Just as soon as Dean Smith has found a formation that he is relatively comfortable with, a new issue is quickly cropping up.
The Successes Of 3-5-2
The 3-5-2 formation has been quite successful since its first implementation against Chelsea a couple of weeks back. In that match, Villa conceded three goals without reply.
But the scoreline did flatter Chelsea. Truth be told, Chelsea often found it difficult to bypass Villa’s high press, creating very few chances, whilst Villa arguably had the more clear-cut chances.
The defensive setup came into full fruition only when Villa arrived at Old Trafford to face Manchester United. From the get-go, Villa started on the front foot and immediately switched their high-pressing engine on, not giving the midfield duo of Fred-McTominay any breathing space.
As a result, United’s build-up play suffered and chances were not overflowing in their direction. Cristiano Ronaldo even had to occasionally drop deep to help out with the cause which meant United’s most dangerous attacker was not where he was supposed to be – inside the penalty area. This in itself was a good testament to the effectiveness of the high press.
The fact that this formation allows Dean Smith to play both Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins up front must also be particularly satisfying. Considering he always believes Watkins is an out-and-out striker, this setup must have felt like the final jigsaw piece to the puzzle.
But there is a caveat to all this. Against Chelsea, Villa successfully focused their pressing efforts on their new signing, Saul Niguez, who was clearly still adapting to the new league.
Villa were doing the sensible thing but Chelsea were far from their best on that day.
At Manchester United, Fred also had had previous failings when facing high-pressing teams and Smith again did a great job in targeting the weak link in the opposition team. That said, Manchester United willingly and naively presented a free ‘gift’ to Villa.
Which then brings us to the little ‘cracks’ that seem to be appearing despite the good results. Although at times Villa were able to stamp their authority with their high press, there were still moments of vulnerability in their backline.
Several times, Greenwood had a clear run at the three centre-backs after a quick breakaway.
At Stamford Bridge, Lukaku’s first goal also came after a Kovacic through ball sliced through Villa’s high line like a hot knife on butter.
The keyword here is: high line. Which was then fully exposed by Spurs despite coming to this match low on confidence after the North London derby defeat against Arsenal.
Notably, most of Spurs’ big chances in this match came from Matty Cash’s side which was completely understandable given how deep in Spurs’ half he often was. On multiple occasions, due to his advanced positioning, Villa’s right-hand side was left open and vulnerable to Spurs’ quick passing.
There was a hint of sloppiness in this Villa backline as well after they allowed a simple, hopeful ball from Hugo Lloris to easily end up on Harry Kane’s feet at one point.
If we look closely at Villa’s backline, the trio of Konsa, Hause and Mings isn’t exactly reliable enough in dealing with the threat of quick players like Son Heung-Min for example. They possess neither the agility nor the anticipation required to play a high line.
When Spurs reached the final third, one of Villa center-backs also had a tendency to move out of their designated position in order to press which then left some space in behind. It was Son who was usually very quick in exploiting this gaping space.
That said, not all of this was down to Villa’s failings. Some credit had to go to Spurs for putting out a strong front, especially in midfield areas occupied by the excellent Hojbjerg and N’dombele.
With the combination of guile and physicality, they managed to complete the first order of the day – bypassing the Villa’s high press. After which Son could then play off the high line more and more.
Back To Drawing Board?
In the next few games, it will be interesting to see how Dean Smith would react to this latest defeat.
Will he persist with the same system despite the glaring weaknesses? If he does, then it will likely mean another benching for the star signing, Emiliano Buendia, who I think is finding it hard to fit into the 3-5-2 at the moment.
Or, will he go back to the drawing board?
Because in the next two games, Villa will also face quick players like Hwang Hee-Chan at Wolves and also Bukayo Saka at Arsenal who can certainly thrive when given lots of space in front of them.
These will be very, very interesting next few weeks indeed for Dean Smith and Villa.