By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Manchester City
A well-fought but costly win at Burnley lifted Villa out of the relegation zone last weekend. Now they welcome third placed Manchester City to Villa Park in a bid to gather some form.
Currently a single point behind Leicester and a huge 14 points behind leaders Liverpool, this is not a brilliant season by their exceptional standards. Of course, they are still loaded with quality and can beat any team in the world on their day.
Can Villa beat the odds and cause an upset?
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Aston Villa – L L W L W
Manchester City – W W L W W
Dean Smith on facing top managers
“You are always having a constant game of chess with them – obviously Pep is a better chess player than I am at the moment. So I’m looking forward to the game but I certainly won’t be knocking my King over.
“His teams are always trying to create overloads. Try and block the middle of the pitch and they’ll try and create overloads on the outside. Try and block the outside and they’ll create overloads on the inside.
“They have world-class players and coach and you need them to have an off day – but they had off days at Norwich and Wolves this season so we have to believe in ourselves.”
Pep Guardiola on playing against Aston Villa
“You have to play all the teams, sometimes at the top and bottom.
“It’s a fantastic stadium, they changed the last games, the way they set up, played five at the back, they had big injuries last week so we try to maintain the form we have.”
On the Title Race
“The pressure is always the same, try to play good and win the games, whether you’re 14 points ahead or 14 points behind. We’ll try to maintain the dynamic that we have.”
Pep Guardiola is well known for his use of the 4-3-3. This season he has mainly used Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez either side of either Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero. They are fed by the formidable axis of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, backed up by Nicolas Otamendi and midfielder-turned-defender Fernandinho, in the absence of Aymeric Laporte.
Nobody in the league stamps their authority on a match like Man City do, with an average possession of 60.5% and a passing accuracy of 88.6%. A student of Johan Cruyff, Pep ensures his teams are doggedly familiar with the concept of Total Football – the idea that everybody on the pitch knows everybody else’s roles and can play them. This ensures a higher level of understanding between players, and better runs and positioning as a result.
Good examples of their near telepathic understanding can be seen in both of Jesus’ goals against Everton last time out. In each case an incisive through ball, first from Phil Foden and then from Mahrez, was easily converted. They cut through Everton like butter over and over again, and they are capable of doing so every time they play.
It goes without saying that they are the highest scoring team this season – 56 goals from an overall xG of 56.18 is both ruthless and consistent. They have failed to score in a game on only one occasion so far this season, a stat beaten only by Liverpool.
For a team so prolific and so dominant on the ball, to have conceded 24 goals is surprising. In the grand scheme of things it is not and alarming stat, but it shed some light on why they are trailing so far behind the leaders at the moment – by their astronomical standards, their defence is leaky. Having a defensive midfielder stand in for a centre back is probably the reason for this; Villa themselves will be aware of how problematic that can be from the Bruce era.
Man City are strong, skillful and dangerous in every position. They can force mistakes and punish them in a single move. Villa will need to be extremely vigilant to get a positive result here.
One to Watch
Far from the wasteful and goal shy young boy who arrived from Liverpool, too scared to risk taking a shot for fear of messing it up, Raheem Sterling has grown into arguably the best attacking player in the country. He flitters about, swapping positions with his attacking partners constantly, terrorising every part of a team’s defence. His 11 goals from 11.59 xG is ample proof of how dangerous he has become.
If anything, it is strange that he has only provided one assist. It is perhaps less important, then, to worry about what he is doing with the ball leading up to a goal than it is to consider where he is when the ball arrives in the box.
Aston Villa 3-2 Man City – 28-09-2013
Two quickfire goals from Leandro Bacuna and Andi Weimann added to Karim El Ahmadi’s strike, proving to be too much for City on this day. They couldn’t defeat Villa then, so they sent the benched defenders Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott to do it instead, later on.
Man City 3-0 Aston Villa – 26-10-2019
A spirited defensive performance in the first half saw Villa deny City and see half time at 0-0. This good work was almost immediately undone in the second half by the imperious Raheem Sterling, with David SIlva and Ilkay Gundogan providing some added flair to the result. Fernadinho’s 87th minute red card was the final nail in Villa’s coffin, frankly.
Despite this result, Villa fans were generally pleased with how their team conducted themselves and stood up against a far superior side. Sometimes the final result doesn’t tell the whole story in a wider context.
How it could play out
After Wesley’s season-ending injury, along with Davis being out still and Kodjia with one eye on the exit as it seems, it looks likely that Villa will go into this match with absolutely no recognised striker in the entire squad. With Wesley being essentially the only real option for much of the season there was always a risk of this happening, and if they plan on staying in the league this problem needs addressing pronto.
We saw in the draw against Leicester midweek – in which the league’s second best side this season fielded a full strength team – that Smith does have the tools to cope. His willingness to adapt and finally make a necessary formation switch was met well by fans, and it paid off fairly well.
With a back three supported by wing-backs instead of a standard back four, with Mings operating not unlike a American Football quarterback when playing out from the back, Villa look much stronger than in previous weeks. Smith also went full Guardiola against Leicester and fielded El Ghazi as a false nine – this will likely be the case again against Man City.
What let them down and allowed Leicester to keep on coming was an uninspiring performance in the midfield. Mistakes abounded and Villa spent most of the time on the back foot. With the arrival of a former Premier League winner and midfield general in Danny Drinkwater, There may be a solution to this problem. He will likely make his debut here – can Smith coax the best out of him?
After the last match, Guardiola offered soaring praise for Grealish, even going as far as to claim he would be “too expensive” for City. This is about as good a compliment as can be given by an opposition coach, and for it to come from arguably the best manager in the world is something else entirely.
The point is, City know his quality and they will look to cut his influence on the match down. Man City are not above tactical fouling, and with Jack’s ability to win fouls in dangerous areas, expect to see an exorbitant amount in this match.
Grealish’s vision and ability to create space and exploit it will be crucial, if Villa are going to get anything here. In other news, water is wet and the sky is blue.
Last time, Villa went to the Etihad and defended extremely resolutely against City for 45 minutes. This time, at home, Villa will go in with potentially a stronger defensive setup, and could reasonably hold them off for the full 90. Perhaps they can nick a goal or two against the run of play, too.
Man City are not invincible, as has been proven by the likes of Norwich and Newcastle.
Aston Villa 1-3 Man City
There are no doubts that Villa will give it 100%, and they do have it in them to counter attack well against teams that push high. However, the innate quality in City’s squad looks almost certain to be too much for a Villa side in turmoil to be able to hold off forever.