By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Leeds United
For the first time in 90 years, Villa have won all of their four opening games of the season. Next up is a visit from new boys Leeds United; a win here would see Villa go top of the league and see them winning their first five league games for the first time ever.
Leeds have had a respectable start to the season so far, putting in some eye-catching performances. They come into this match after a narrow loss to Wolves, and will be aiming to bounce back quickly.
Aston Villa – W W W W
Leeds United – L W W D L
Dean Smith on Unbeaten Start
“We’ve certainly had a very good start. I said after the game against Leicester that Sheffield United, Fulham and ourselves would have looked at those opening two games and saw an opportunity to pick up points.
“We managed to win both of them and then you go into Liverpool and Leicester, who are both top five teams.
“They were really tough games and to come through those with maximum points certainly exceeds expectations. Our feet are firmly on the ground because if you’re off it at any stage in the league, you can get a bloody nose very quickly.”
On the season ahead
“We’re not looking that far ahead. It’s just one game at a time. We’re only four games into a 38-game season.
“It’s been a great start, winning all four games, but there’s certainly a long way to go. We just have to concentrate on our next game.
“We’ve got a big game now against Leeds United, who have started the season well as a newly promoted team.”
Marcelo Bielsa on squad versatility
“We have many players who can play in a number of positions, almost all of them, barring Bamford and Cooper, almost all of them play in more than one position.
“Being able to play in more than one position always helps the manager and it’s not that I force them to play in other positions, when you play in a certain position it leads you to do things in different positions, the wingers play on both sides, the full-backs a lot of times do this as well, the defensive midfielders can act as centre backs and all these types of movements mean that players can play in different positions.”
Leeds have mainly made use of a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Patrick Bamford up front, Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo in behind and Kalvin Phillips in front of centre backs Liam Cooper and Robin Koch.
They won the Championship last season with a relentless press and a ball playing style which they have carried into the Premier League, averaging 54.4% possession and 80% passing accuracy. They shoot fairly often with decent accuracy – 11.6 shots registered per game, 5.6 of which were on target, giving them a shot accuracy of 48.3%
Leeds have managed nine goals from 6.84 xG at the moment, a slight over-performance but not necessarily unsustainable. Six of these were from open play from 44 shots, wiith each shot averaging 0.11 xG. A heavily possession based play style will see them in front of goal often, but they don’t always manage to carve out great chances with it.
However they have also conceded nine goals so far from 8.28 xGA; their defense is allowing their opponents to get out of games roughly what they put in. They push up high and try to play as much of the game as they can in their opponent’s half, but this leaves them exposed, particularly when the fullbacks join the attack. This has seen them concede a worrying 63 shots against them so far, as well as giving away three penalties in five games – a symptom of panicky defending.
It is commendable that a team which has just risen out of the Championship is able to go into games against higher quality opponents playing the game on their own terms. They will need to shore up their defense if they are to carry on like this though; while they are mostly able to handle what they are faced with, they allow their opponents far too many chances, and it will cause them problems in the long term.
One to Watch
Striker Patrick Bamford currently leads the team for goals with three so far, registering 2.8 shots per game with a personal xG of 1.57. He is the only player in the squad with an xG above 1.00 so far, so his importance to Leeds in the final third goes without saying.
Aston Villa 1-0 Leeds United – 13-04-2018
Villa won this fixture only once in three Championship seasons, when Lewis Grabban’s early strike was enough to secure the three points.
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How it could play out
Another game, another injury crisis for the opposition. This time, Leeds find themselves one Kalvin Phillips and possibly a Liam Cooper light. Both of these players are key for Leeds, so their absence will be felt.
It could be argued that Villa have been lucky with injuries for opposing teams so far with both Liverpool and Leicester minus some big names. However this does not diminish Villa’s performances so far; teams should have the depth and tactics to deal with losses like these, and should be well prepared to make meaningful changes in response.
Leeds typically deploy a press not unlike the gegenpress Liverpool have become famous for. They will have paid attention to Villa’s deconstruction of Liverpool a few weeks ago though, so they will be mindful of the inherent weaknesses of that strategy and how Villa set up to counter it.
All of Villa’s recruitment in the summer suggested they were trying to get the right players to absorb pressure and break with pace, which is exactly the strategy that has proven to be Leeds’ kryptonite. They are also guilty of pressing too hard for too long, and while they are athletically fit and capable of sustaining long periods or pressure, they have been unable to see a game out without visibly tiring so far.
The question going into this game is how badly will Phillips be missed? He is the ideal anchor for the way Leeds like to play; aggressive when winning the ball back and a good passer, with a pass success of 82.8%. Can Pascal Struijk plug the gap?
Meanwhile, here’s another fun Villa stat – so far this season, they have spent 0 minutes in a losing position. Given how bad the defense was for the majority of last season, this is remarkable. It shows just how much Villa have improved all over the pitch.
With the chance to go top of the league and make it five wins from five, Villa will be well up for this one. This should be a good game.
Aston Villa 2-1 Leeds United
This game is a potential banana skin for Villa. On paper and on current form, they should have this one in the bag. However it’s never that simple, and Leeds’ persistence on the ball means they can expect to carve out chances. Villa should be too much for them however, although it could be tight.