The first day of a new football season is a special time for football fans all over the World. The moments before the first kick-off are when hope is high that this season could be a success for your team, despite what logic may actually be telling you.
The feeling is only magnified for fans of teams who were promoted the previous season and would be competing at a higher level. This was the narrative surrounding the opening weekend of the Premier League season as Tottenham Hotspur faced off against Aston Villa.
The overriding story at the beginning of last season was that Spurs had not signed a single player. Despite this lack of transfer activity we still saw them secure a top-four finish, while also reaching the final of the Champions League for the first time in their history.
This year, however, we have seen a number of new arrivals at the club. Chief amongst those is club-record signing Tanguy Ndombele, signed from Lyon, along with the mercurial Argentinian midfielder Giovani Lo Celso who joined in a deadline day loan deal from Real Betis.
Aston Villa are back in the top flight for the first time in what must feel like an eternity. Following from their surprising relegation from the Premier League the club underwent a period of mismanagement both on and off the field.
Money was spent on players who either had the wrong age profile or just did not have the quality to play at the top level.
Following the appointment of the Brentford coach Dean Smith, we started to see a turn around at Villa Park. Performances improved and the club ended up gaining promotion through the play-offs.
What followed feels like a risk as over £100million was spent on refreshing and rebuilding the squad. There is always a risk when you try to introduce a large number of players into your first-team squad as they have to mesh with existing players and learn a new playing system.
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In this tactical analysis, we will examine the match in detail paying particular attention to the defensive structure employed by Aston Villa and the issues that faced Spurs in their build-up play.
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Wyscout has the Spurs system as a 4-3-1-2 with a diamond in the midfield. In truth, however, Erik Lamela who was listed as the player at the top of the diamond drifted into wide areas more often and emptied the ‘10’ space. This created more of a 4-3-3 shape at times.
The only new signing to start the match for Spurs was Tanguy Ndombele, although it was interesting to see Kyle Walker-Peters start at right-back after the sale of Kieran Tripper in the summer to Atletico Madrid.
Aston Villa started in something approaching a 4-1-4-1 with the two wide midfielders looking to break forward whenever possible to support new signing Wesley, who was the lone frontman.
The key to the Villa system last season, however, was the movement of the two advanced central midfielders, Jack Grealish and John McGinn who will break forward wherever possible to support the attack.
Aston Villa deep defensive block
The reality of the first match back in the Premier League for Aston Villa was that they were going to spend the vast majority of the match in their defensive phase. This was born out in the match as they registered just 30 per cent possession with Spurs having 70 per cent.
We were also never likely to see a high press from the visitors as they displayed a tendency last season to sit in deep compact blocks to obstruct potential passing lanes.
Once again this was seen in the advanced metrics of the match in terms of the passes per defensive action (PPDA) for the two sides.
This number shows the number of passes a team will allow their opposition before they move to press. The lower the number the more ferocious the press. In this match, Villa registered a PPDA of 14.67 compared to 5.33 for Spurs.
This was not a surprise though and Villa was hugely impressed with their work out of possession of the ball.
As Villa took the lead early in the match they were more comfortable dropping into deep areas whenever Spurs had possession of the ball. You can see this shape in the image above.
Note that even Wesley is behind the ball and the two more advanced central midfielders are positioned in such a way to deny Spurs a clear passing lane to combine into Harry Kane in the centre of the pitch.
They were content to sit in a compact shape behind the ball. This frustrated Spurs as the home side slowly circulated the ball in front of the defensive block in an effort to tempt the Villa players to break from their shape to press the ball.
The fact this did not happen and Spurs struggled to break their opponents down was a mark of the tactical work done on the Villa training field.
You see a similar situation in the example above but this time with Villa in an even deeper block.
This time even the two central midfielders have collapsed back onto the same line as the deepest central midfielder, Conor Hourihane, while Spurs have ended up with four attacking players spread across the highest line.
The speed of play from Spurs, however, was so slow that they really struggled to quicken the pace of play in order to move the Villa block and find a way to play through.
Spurs struggle to progress the ball
For the vast majority of the match, we saw Spurs find it tough to do anything with their possession of the ball.
Too often the progression up the field slowed to a standstill just before they entered the final third. This was often a direct result of the ball reaching the French midfielder Moussa Sissoko.
Last season we saw the Frenchman improve to the point that he was almost unrecognisable from the player who initially moved to the club from Newcastle. This match saw a return to the same player who failed to control the ball let alone do anything progressive with it.
The issues in possession also spread to the problems that arose with Lamela who continually drifted out of the central areas. This lack of a player in the ‘10’ space meant that there was no option for Spurs between the midfield and the forward player.
Here, we see Spurs in possession as they look to progress the ball into a dangerous area. The structure of the Spurs players in this image perfectly captures the issues that they had in looking to break through the defensive shape.
On the same line with the ball, there are four players. There are another five players across the most advanced line. There are, however, no Spurs players who are connecting the two lines to allow the ball to progress forward.
If Spurs had dropped a player into the space that is highlighted on the image then a vertical pass could have been played into this area in order to connect the two lines and force an opposition player to move out to engage the ball.
Again in this example we see the issues in the build-up phase for Spurs.
In comfortable possession in the centre of the field, the first player looks to come short from a wide right position. This leaves Harry Kane as the only advanced forward and he simply could not gain separation from the two Villa central defenders. Kane was not a threat to run in behind the defence and Villa were able to maintain control of the space relatively easily.
That was until Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino made a change and introduced Danish international Christian Eriksen in the 64th minute.
Eriksen the catalyst
A large storyline from the pre-season for Spurs was the desire of Eriksen to leave the club for a new challenge, specifically in Spanish football.
This was most likely the reason that the Dane was left out of the starting lineup for this match. He eventually came on to replace Harry Winks and the game changed from there.
We saw Eriksen come into the match with a free role of sorts that saw him occupy the spaces that allowed the ball to be progressed forward. We can see this in the image above.
The ball is initially just inside the Villa half, previously we would have seen the ball circulated across and wide in order to try to get around the Villa block.
Now, with Eriksen on the field, there was a connection into the ‘10’ space that allowed the ball to be progressed forward,
You can see a similar position in the example above with Eriksen positioned behind the midfield line.
This allows the ball to be played through centrally behind the line of the midfield. One simple pass and suddenly Kane comes into play with the forward coming alive as the ball is moved into the ‘10’ space.
With Eriksen on the field, Spurs were a completely different proposition scoring three times to end the match with a comfortable 3-1 victory.
In the end a win for Spurs appears to be comfortable but, actually, the final result was flattering for the home side as they struggled for a prolonged period to force a breakthrough.
Aston Villa were defensively impressive and they threatened sporadically on the break. It remains to be seen whether Villa will be able to play this way effectively week in and week out but at least they came into the match with a plan.
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