By Dean Gregory
Manchester City vs Aston Villa
The toughest test of Villa’s season so far begins on Saturday as they travel to the Etihad to face champions Manchester City, in the first of two consecutive games against the current top two.
City have already played a match this week at home, a 5-1 drubbing of Atalanta in the Champions League in which they fielded a strong 11. Villa will be fresh from last week’s gruelling victory against Brighton as their good form finally starts to yield results.
It’s certainly be a platform for the likes of Tyrone Mings and Jack Grealish to further prove their talent, against the very best.
Have Villa’s fortunes turned at the right time? Can they win three consecutive Premier League matches for the first time in a decade? Or is City one step too far?
Man City – L W W L W
Aston Villa – D L D W W
Dean Smith on confidence
“They are the champions of England for a reason. They don’t lose many games, although they have lost a couple this year.
“They’re chasing Liverpool at the moment because they are some points behind them.
“It’s a tough place to go, we know that, but we have great belief in ourselves.
“My final message when we go over the white line will be ‘listen they’re not superhuman, they are human just like yourselves, if you run harder than them and you’re mentally stronger than them, you’ve got a good chance.’
“It’s 11 v 11. The mental side of going into games like this is so important – ‘don’t fear them, respect them by all means because they are top players’.
“But we have players who want to be top players and have the potential to be – so there’s your stage, go and show it.”
Pep Guardiola on Douglas Luiz
“He would be here if a work permit were possible if the Premier League said it would be possible but now he is at Aston Villa.
“We have an option to get him back but sometimes life is like this. We wanted him because last season we had problems in that position because we didn’t buy a holding midfielder.
“We wanted him before so we thought about it but the rules with the work permit meant it was not possible. I thought he would be here with the pre-season he played last year in the States, he was really good. I think he had the quality to play with us but he could not do it.
“The talent is always there, we’ll see at the end of the season what his level is but the quality is always there.”
Pep on Villa
Aston Villa have team spirit and quality up front. They have got Grealish, McGinn – and Wesley is an incredibly strong striker.
“They’re newly promoted to the Premier League and they’re getting good results. It looks like a good environment there. That’s one of the biggest qualities.”
Pep Guardiola tends to use a 4-3-3, rotating his bountiful squad regularly. Whoever starts, the goal is the same; dominate possession and overwhelm the opposition. With intelligent game readers all over the pitch, their movement means a pass is almost always available, and when the ball is lost they can win it back with little effort.
City’s overwhelming dominance has been best demonstrated in the 8-0 win over Watford. 68.7% possession, 90% pass success from 727 passes culminating in 28 shots, 11 on target and eight goals.
Four players earned 10 ratings via WhoScored: Bernardo Silva, Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne. Raheem Sterling, their second-highest rated player this season, didn’t even play. When on song, they are the best attacking outfit in the league and seem unbeatable at times.
They are, however, not invincible. Any defeat for a team like Man City can be considered an upset, but even more so when they come against sides like Norwich and Wolves – both of whom are currently below Villa in the table. In both of these games, Guardiola tinkered with a 4-2-3-1 formation with both Rodrigo and Gundogan sitting in front of the defence – Rodrigo to assist the back line and Gundogan to assist the attack from deep. This formation has been utilised only one other time in the draw against Spurs, meaning that all three non-winning results have come via this tactic.
Whether it is down to the formation or a general flaw in Pep’s gameplan, both of these losses have demonstrated a fatal chink in City’s armour; counter attacks. Both Norwich and Wolves were forced back into their own defensive thirds for much of the game (53% for Norwich and 44% for Wolves). While Norwich relied on set pieces and their own guile to carve out chances, Wolves were able to use the more direct tactic of rapid breaks via ex-Villan Traore to exploit City’s high line. In either case, City’s high press means quick players and fast breaks are their achilles’ heel. The best way for Villa to get anything out of this is to exploit this weakness.
One to watch
Who do you even pick? Man City are blessed with world class quality everywhere on the pitch, and even on the bench. Statistically, their stand-out player is the imperious Kevin De Bruyne. Eight assists, two goals, 83.5% pass success and 3.9 key passes per game barely scratch the surface of the ability that the Premier League’s current statistical best player has. With a player like him around, it is no mystery how Man City have scored 29 goals so far this season.
Manchester City 0-2 Aston Villa – 28-April-2007
You have to go back more than a decade to find the last time Villa beat Man City on their patch in the league. John Carew and Shaun Maloney scored in each half to beat a pre-Mansour Man City team.
How it could play out
After this match, Villa’s next fixture is against current league leaders Liverpool at home. The team will go into both matches knowing they’re capable of winning, but as fans it would be wise to keep expectations down. Losing both of these matches would be nothing to be ashamed about, especially given the current stage of Villa’s rebuild.
Aston Villa have every right to be confident, though. Things are starting to fall into place for Smith’s squad, so much so that Jack Grealish has usurped Kevin De Bruyne as the league’s most in-form player according to WhoScored – at least over the last six games. His rating of 8.04 is a fair margin above the second place rating of 7.71, which is shared by Sergio Aguero, Ricardo Pereira and, of course, John McGinn.
It doesn’t stop there for Villa – Following the win over Brighton, WhoScored’s statistical best 11 contains both Grealish (9.3) and Targett (8.8), both of whom are the highest rated players included, with Targett sharing his score with Gabriel Jesus.
Also, Aston Villa are currently listed as the fifth best team in the league by average ratings with 6.83, proving that their league position does not reflect their overall performance so far.
The fact that Villa are starting to get these accolades with some regularity shows a sharp upturn in fortunes over recent weeks, and demonstrates how the team are beginning to prove they belong at the top.
Having held their own for 75 minutes against Spurs in the opening match, and outplaying Arsenal for large spells in that game, Villa’s toughest task so far will come against the champions.
Their form coming into this game is promising, and it has been proven that City are beatable at home. However, City currently have statistically the four best players in the league – De Bruyne, Sterling, Mahrez and Aguero. Beyond those, the likes of Cancelo, Jesus, Bernardo and David Silva also made the team of the week, showing that City’s team is overwhelmingly strong throughout.
City’s 29 goals is the highest in the league this season, a result of taking the most shots per game in the league with 20.9. (Incidentally, Villa made this list too – they are fourth with 14.6 shots per game.)
The main pantomime villain for this match could very well turn out to be VAR. Both sides have been stung by the system since its introduction – Villa were once again denied a goal last after Hourihane’s was ruled out. Man City have seen a couple of goals denied by VAR too, most notably Jesus’ late winner against Spurs earlier in the season, and of course the way they were booted out of last season’s Champions League will live long in the memory of their fans. The image of Guardiola on his knees in despair may even be the image of that season.
However if Villa can get some licks in, it promises to be an exciting match against two in-form teams.
Man City 0-0 Aston Villa
Each side will bang in six goals a piece, all of which will be chalked off by VAR.