One of the great things about football (sometimes) is the variety of opinions, some more valid than others. Fans are particularly vociferous in expressing those opinions after a loss. I’ve read them all. Take your pick of the players not playing yesterday; that’s why we lost. We missed Albrighton. We missed Collins. We missed a big man in the middle. Downing should play on the left. Ireland is rubbish.
If only it were that simple. (Ireland is a bit rubbish so far though).
Let’s look at the wing issue and Stewart Downing first. I don’t know whether losing Albrighton to illness again threw a stick in Houllier’s spokes too late in the day to make the necessary tactical changes or whether playing “inside-out” wingers was always his intention against Blackburn. The fact that Downing spent the entire game on the right might suggest that it was the game plan, otherwise he would surely have asked him to spend at least 10 or 15 minutes on the left.
Once the game kicked off and Downing announced his presence on the right with another surging run into the box, setting up a fine opportunity to test Paul Robinson inside the opening three minutes, I figured that we would be using an attacking 4-5-1/4-3-3 system. Something along these lines:
Ash has always been better on the left than the right and is the epitome of an inside-out winger. He’s credible in that role because his left foot is good enough to give the full backs something to think about. They know that simply shepherding him outside gifts him an opportunity to deliver an out-swinging cross almost as good as the in-swinger he can deliver if allowed inside.
Unfortunately, Downing’s right foot isn’t quite as convincing as Ash’s left, but for some reason Ash never looks entirely comfortable on the right either, so we’re left with two wingers who both deliver their best football on the left.
The asymmetrical approach
A balanced team has its benefits, but there’s no law that says you must place a winger on each flank. Without Albrighton, whose left foot is pretty weak, I’d have been tempted to focus on the strengths of the side I had left if I were the manager and let Ash and Downing both work the left. Sure, why not?
From an attacking perspective, this gives you the best of both worlds on the left, but obviously leaves you horribly exposed on the right defensively.
Now I don’t normally play the “here’s what I would have done” angle as it’s easy after the game, anyone can be a tactical genius after the final whistle. Hindsight is truly 20/20. However, I bring the lopsided element up with good reason; I mentioned in the initial match review that we appeared to employ a lopsided attack during the 2nd half, but once I had chance to trawl through the data I found that was the approach for the entire game.
But, counter-intuitively, the focus was, of course, on the right. There was next to no focus on the left until the later stages of the game. Despite losing Albrighton, Ash essentially played as the 2nd striker with Gabby and Downing ran the right flank all game. Hogg, Bannan, Ireland and, later, Pires stuck to the middle of the park, although Bannan and Pires focused on the left channel as Blackburn sank deep to protect their two goal lead.
This is clear as day in the average position map at the bottom and the attack charts back that up; attacks were focused down the right 46%, the middle 33% and just 21% down the left.
For once, against Man Utd, we ran a more traditional system with Downing on the left and Albrighton on the right, with both wingers sticking to their respective flanks for the whole game. I created a heat map showing the separation for the Statshack and I’ve brought it back here for comparative purposes, but I’ve reversed it to show the attack moving from right to left.
I’ve applied the same process to Downing and Ash from the Blackburn game and it reveals the neglect of the left. (You’ll have to trust me that showing someone else such as Gabby or Bannan on the map doesn’t fill the space; I found showing more than two players makes these heat maps a bit messy if there isn’t the separation).
Hopefully you find Gabby conspicuous by his absence. You can see for yourself in the average position map, but the fact that he wasn’t worth including in this analysis with Downing and Ash could be a significant factor.
78 minutes on the pitch, not a single effort on goal. He played mostly with his back to goal, receiving the ball and laying it off. 13 passes, mostly focused to the right flank (duh), the majority backwards. A couple of interceptions aside, winning very little he challenged for in the air.
Conclusion: not fit or sharp enough to be starting.
Central midfield passing maps
I mentioned in the review post that I may have done Ireland a slight disservice by pointing out that he and Pires completed the same number of passes (17) during their respective time on the pitch. The truth is that at the time Ireland left the pitch in the 68th minute, Barry Bannan had also only completed 17 passes (68% complete) and Jonathan Hogg was the leading passer on the pitch with 30 complete passes (94% complete).
Robert Pires stepped onto the pitch with Blackburn looking to defend a two goal lead for the final 22 minutes plus stoppages. This is where Bannan came into his own and was the leading passer during this final phase with 28 complete passes (93% complete) and ended the game with the 2nd most complete passes (45, 82% complete) behind Luke Young with 51 passes (86% complete).
The passing maps below show the two phases. Bannan focused on shorter, simpler passes during the 2nd phase, Pires’s stray passes were all in the final third, around the D, attempts to make something happen and Hogg – the deeper, more defensive player – became less involved.
It would be unfair to leap to the conclusion that Ireland’s absence and Pires’ presence helped Bannan, the dynamics of the game were very different, but I think this is something worth keeping an eye on in future. Is it possible that Pires’ style is more conducive to bringing out the best in Bannan? Absolutely, but I’ll reserve judgment on that at this stage. We’ll see.
Interceptions and the aerial battle
Blackburn made an astonishing 38 interceptions and it’s worth looking at the graphic to show how important they probably were. This is a key reason why we really struggled to create anything in the final third, Blackburn turned over possession time and again. The distribution once again reveals Villa’s focus of attack.
We’re continuing to lose more than we win in the air. Of 26 “aerial duals” in this game, Villa lost 20. Four of the five duals you see in that cluster in Blackburn’s box occurred during the final 20 minutes.
The Big Numbers
So, enough of the technical details, the overview numbers look how we might have expected. We had two thirds of possession and also had a two third share of the completed passes. But for all the possession and passing, we weren’t able to generate a single shot more on target than Blackburn did.
10 of Villa’s 16 attempts on goal were by Downing (six) and Ash (four) with each player managing two on target each. No one else troubled Paul Robinson all game.
Pedersen had just two cracks at goal, both were on target, both nestled the net. That’s a great day at the office.
Blackburn basically did to us what we’ve done to many of the top sides ourselves. Namely being efficient, every pass had a purpose, and taken the chances when they came, before retreating into their shell to protect the lead. Nothing wrong with that at all.
|2||Blackburn||November 21st 2010||Aston Villa||0|
|Pedersen 45′, 66′||Scorers|
|Average Position Maps|
Conclusions then? Well, just looking at that average position map above, I’d be tempted to say that if Ash were nearer the left touchline on average, in that gaping wound in front of Warnock (wonder why Warnock had his hands full?) and Gabby, or better still Delfouneso, was closer to where Ash is shown (instead of on top of Ireland), maybe, just maybe, we might have got a different result.
You can find Statshacks from other games here.