Aston Villa vs Leicester
By Dean Gregory
Thanks to a dogged defensive performance and the sheer magic of Emi Martinez, Villa managed to survive Brighton’s onslaught last time out to secure a 0-0 draw. They are 8th at the time of writing, four points off the top six.
Leicester City have been in good form of late and find themselves in third, level on points with Man Utd and behind on goal difference. Ten points separate them from the top spot, but they look good value for a Champions League place at the moment.
If Villa could complete a double over the Foxes though, it would be a welcome adrenaline shot for the remaining months of the season, after an unconvincing few weeks in terms of performances.
Aston Villa – L W L W D
Leicester – D L W D W
Dean Smith on recent form
“I think our performances haven’t been as consistent as they were earlier in the season. There’s a lot of reasons for that. We played a game against Manchester United on New Year’s Day and then had to close the training ground down due to a COVID-19 outbreak and ended up with no one training for ten days.
“We came back and had six games in 18 days with zero training again. It was pretty much recovery strategies and with that, you’re going to get some inconsistencies. There have been some very good performances within that, and I think the hunger and desire to keep playing well has been there for all to see.
“In the last two games we’ve played Arsenal and Brighton, conceded zero goals and taken four points, so it’s certainly not a bad place to be in.”
Brendan Rodgers on Aston Villa
“They’ve been fantastic for me this season. Because of the nature of how they came up, you’re always chasing it when it’s the play-offs, getting new players in. There was a lot that Dean had to deal with last season but they got over the line, stayed up, and that gave them the summer to invest in the squad and stabilise everything.
“They’ve brought in very good players. The goalkeeper has given them that security, Ross Barkley is a fantastic player, Jack Grealish is one of the top players for me at this level, he’s such an outstanding talent, and he’s one that makes everyone else better. And Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash coming in, these are two boys that have shown the hunger to succeed at the highest level and that can really spread through the group.
“I think, one game a week, you can prepare and get ready, and they come into every game, and in the main, have played very well. Earlier in the season we had a really tight game against them, they got the goal towards the end. They’ve shown they are a team of quality and we’ll look forward to hopefully a good game.”
Leicester mainly use a 4-2-3-1 formation with Jamie Vardy up front, Mark Albrighton, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes behind him, Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans in front of the defence and a back four of Timothy Castagne, Wesley Fofana, Jonny Evans and James Justin.
Averaging 51.8% possession and 81.3% pass success, they have transitioned into a side that is capable of dominant performances and imposing their style upon their opponents. Rather than the smash-and-grab approach that got them to where they are, they now challenge their opponents to come up with an answer to them – this is what all top teams do.
They have not forgotten those roots, however. 10% of all passes attempted are played long, utilising Vardy’s pace and ability to get on the wrong side of defenders. They find success by striking a balance between quick passing plays down the wings when they are on the front foot, and completely bypassing the midfield altogether when they are pinned back.
They are dangerous in front of goal. They have scored 42 goals from 36.59 xG; they do not struggle to create chances, but they are capable of converting half chances and are willing to take risks. They have won 10 penalties so far (scoring eight), showing they are tricky in the box and a handful for defenders to deal with.
They have conceded 26 goals from 30.71 xGA. This shows they are as competent at the back as they are going forward, but for a team challenging at the top it will be a concern to them that they allow as many chances as they do. Overperforming in this manner is always a good thing, but there is the threat of the bubble bursting.
Leicester are the team that Villa should be looking to emulate – they have transitioned successfully from nailed-on relegation fodder to a team expected to challenge amongst the top four, and they have done so by knowing what approach to bring to each game and the right time to change things up. There are lessons to be learned from the way they operate.
One to Watch
Leicester’s success has always been built on a foundation of defensive solidity, and Wilfred Ndidi provides that protection admirably. He leads the team on tackles and interceptions (3.6 and 2.3 per game respectively), while also being capable of carrying the ball forward, with 1.8 successful dribbles per game. He has also chipped in with a goal and an assist, showing he is useful all over the pitch.
Aston Villa 2-1 Leicester – 07-12-2014
Ciaran Clark and Alan Hutton cancelled out Leonardo Ulloa’s early opener to secure all three points the last time Villa beat Leicester at home in the league.
Leicester 0-1 Aston Villa – 18-10-2020
A tightly contested match against an admittedly depleted Leicester side, decided by a moment of magic by Ross Barkley in injury time. This match proved Villa’s ability to grind out ugly wins when things weren’t going their way, a skill that has eluded them for years and that has been demonstrated at other times this season.
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How it could play out
Villa have had a difficult time of things of late, but have still managed to get points on the board regardless. While the Brighton game showed an alarming lack of cohesion and gumption in the team to get forward, it did demonstrate how much more switched on they are as a unit these days when under pressure. It also helped to solidify Martinez’s claim to be considered amongst the league’s elite goalkeepers, if there was still any doubt.
However, these are some meager positives to draw from a game Dean Smith himself admitted he didn’t bother to watch back. Was there anything that could be learned from the mistakes made in that game, or were Villa simply outplayed by a team finding their stride and finally getting the results their football has deserved?
The turn of the year has seen Villa’s season suffer a moderate wobble, and the reality that this team is not yet ready to be considered consistent top six contenders is setting in. They are very much an outside bet to gatecrash Europe this season, but this in itself should not be considered a bad thing – grinding out a draw in that match would not have panned out that way last season, and that shows a marked improvement overall. Fans should find solace in the bigger picture; Villa are getting better year on year, exactly as planned.
The players will know that performances have been off for the last few weeks, and hopefully they will have a plan to get back in the saddle. They have consistently performed well against better sides this season (another evidence of their upward trajectory from last season), so will be well up for the fight against a Leicester side in good form.
Perhaps this time there needs to be some shake ups to the side. One of these is forced – a potential mid-term injury to Matty Cash will surely see the experienced and reliable Ahmed Elmohamady enter the side for the foreseeable future, while midfield frailties should probably be assessed, too.
There has been much speculation among fans that Barkley is out of sorts and should be dropped. The insinuation that he is lazy and ineffective is unfair, but it is true that his defensive contribution under pressure is lacking. He is good at blocking passes and applying pressure on the front foot and can win games with a single moment (as proved in the reverse fixture), but of late Villa have been firmly on the back foot and his refusal to get back and help out could be detrimental in the next couple of games.
Morgan Sanson’s brief cameo showed he might have the tenacity and grit to remedy the problem of a weak midfield, and his presence could take some of the pressure off McGinn and Luiz and allow them to find space to work with.
Smith is unlikely to drop Barkley though, considering his wages and the effort to get him in. Hopefully he’ll be sharper now he has games under his belt and a couple of weeks of proper training.
Whatever happens, Smith has proven that his long-term planning is solid, and whatever choices he makes will be very well informed.
Aston Villa 0-1 Leicester
Leicester are closer to full strength at the moment than they were last time out, and this is unlikely to be the game where an out-of-sorts Villa suddenly stamps their authority. It will likely play out much the same as the reverse, but with Vardy popping up with the moment of inspiration instead.
This is not a game Villa would be expected to win at the best of times, but they have proven they can get something out of it with sheer determination.