Up in the West Midlands, Paul Lambert’s crew of Villans is comfortably perched mid-table despite playing one of the toughest early fixture lists in the division. The former Borussia Dortmund star inherited an amorphous mess from Alex McLeish, and has since molded Aston Villa into the Premier League’s pre-eminent counter attacking side. At the heart of Villa’s steady play lies long-heralded prospect Fabian Delph, winner of the club’s Player of the Month award two turns running. Here, we’ll examine Delph’s progression since last season and even dare to compare him to one of the Prem’s most unique midfielders, Moussa Dembele.
Having signed for Villa in the summer of 2009, serious knee and ankle injuries halted the young Englishman’s progress and his genuine breakthrough into Villa’s first team only came last season. Despite his belated arrival, Delph impressed over 24 appearances last term and entered 2013/2014 as a locked-in starter of Lambert’s midfield trio.
Unsurprisingly, the former Leeds player has contributed his usual energetic play and largely built upon his defensive stats of last season. An increase in ground 50-50 win percentage has been roughly offset by a similar decrease in his tackle win percentage, but his aerial duel win rate has risen 17 points to 61 percent –impressive for a player standing just 1.74 meters (5’9”) tall. More importantly, Delph is attempting all of these challenges at demonstrably faster clips in the current year. His minutes per ground duel has gone from almost nine minutes to six, tackles are attempted every 23 minutes instead of every 30, and aerial challenges every 35 minutes instead of every 68. A smaller frame and prior injury struggles clearly fail to deter Delph from throwing his weight around.
Offensively, Delph’s statistics nicely reflect a box-to-box midfielder in a strictly counter attacking side. Villa’s emphasis on direct transitions has become even more pronounced this year, so a decrease in Delph’s passing accuracy from 88 to 82 percent is not a major cause for concern. Indeed, when you examine his passing directions, it becomes clear that Delph has streamlined his distribution to fit Lambert’s “get it and go” approach. Last year, the midfielder sent 28 percent of his passes forward, 18 backwards, and 54 laterally. This year, he is sending 34 percent forward, just 16 backwards, and the remaining half laterally.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Delph’s game (and what causes the impending comparisons to Dembele) is his ability to storm forward with the ball from deep in midfield – something that Lambert has clearly encouraged. Last year Delph possessed a fantastic 87 percent dribble success rate and attempted them at just over once per half. This season, his success rate has dropped roughly nine points but he is attempting a dribble every 23 minutes as Villa fly up field on the counter.
The major weakness in Delph’s skill set is his ability to contribute in the final third. He has yet to score a Premier League goal and is actually attempting shots at a worse clip this season, every 315 minutes, to last, once per 189 minutes. Further, Delph’s chance creation rate has dipped from every 122 minutes to once every 158.
Somewhat surprisingly, Delph’s unique combination of skills actually has a precedent in Tottenham Hotspur’s Moussa Dembele. Like Delph, the Belgian is an extremely hard worker in the middle of the park and possesses similar defensive stats as his English counterpart. The only drastic differences between the two are Dembele’s astonishing 94 percent tackle success rate, but this is, in part, offset by Delph’s recording of an interception every 30 minutes as compared to Dembele’s sole robbery per match.
In possession, Dembele possess a higher pass success rate, 91 percent, but plays more lateral passes in Andre Villas-Boas’s more patient side. As mentioned previously, the real basis for comparison between the two comes when acknowledging Dembele’s similar penchant for dribbling deep in midfield. The former Alkmaar star possesses a truly remarkable 93 percent dribble rate, attempting one every 20 minutes.
As Delph is three years his junior (and lost another year through injury), I’m inclined to view Dembele as the floor for Delph’s developmental curve. Considering the Belgian made the unorthodox transition from support striker to “dribbling midfielder” under Martin Jol at Fulham, it will be fascinating to watch how Delph’s game progresses from here. He clearly already has serious value as a scrapping box-to-box midfielder in Lambert’s counter-attacking side. However, should he develop an eye for a final ball (Dembele creates a chance every 42 minutes) and any kind of value in front of goal, Delph may well become one of the Premier League’s leading stars.