Tim Sherwood had every right to present himself as disconsolate following this weekend’s game. For over an hour of Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Leicester City, Aston Villa had played with an assuredness and vibrancy unseen in claret and blue for quite some time. The extent to which the visitors toyed with their hosts for two thirds of this fixture will have only deepened the hurt during the Villa manager’s post mortem.
Sherwood may well reflect on the 62nd minute as pivotal. Carlos Gil, the stylish Spaniard at the heart of much of Villa’s incisive attacking play had, in one flash of his left boot, doubled Villa’s lead and equalled Jack Grealish’s impressive first half strike. At that stage, the visitors were playing with the kind of authority and swagger their new manager craves.
Yet, less than five minutes later Gil saw the number 25 flash up on the substitute’s board and his afternoon was over. The former Valencia creator replaced by Jordan Ayew. Sherwood had traded flair, the ability to manipulate and retain the ball for potentially a more powerful and incisive frontline threat.
At the time, it seemed like decisive action. Instead of retreating into their defensive shell, Villa would add an additional forward threat to their vibrant front line of Gabby Agbonlahor, Scott Sinclair and Jack Grealish with the aim of continuing to push Claudio Ranieri’s side backwards.
Ayew took Grealish’s perch on the left-wing, with the young playmaker dropping back alongside Ashley Westwood in central midfield. It proved a poor choice – Ayew looked sluggish in and out of possession and Grealish’s wiry frame is better suited to scheming in forward and wide areas. The move would have serious ramifications on the afternoon’s events.
Aston Villa’s evolving identity under Sherwood is expansive, attacking and hugely entertaining to watch. Villa’s front three are supported quickly by two attacking midfielders with threat in wide areas provided by full-backs Leandro Bacuna and Jordan Amavi. The right-sided Bacuna, in particular, was employed for most of the afternoon as a winger and continually waved forward over the half-way line as Villa build play from the back.
Such a buccaneer approach brings strain elsewhere. Most clearly in central areas in front of Villa’s back two and in the spaces vacated by their attacking full-backs. The onus for plugging these gaps was once again left with the deep-lying midfielder, Carlos Sanchez.
The Colombian excelled for the majority of the match with his combative approach and ability to screen and interrupt, but as the toils of his earlier work took hold he craved help and support. The spaces were getting wider. Villa’s defending became increasingly anxious with Micah Richards having to step forward into midfield to make sliding challenges on numerous occasions. The warning signs for Villa were advertised.
Tired legs and open spaces are food and drink to Leicester’s mesmeric winger Riyad Mahrez and it is no coincidence that the Algerian took a firm grasp of proceedings from this point.
Ranieri had struggled to find an operating area for his mercurial attacker to display his full menu of feints, disguises and surprises – switching him to a central role behind Vardy at the start of second period, before again pulling him back onto the right wing. In the end the game’s passage of time and Villa’s widening defensive gaps provided the £330,000 signing from French side Le Harve with the platform he had spent long periods of this game looking for.
Hindsight is the best friend of all critics, but Sherwood will surely rue the opportunity in the 62nd minute not to strengthen his central midfield security and plug the growing gaps in wide areas.
Many sides with a taste for attacking full-backs deploy two central defensive midfielders charged with covering any upfield exploits. With the left-footed Mahrez continually stepping inside to run at the heart of the visitors’ backline Sherwood’s side craved a defensive blanket to throw over his creative space, yet as the game evolved Mahrez saw only open grass.
Villa’s start to the season continues to show great attacking promise and it will be a shame if Sherwood’s open despondency with this result means the former Tottenham boss tears up his preferred attacking script. For Villa the search for attacking perfection with defensive pragmatism continues. For Leicester and Mahrez, the journey is just beginning.
The original form of this article appeared on Tacticiancolumn
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