Aston Villa 2-0 Wigan Athletic: McLeish’s 4-3-1-2 finds pockets of space

I had fun drawing this one!

Starting formations and lineups for the game. Click to enlarge.


Aston Villa comfortably beat Wigan to record their first victory in four games at Villa Park. The home side discarded their 4-2-3-1 in order play a strange formation. Aston Villa Central argues that it ended up as a 4-3-1-2, and it is hard to disagree. Barry Bannan and Fabian Delph played narrow, either side of the holder Stiliyan Petrov, and Stephen Ireland played just off Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darren Bent.

Though the stats would seem to suggest an even game, perhaps even one favouring Wigan, it was a rather one-sided match. Villa were consistently threatening, and Shay Given was only meaningfully tested in the 74th minute, from former Villan Shaun Maloney’s shot. Despite Wigan having a remarkable 61% of possession away from home, they never really came close to scoring.


Narrow midfields leave space wide

Here we can see an example of why the Villa shape was more 4-3-1-2 than 4-4-2. Barry Bannan (bottom diagram), supposedly playing as a right midfielder, instead drifted across the midfield and found space. Note where his assist for Agbonlahor came from, almost in the left-back position. If we compare that to Stam, acting as much more of a classic right midfielder, the difference is stark. Diagram courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards.

Both sides played very narrow midfields. Villa’s was arguably more by accident than by design, as the right-sided carrilero, left-footed Barry Bannan, constantly drifted inside into his more comfortable central midfield position. On the left side of midfield was Fabian Delph, also more comfortable in central midfield, though he did stay wider than Bannan did, aided by the fact that he too is left-footed. It was Bannan who impressed throughout the match, however, pinging long crossfield balls to Agbonlahor and linking well with his midfield partners.

Wigan’s midfield, on the other hand, looked like it was designed to be narrow, contain the opposition and retain possession. Mohamed Diame and Ben Watson played slightly ahead of the holder James McCarthy, with Watson in particular having a good game, dictating his side’s attacking play and completing 66 out of 83 attempted passes. Ronnie Stam stayed in line with the central midfielders and played narrow, so creating a 4v4 situation in midfield. Victor Moses had a free role on the left, and often ended up nearer Franco Di Santo than his midfield partners. This compactness made the centre of midfield congested and cagey.

This all meant that both sides had plenty of space out wide, though Villa were the team to exploit it the best. As per usual with Villa, most attacks came up the left hand side, where Stephen Warnock, Fabian Delph and Gabriel Agbonlahor all moved into the space left by Stam’s narrowness to start moves. Indeed, Villa’s first goal was created from there. Stephen Warnock shifted the ball to Barry Bannan, who had drifted across the entire pitch and onto the left flank. Bannan looked up and played a wonderful throughball for Agbonlahor to run onto, move into the area and finish well to continue his hot streak.


Two free role players influence the game

This diagram illustrates just how much of Aston Villa's play came down the left hand side. With Agbonlahor drifting left and Warnock and Delph overwhelming Stam, much of Villa's passing moves came up the left. Diagram courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards.

Agbonlahor was Villa’s greatest threat throughout the game in fact, constantly harrying and finding pockets of space. As for Wigan, former Crystal Palace forward Victor Moses was stationed on the Wigan left flank, where he could exploit the space left by Bannan’s movement infield. He pushed up level with Franco Di Santo, troubling Alan Hutton with his dribbling and pace. In fact, Villa’s entire right side was vulnerable. On the left, Stephen Warnock not only had a good game, but could count on the support of Fabian Delph, who stayed wider than Bannan, and Gabriel Agbonlahor, who drifted to the left when not in possession. On the opposite flank, Bannan’s narrow positioning and Bent’s preference for staying central meant that Hutton was exposed. Patrick Van Aanholt had a disappointing game considering the space and time he had: he got forward reasonably often and put in four crosses, but none were accurate and he had no successful dribbles.

It was Agbonlahor who made the telling contribution. Throughout the match he consistently had the beating of Emmerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell, the latter shackled by an early yellow card, for pace. His positioning made him difficult to pick up, too, playing deep enough to escape the attentions of Caldwell and Boyce and yet also far enough to the left to not be tracked by a central midfielder. Ronnie Stam was arguably the man best placed to pick him up, but Agbonlahor dragged him all over the pitch, occasionally drifting to the right side of Bent, and thus went mostly unimpeded. Stephen Warnock took full advantage to get downfield as often as he could. Villa were simply more fluid, allowing players such as Bannan and Ireland as well as Agbonlahor to drift and find space in a congested midfield, whereas Moses was Wigan’s only true creative outlet that was allowed to find himself any room.


Villa counterattacking settles game

As mentioned earlier, Wigan had a possession advantage, having 61% of it by the time the match finished. Whilst that could be used against Villa, it is likely to have been a deliberate ploy by Alex McLeish in order to draw Wigan forward. Under Martin O’Neill, Villa were a lethal counterattacking outfit, if slightly unimaginative. The pace and directness of the wingers and Agbonlahor could allow defence to be turned into attack in an instant. During the relatively brief tenure under Houllier, there were attempts to make Villa more attractive and possession-based, to mixed success. Now it’s back to counterattacking under McLeish, which although less attractive is arguably the thing Villa are best at. It certainly suits Agbonlahor: he won the ball back on the left flank before driving into the box and setting up Darren Bent to tap home an easy finish. Bent had spent the entire match doing nothing, with a meagre seven completed passes to his name, but scoring is what Bent does and he will be happy to be back on the scoresheet.

For Wigan, it is a harsh lesson on the realities of possession in the Premier League. Roberto Martinez’s attempts to play good football should be applauded, but they eventually went down to a more ruthless Villa team. They didn’t exploit the strengths they had – Alan Hutton’s insecurity up against Victor Moses, their superior passing ability, lots of space down the Villa right – and but for Ali Al-Habsi they could’ve lost by three or four goals.

Alex McLeish has had a mixed reception at Villa so far. Unbeaten in the league, yes, but against sub-par opposition for the most part and mostly draws. On the other hand, he looks happy to try different formations and tactics, as highlighted by today’s unusual attempt at a 4-3-1-2. Most encouragingly (besides Agbonlahor’s rampant form) was that there was no real weak link in the team. Shay Given, James Collins, Stephen Warnock and in particular Richard Dunne were in sterling form at the back, and whilst Hutton looked threatened he could hardly be blamed for the lack of cover. Even the much-maligned Stephen Ireland looked good in spurts. Agbonlahor’s intelligence in his movement was particularly encouraging considering that that has always been his weak point: physically superb, he was often naive and slow in his decision making. Now, he can bring his pace and power to bear in a way that complements the team. Villa fans will be hoping he and they carry on this form into the game with Manchester City.


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