The Season Just Gone
As most campaigns are at Villa Park these days, the 2014-15 campaign was absolutely miserable. With the budget continually being slashed by desperate-to-sell owner Randy Lerner, there was little optimism before the season started and it turned out to be just as depressing as expected. With relegation looming, manager Paul Lambert bit the bullet for failing to inspire his young charges to perform above themselves, and ‘Tactics’ Tim Sherwood replaced him.
Sherwood was keen to take the credit for Villa’s recovery and subsequent escape, but the truth is that the team was playing way below itself and more-or-less regressed to the mean, returning to form and to its correct place in the table just as expected.
A run to the FA Cup final gave Villans fans something to cheer, but their performance in the showpiece game was, unsurprisingly, a complete disaster: Villa's 4-0 defeat to Arsenal was a reminder of how far they remain from being even a good side.
The Season Ahead
Having lost star performers Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, Villa reinvested heavily, signing the likes of Micah Richards, Scott Sinclair and Joleon Lescott as "established" Premier League performers, as well as a raft of talented youngsters from Ligue 1. For the first time in years, the squad looked solid and potentially exciting. Nonetheless, optimism was still in short supply in Birmingham.
Chief among the reasons for the doom and gloom is the identity of Aston Villa’s manager. Sherwood likes to portray himself as a progressive and dynamic up-and-comer, but the truth is that he’s the worst manager in the Premier League by some distance. In fact, that's not quite doing his incompetence justice. Let's try that again: Sherwood is an embarrassment to his profession and no club under his direction will ever succeed.
Unsurprisingly, Villa have started abysmally and Tactics Tim is in danger of losing his job. Should he go, there’s only one question that should be asked of those who gave him the job in the first place.
Sherwood has generally favoured a 4-3-3 formation but has tried to mix things up when appropriate, sometimes playing a 4-4-1-1 and, in the last game, a 3-5-1-1. He clearly has a lot of ideas about how his teams should play, but has struggled to communicate them to his players. Too often Villa have lacked cohesion and mutual understanding and, given the high number of new signings in the side, perhaps it would be better for Sherwood to give a set eleven a good run of games together.
Regardless of the players’ layout on the pitch, the few that seem to know what's going on have attacked and defended in consistent ways. In attack, they look to work the ball up the pitch incrementally, using smart passing combinations in the middle and eye-catching bursts of pace on the flanks to gain territory, before losing all composure in the final third and doing stupid things to ruin all their hard work.
In defence, they swarm around the ball, working hard to win it back and they do this surprisingly well. However, a tendency towards individual errors and obvious mental weakness at the back mean that Villa’s opposition don’t have to work as hard as they should to make chances.
Villa’s lack of cohesion means that conceding the first goal is often enough to do for them, while Sherwood’s tactical bumbling during matches means they have struggled to protect leads. The self-destruction at Leicester was a perfect demonstration of Villa’s mental fragility and their manager's tendency to pull the rug from under his own players.
If Villa have an obvious strength it’s their prowess in the air. No team wins more aerial duels and only two teams have produced more headed shots per game. Human totem pole Rudy Gestede is an absolutely abominable footballer but he can certainly jump and head a ball with considerable force.
Unsurprisingly, given the importance Sherwood places on passion and desire, Villa have a commendably high work-rate. Only four teams have made more tackles per game, only four have made more interceptions per game and only five have made more fouls per game, while only four teams have made more clearances per game. Villa might not be particularly talented, but they aren’t losing matches through a lack of effort.
They also boast a good amount of individual flair and Chelsea should be particularly wary of their pace at transitions. Only Arsenal have completed more dribbles per game than Aston Villa this season, with Jack Grealish, Jordan Amavi and Idrissa Gueye all completing more than two each. If Adama Traoré is fit to come off the bench, whichever full-back is up against him will have to get his running shoes on.
As previously stated, Villa's biggest problem is a general lack of cohesion, but this is manifesting itself as a number of smaller issues.
Chief among them is their attacking plan, which is fundamentally flawed. There is not that much wrong with the way in which they reach the final third, but what happens when they get there shows that they have not been adequately prepared in training. It's all a bit 1990s.
True to his old school English style of management, Sherwood trusts in his players’ individual ability and tells them to go out and express themselves. Consequently, they end up trying ridiculously optimistic plays or giving up and throwing crosses at Gestede’s forehead. It’s all very easy to play against. When Villa do succeed in creating chances, they’re very bad at finishing them. Only 3.1 shots per game have hit the target, the fourth lowest number in the division.
Inexplicably, Villa also seem to be ill-prepared physically: after their last game, a home defeat to Stoke City, Sherwood stated that his team would use the international break to get up to match fitness, something that's almost unthinkable given that it’s October and that peak match fitness should have been reached two months ago.
Given Sherwood’s recent propensity for chopping and changing, and the fact that he’s fighting to save his job, it’s hard to predict his line-up. The safest thing he could do is play his regular 4-3-3 and a set of players who combine Premier League experience and familiarity with each other, so that's what we'll anticipate. Given how his side have played this season, however, that probably won’t be enough.
As for Chelsea, Branislav Ivanović’s injury means that he’ll finally be taken out of the line of fire. Whether or not Mourinho does the logical thing and plays César Azpilicueta at right-back and Baba Rahman at left-back remains to be seen – it wouldn’t be a great surprise if Kurt Zouma moved across to the right and John Terry partnered Gary Cahill in the middle. Apart from that issue in defence, it would be something of a surprise if Mourinho didn’t pick the usual team.
If José could ask for any fixture to get the Blues’ season back on track, and after an international break to boot, he would want Aston Villa at home. Chelsea are going to win this and potentially by a big score. It should be fun.