By Camden Bauman
If there’s an area in the Aston Villa team that Dean Smith will see as an obvious avenue for potential improvement, it’s the full-back positions. Last season, during Villa’s winning run-in, the consensus was that as long as Ahmed Elmohamady and Neil Taylor could register 7/10 performances, then that would do. Both had their limitations, but were good enough in the position for success in the Championship.
For Smith to fulfil his vision of attacking possession-based football that makes an impression in the Premier League, he’ll certainly need more dynamisim from the full-back position now though.
His full-backs will have to support the wide men in earnest and overlap with intent, creating overloads, to help break through and around opposition backlines, with more purpose than in recent seasons.
There’s a reason why Manchester City spent around £100m in 2017 on two full-backs for Pep Guardiola. Having top notch box-to-box full backs in Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker (both breaking transfer records for a defender at the time), allows Pep to maximise the fluidity of his system in terms of dictating the build-up in a controlled manner.
Now, obviously such an investment would be difficult to justify at the moment for Villa, but still the club have dropped circa £20m on a couple of new full-backs, which shows how key Smith sees the position to his tactical outlook.
We’ve already looked at right-back Frederic Guilbert, so lets look in more detail at Villa’s new young full-back on the other flank, Matt Targett.
The Price for Homegrown Potential
With the current trends in the transfer market with profitable Premier League clubs in no great need to sell players, buying domestic players especially have become more expensive in what is now a seller’s market.
That being said, the £11.5m fee for 23-year-old Targett, could be classed as value, for someone who is only 23-years-old and has made 43 appearances in the Premier League, if he helps advance Villa style of play. The add-ons give the transfer an inflated figure, but it is fair to assume those will only come into play a couple years down the line. If he’s successful then his value should hold, if not grow.
Crossing and Passing
One of Targett’s strengths is that he can deliver a killer ball to his teammates. As seen with his assist to Danny Ings against Arsenal in December. This ball was hit wonderfully, reminiscent to some of the balls Aston Villa saw from Robert Snodgrass’ loan.
Targett, in his 16 appearances for Southampton last season, averaged 4.1 crosses per game according to the Premier League, which is more than his counterpart, Ryan Bertrand at 3.8 crosses per game.
Targett even had responsibility taking some set pieces for Southampton (an area Villa need more depth in). In addition, a key statistic that may spark Villa fans in Targett’s play is that he averaged 1.7 key passes per game, with only Lucas Digne, Kieran Trippier, and Trent Alexander-Arnold having higher averages out of all the full backs in the Premier League.
Targett shows that he has great ability going forward and providing support to the attack, something Villa have been missing. Unlike Neil Taylor who often looked disheveled and uncomfortable with the ball at his feet, Targett has confidence on the ball.
See the opening seconds of this video, as he overlaps to deliver a dangerous cross against Huddersfield Town.
Although Targett’s ability in support is clearly his strength, he can play well defensively.
Another statistic that will reassure Villa fans is that out of all his 43 appearances, only one goal conceded came from his error according to the Premier League stats. This shows the former England U-21 international has composure and maturity to clear the ball or play out of the back successfully. Additionally, Targett shows that he can be physical against opposing players. He noticeably bullied Heung-Min Son off of his run when the Saints lost away to Tottenham this past December.
Looking to Targett’s play, he provides the support that the left flank of Villa needs. He was utilized both as a standard left-back in a flat four at the back, as well as being used as a wing-back in Southampton’s 5-2-3.
The former Arsenal and Liverpool target played some of his better football as a wing-back last season. In his eight appearances in the position, he registered a 7.12 average rating on WhoScored, with one goal and two assists.
In those games at wing-back, he spent the most time between the final and middle third of the pitch. Here, he is given space to play in crosses or push up into the box for a back post run, as seen in his goal against Bournemouth at the end of the season. He started close to midfield and as soon as the ball was played out of the box, he pushed forward and had good awareness to wait until the ball is crossed to start darting towards it.
Although he had only the one goal last season, his versatility will be extremely valuable to Villa as they adjust to the Premier League.
Whether Dean Smith sticks to the 4-3-3 that got Villa promoted or if he tries to switch to a formation that utilizes wing-backs, Targett can adapt and perform in whatever role down the left flank.
There are a couple issues that can be brought up about Targett’s game. The first would a slight lack of pace, especially in the Premier League where quick, pacy wingers are in fashion.
When viewing multiple highlights of him playing for Southampton, there are also some question marks in terms of him being out muscled in the box when defending set plays, but nothing to raise alarm bells.
According to WhoScored, on average Targett gets dribbled past just under one time per game. However, this can usually be made up for by his positioning and awareness to recover.
Worth the Price
Overall, Matt Targett looks to be a good deal for Aston Villa. The initial fee may seem high to Villa fans, but they are getting a young, homegrown left-back who provides Premier League experience and only hasn’t been a regular starter at the Saints due to the man in front of him being an England international.
Targett’s ability to play a key ball into the box or be used anywhere down the left side of the pitch, gives Villa options going forward and playing in tandem with Anwar El Ghazi, will make Villa a lot more fluid down that flank.
Hopefully, he’ll be noticeable as an upgrade at left-back from the off, when Villa kick-off against Spurs.
Additional reporting by David Michael
Follow Camden on Twitter here @CamdenBauman