We Shall Not Be Moved
One of the most surprising inclusions in Paul Lambert’s starting line-up in recent weeks has been Ashley Westwood.
Not surprising for Villa fans maybe, but a little surprising for many neutrals who had expected Colombia’s World Cup hero, Carlos Sanchez, to walk into a team that had struggled to keep its head above the relegation water-line for most of last season. Lambert singled Westwood out for praise this week stating, “Westy’s a very clever player. He goes unnoticed, but it’s up to the England manager.”
“For the two years I’ve been here, Ashley has been so consistent,” added Lambert. “A lad that doesn’t get talked about because he makes the game look so easy at times.”
Paul Lambert’s 2014/15 squad now contains two very different number ‘6’ players. Colombian international Carlos Sanchez is an typical ‘destroyer’ who is able to protect the back four and break up play. Sanchez averaged 2.4 tackles per game and 1.3 interceptions for Elche in La Liga last season which enabled more creative midfielders, such as Coro, the opportunity to focus on creating and scoring goals.
Carlos Sanchez hero is Madrid and Chelsea legend, Claude Makelele and he will surely have an important role this season as the manager looks to rotate the side.
The Westwood Factor
Ashley Westwood, however, is more of a volante in that he is required to help build attacks with Fabian Delph in addition to protecting the back four. The burden of making tackles in Lambert’s team has generally fallen to the attacking midfielder, either Karim El Ahmadi last season or currently Kieran Richardson this season.
Westwood has alternatively assumed the role of Villa’s metronome, dictating the tempo of the team and using positional intelligence rather than physicality. Paul Lambert is not the only person who has thrown admiring glaces in Westwood’s direction in recent years.
Tom Cleverley revealed that he had been impressed with Ashley Westwood’s calmness on the ball and ability in training sessions since he had arrived at the club. Cleverley has played with some fantastic midfield players at Manchester United and singling out Westwood for praise therefore is encouraging for Villa fans. Brendan Rogers is also a fan of the player and he purportedly offered Crewe £500k for Westwood (which was rejected) when he was Swansea manager.
Westwood, as a less physical number 6, made 1.6 tackles per game last season and 1.4 interceptions. The English midfielder currently averages 0.8 tackles per game this season whilst Kieran Richardson, in the advanced central midfield position, is averaging 1.5 tackles per game.
Most managers appear to favour having their playmaker in an advanced position, but Juventus as an example, have Andrea Pirlo in a deep playmaking role with Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba in front. Paul Lambert has shown during his time as Villa manager that he is a fan of having playmakers in deeper roles as he targeted Ki Sung Yeung this summer and we have yet to see the Villa manager play a genuine number 10 such as he did at Norwich with Wes Hoolahan.
It is perhaps Lambert’s moves for Ki and Sanchez that has helped Westwood raise his levels of performance this season. Lambert openly looked to add more physicality to the midfield (Sanchez) and also a more effective playmaker (Ki).
In terms of organising the midfield and using his calmness and intelligence Westwood has started this season in a much more positive fashion than last season. The former Crewe midfielder’s ability to start attacks from central midfield is not currently at the same level as Ki Sung Yeung, but his delivery from set pieces has noticeably improved. Gone are the floated corners, replaced by more laser-guided deliveries, whilst free kicks have been swung into more dangerous and probing areas.
If Westwood could add his improved delivery to open play then there would be a much smother transition between defence and attack. His pass success rate is currently slightly down from last season’s 83% and he will need to increase his accuracy in this regard as other England hopefuls, Cork (86%), Cattermole (86%) and Wilshere (82%) are showing good levels of performance this season.
Right now, Villa’s build up play has been a little awkward, but Westwood and Delph have developed greater responsibility in a positional sense with Villa only conceding one (own) goal. As Lambert suggested, they have grown up. The challenge for the group of central midfielders now is to add more goals and assists to their game as the season progresses.
Diamond International Appeal
In addition, the diamond formation which the manager is currently using, has helped Westwood retain his place in the team. Lambert used a 4-4-2 midfield diamond against Liverpool in which Cleverley and Delph played in their favoured roles as box-to-box midfielders, Cleverley right and Delph on the left. The Bradford academy boys enjoy running, tackling, passing and getting up and down the pitch which has given Westwood a little more time with the ball playing behind such industrious midfielders. Furthermore, Richardson has been tasked with breaking up attacks in the advanced midfield role which has further lessened the defensive responsibility on Westwood.
In Lambert’s current system a player like Carlos Sanchez is not really needed, but this may change as the season unfolds and Lambert looks to include Benteke, Grealish and Cole.
Substituting Richardson for a player like Grealish or Cole would not significantly impact on Westwood’s role in my opinion. Cleverely and Delph played similar roles versus Liverpool to the roles Henderson and Delph played versus Switzerland, where Wilshere played in a deep playmaker role. Should Lambert continue playing with a midfield diamond then Westwood may appeal to Roy Hodgson who will be looking to include players who can easily adapt to his system, particularly as the England manager most needs a player who is comfortable at the base of a diamond.
However, Westwood is likely to face strong competition from players such as Wilshere, Cattermole and Cork. The latter two have been overlooked by England managers, but their ability to retain possession and start attacks is something that often goes unnoticed by Premier League fans.
Delph’s inclusion in the England squad is further likely to galvanise Westwood and Cleverley’s desire to gain national recognition and Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa side currently have a strong English core of players with Baker, Westwood, Delph, Cleverley, Gabby and potentially Grealish to choose from should Hodgson visit Villa Park again in the non too distant future.
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