett skipped past both Albrighton and a slightly injured Luke Young to cross for Morten Gamst Pedersen to head in from a central position.
Change makes match safe for Villa
As Blackburn piled forward in search of an equaliser, Villa lost control of the game. Instead of trying to play through midfield, the away side began hitting long passes down the flanks, bypassing the midfield and therefore negating Villa’s advantage. McLeish quickly responded, however, and made the correct move. With two of his substitutes used because of injury, the final change was Barry Bannan on for Emile Heskey. The diminutive Scotsman did excellently, retaining the ball and slowing the game down. He also played deeper than Heskey, whether through design or due to his natural tendencies, and added another body to Villa’s defensive midfield area. In the end, Villa rode out the win comfortably, helped by a typical Darren Bent finish as he pounced on a rebound to smash past Robinson.
There can be some conclusions drawn from the match, but the others are somewhat devalued when you consider the first: Blackburn played badly. Their passing was slow and predictable, and they seemed to be insistent on playing through David Dunn even when he was outnumbered in midfield. It was only as they got desperate that they reverted to hitting long balls into the channels, a method that eventually paid dividends. Still, even taking that fact into account, Villa played extremely well. Alex McLeish seems to be persisting with his variant of a 4-2-3-1, and so far it has worked well. A particular feature seems to be the narrow positioning of Gabriel Agbonlahor, which works because of Stephen Warnock’s attacking tendencies, as against Fulham. There are some unorthodox ideas, however, with the use of Emile Heskey as a trequartista particularly baffling considering that Villa have Stephen Ireland on the bench. Ireland is a natural trequartista, but so far Heskey has hardly performed badly. In fact, it could be argued he adapts the role to suit himself. For instance, most of his passes are distributive balls to the flanks, and rather than attempting expansive passes he doesn’t possess the technique to pull off, he uses his strength and work rate to win the ball for others instead. So far, this hasn’t been a problem – as Heskey naturally attracts players towards him, players like Petrov, Delph and Charles N’Zogbia are able to slip in Darren Bent – but a lack of central creativity was one of Villa’s problem’s last year, only solved against Arsenal and Liverpool by Delph’s introduction.
Blackburn, on the other hand, few such positives to draw on. Quite apart from their 4-4-2 being completely outmanoeuvred tactically, they lack imagination and a quality striker. Steve Kean is the bookies’ favourite to be sacked first, and you can see why. Apart from the skill on the ball of Hoilett, there are few attacking outlets beside set-pieces. That said, this is mostly the same team that placed well outside the relegation zone for Sam Allardyce regularly, and their team has much more proven Premier League quality than their relegation rivals. If Kean can find the correct balance and find a way to maximise young stars like Hoilett and Olsson’s potential, they can definitely stay up.