Ashley Westwood – The Man That Keeps Villa Ticking
Following weeks of speculation surrounding Charlton’s Dale Stephens last summer, Villa fans were rather bemused to see a boyish young man in a red hoody, smiling cheerfully into the TV cameras outside Bodymoor Heath. “Is that Dale Stephens?” some fans asked tentatively.
Aston Villa’s last minute scramble for Ashley Westwood on deadline day had fans intrigued, and the player himself was noticeably delighted when he signed for the club, “It happened so quick. All of a sudden I’m travelling on the motorway and hearing it on the radio,” Westwood told Villa’s official website the following day.
Crewe’s Ashley Westwood arrived last year as a relative unknown, and it’s easy to forget that Premier League fans and pundits had sneered when Paul Lambert dipped into the lower league market for both Lowton and Westwood. In respect of Westwood, Paul Lambert relied heavily on Ian Culverhouse’s opinion, as Villa’s assistant manager advised Lambert, “There’s a lad at Crewe you should keep your eye on…”
The lad in question was Ashley Westwood who had played 158 games and scored 15 goals for Crewe when Paul Lambert came calling. The young midfielder had previously attracted admiring glances from former Swansea manager Brendan Rogers, and Villa’s interest in the player typically went under the radar before a fee was agreed with Crewe on deadline day. Swansea had been prepared to pay £500,000, but Paul Lambert managed to sign the player for just under a million.
A small section of Villa fans have remained cautious in their praise of Ashley Westwood, citing the midfielder’s tendency to pass the ball backwards and sideways, as well as forwards. In defence of this criticism, Westwood certainly managed to pick a pass more regularly than any other player in the Villa squad, having completed 1133 passes for Lambert’s men last year. In addition, the 22-year-old midfielder ended the season with six assists, which is double the amount of assists Stephen Ireland provided when he won the player of the year award and more assists than Stiliyan Petrov contributed in his entire career at Aston Villa.
In these circumstances, it is odd to think that Westwood still has question marks hanging over his head. Westwood fans would argue that his addition to the squad is the main reason why Aston Villa’s style of play has evolved from McLeish’s catenaccio to Lambert’s possession based football. Westwood’s former admirer, Brendan Rogers, likened him to Joe Allen on account of the Villa man’s ability to keep possession of the ball and maintain the tempo of the team.
Westwood’s passing style won him plaudits in the latter part of the season and he was even been likened to Manchester United’s Michael Carrick. Westwood’s style is simple, but simplicity is often the best approach in football as former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola once said after his Barcelona side beat Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, “Our game, our idea to play is simple, “I have the ball, I pass the ball; I have the ball, I pass the ball; I have the ball, I pass the ball.”
Westwood’s performance in first half against Q.P.R was statistically his most impressive to date with a 100% pass accuracy from 56 attempted passes. In order to operate in the rarefied atmosphere of players such as Xavi and Iniesta, Westwood would need to regularly maintain a pass accuracy of over 92% in each match. Currently, Westwood has an impressive 86% pass success rate accuracy.
The role of the deep-lying playmaker is sometimes undervalued by fans, but coaches like Mourinho and Guardiola attach significant value to players who can retain possession of the ball.
Mourinho himself is a firm believer in the concept of ‘resting in possession,’ where he considered that a team would spend more energy without the ball than they would whilst in possession. Mourinho’s theory is that a team should employ a high intensity pressing game to quickly win the ball back from an opponent, as once your team had regained possession of the ball, your players could rest in possession.
To rest in possession, you need players like Ashley Westwood to control the tempo of the match and mitigate against the kind of burn-out, which Villa fans saw under Martin O’Neill.
Frustratingly, O’Neill’s teams worked tirelessly hard to regain possession of the ball, but they were often reckless in giving the ball away again straight afterwards. Players such as Nigel Reo-Coker were wasteful in possession and the defenders which O’Neill purchased for the club were not particularly sophisticated in an attacking sense either.
Ideally, Westwood’s game would more rapidly develop if he had an imposing defensive midfielder to play behind him such as Genk’s, Kara Mobadj. Westwood has a lot to offer going forward and this sort of protection would enable Westwood to exploit his enviable passing range in more threatening areas of the pitch. Former mentor Dario Gradi certainly thinks there is a lot more to come from Ashley Westwood in future, as he explained recently to the Crewe Sentinel,
“He’s very good with his longer passing for instance,” Gradi said. “He’s got one of the best records of successful passes in the top flight, but I said to his dad, I’m not bloody surprised as he only passes it five yards! He needs to be pinging some balls around if he wants to go on to the next level, and he has certainly got that in his armoury. He can score goals, too. There’s more to come.”
Villa fans will be hoping there is a lot more to come from Westwood this season, especially if his cheeky Panenka-style free kick in pre-season against Wycombe was anything to go by.
Westwood finished the season strongly with four assists in back-to-back games against Sunderland and Norwich, and hopefully goals and assists will be something that Westwood looks to add to this season. It’s something that the player himself is planning for in the upcoming season.
“In terms of progress, I’d like a few more assists,” Westwood told Sky Sports. “I’d love to score in front of the Holte End too. That would be special – to hear the roar and celebrate with the fans.” UTV