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. For Villa, this has not been the case.
Lambert’s beginning has seen Aston Villa lurk ominously above the relegation zone, collecting a miserable 9 points in a season that has included defeat to Southampton, and more recently, throwing away a 2-0 lead against Man Utd. It is their worst start to a league season for 43 years, with Villa collecting 9 points from their opening 11 games, 6 fewer than last season under McLeish. Is it time for Villa to panic? Not at all. The surface facts obscure the radical changes made at Villa; evidence so far suggests Lambert’s Villa are slowly being dragged into modernity.
First of all, the results are misleading. Excluding games against West Ham and Southampton, Villa earned three more points this season than they managed in the corresponding fixtures last season.
This, however is nothing more than a side point. As long as Aston Villa avoid relegation – and recent performances suggest this is highly likely – then results do not matter during Lambert’s learning season. All that matters is that progress is being made.
Aston Villa’s passing and ball retention have been significantly improved upon with technically gifted youngsters Bannan and Delph given extended runs in the team, along with new signing Al Ahmadi and a confidence infused Ireland.
The opening game of the season saw an immediate swing in playing style, with Villa building patiently from the back. The precedent set in this match has continued over the course of the season.
As we can see, Lambert chose a midfield trio – something he has frequently returned to – and played simple passing football.
The possession and passing statistics of Aston Villa’s top performers this season also suggest progress. The table below shows the average % pass success of Villa’s top three in this category this season, against the top three of last season. There is a notable improvement, even in these very early days.
Villa’s league position should not fool anyone. This is a team in progress. A McLeish side never threw away a 2-0 lead as Villa manager, but that is because his side never took one.