Aston Villa 0-0 Stoke: Two three men
Aston Villa and Stoke ground out a tactically intriguing but ultimately fruitless draw at Villa Park today.
The home side continued with Paul Lambert’s experimental 3-4-3 formation that they played against QPR, and retained the same team. Ciaran Clark was the sweeper with Chris Herd and Nathan Baker ahead of him, Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood were the double pivot in midfield, and Brett Holman and stand-in captain Gabriel Agbonlahor drifted just off Christian Benteke.
Stoke made one enforced change, with Charlie Adam suspended and replaced by Dean Whitehead. This changed the shape of the team: last week against West Brom, Adam came from deep to support Kenwyne Jones, with Jonathan Walters coming in from the right and Matthew Etherington staying wide and high up on the left in a 4-3-3ish formation. Today, they too switched to a three man defence, though their take on it was different from Villa’s. The back three consisted of Geoff Cameron, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross. Three similar players held ground in midfield, with Glenn Whelan – the most static and deepest of the trio – looking to put his foot on the ball and dictate his side’s tempo from deep. Ryan Shotton and Etherington were the two wing-backs, and Walters supported Jones from a central position.
It’s very rare to see a Premier League side play a three man defence – only Wigan, Liverpool, Man City and recently Villa play it with any kind of regularity – and rarer still to see two sides playing it against each other. Yet today, Villa’s 3-4-3 and Stoke’s 3-5-2 provided the first clash of its kind seen in a long, long time.
The two formations did have their own take on the shape in front of the three man defence, however. As with last week, Villa’s 3-4-3 had the creative double pivot of Westwood and Bannan (which is a staple of Paul Lambert’s side. No matter what formation Villa play, the central midfield duo are rarely broken up) shielding the defence whilst the three attackers were allowed to go and play with minimal defensive duties, though Holman’s hard working nature meant he protected the right flank naturally. For Stoke, an extra man in Dean Whitehead was inserted into midfield. He and Stephen N’Zonzi broke up play and battled to win the ball whilst just behind them, Glenn Whelan kept play ticking over.
The differences between the formations were relatively small in their effect, however. The two players behind Christian Benteke meant that Villa were faced with a three-on-three situation in direct attacks. As a result, Glenn Whelan often dropped back and tried to occupy one of either Agbonlahor or Holman in order to maintain a spare man. This left N’Zonzi and Whitehead to battle with their direct opponents Bannan and Westwood. They didn’t do it particularly well, however, and the Villa pair are far better players on the ball, resulting in the home side dominating possession. Westwood also displayed his wonderful positioning once again, intercepting the ball six times and effectively cutting off many ground balls through to the Stoke striking pair.
Meanwhile, at Villa’s end of the pitch, there was an almost total lack of Stoke chances. The three centre-backs played extremely well, with the youngest of the three, Nathan Baker, putting on a defensive clinic. Baker and Ciaran Clark are interesting to watch as a pair, because they complement each other perfectly. Clark is the more cultured, quicker, and more intelligent of the two, comfortable sweeping up behind his partner. Baker is larger, much more physical, and enjoys aerial duels. Today, Villa were much more in need of Baker’s skills, and he flourished up against the physical challenge of Kenwyne Jones.
With Villa having a spare man at the back, Westwood and Bannan controlling the midfield (and the former cutting off supply to the Stoke forwards into the bargain) and Agbonlahor and Holman causing the Stoke defence trouble, the centre of the pitch was inarguably Villa’s.
Flank déjà vu
Villa’s right flank of late has become one of the safest and most secure in the Premier League. Today, like the previous few weeks, Holman’s tireless running and Lowton’s burgeo talents saw the duo tie up the entire flank between them. Admittedly, today they were up against only one direct opponent in Etherington, but Lowton’s ability to attack as well as defend meant that they could overload him when Villa has the ball too. This meant Robert Huth often had to come over to help, and Villa had a couple of good chances around the right-hand side of the penalty area, coming into the space Huth’s movement to the flank left. In defence, the pair were as impressive as ever: Etherington has no shots, no key passes, no successful dribbles and was dispossessed or turned over four times. Between them, Holman and Lowton made six tackles and four interceptions, and fouled the opposition only once.
The home side’s left flank was another story, however. Eric Lichaj is a solid, unspectacular right-back, but sometimes looks out of the place when played on the left. More to the point, when played on the left his attacking game is more or less non-existent. So it proved today: he defended exceptionally well in his one-on-one duels with Ryan Shotton, making seven tackles and one interception, but contributed nothing in an attacking sense apart from two wildly off-target shots. This meant that while Villa had both flanks more or less tied up defensively, they only offered a threat on one side, and given that the Stoke defence was already stretched due to Huth having to help out Etherington, the fact that Villa’s two natural left-backs are both out injured was a real shame.
At the end of the day, this was Villa’s match to take, but there was a huge lack of end product from both sides. Stoke could only muster two shots against a disciplined Villa defence, whereas Villa came close but just couldn’t break the deadlock. Even the introduction of Darren Bent, who came on to vociferous backing from the fans and produced a mighty five touches, couldn’t help Villa onto a victory.
A very exciting match? No. A tactically interesting match? Most definitely. Two three man defences is an incredibly unusual sight in a Premier League match, and though it produced a draw, the way the two sides reacted to each other was fascinating. Villa’s tactics worked much better, though whether that’s due to Paul Lambert or just the fact that Stoke aren’t as used to it as their opponents is up for discussion. It’s certainly true that Villa retaining a spare man at the back meant they defended much better than Stoke, and certainly better than last week when they ended up having three defenders surrounding a single striker. Both sides settled for a point in a game that just had too few players in attacking positions and too poor finishing to give either side the win.