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Aston Villa: A Tactical Preview

What to expect from Newcastle’s game with Villa on Wednesday evening

Catherine Ivill / Staff via Getty Images

Sunday’s excellent 3-0 win against Sheffield United was a sight for sore eyes after three months without football. We don’t have to wait long for the next game as Steve Bruce and the lads get ready to welcome Aston Villa to St James’ Park tomorrow evening. Villa make the journey North having won just one point in the last seven games and without a win since the end of January. This run of form leaves them in 19th position on 26 points and staring down the barrel of another season in the Championship.

It’s not been the fairy-tale season back in the Premier League that Villa had hoped for as they’ve won just seven games whilst losing eighteen. They’ve managed to achieve this despite spending a whopping £143m on thirteen permanent signings over the last two transfer windows – up there with the biggest net spenders in Europe, let alone the Premier League. This costly outlay and influx of new players was always going to be a gamble and, like Fulham the season before, it hasn’t paid off. Villa still have a chance to save their season, but time is running out and they will be desperate for a win on Wednesday evening.

How they set up

Aston Vila manager Dean Smith usually sets his team up in a 4-3-3 and he’s named the same starting eleven in the last two games with only one minor positional change, swapping the positions of Connor Hourihane and John McGinn. Smith made a couple of big calls during the break by dropping seasoned goalkeeper Pepe Reina, replacing him with Norwegian Ørjan Nyland, and bringing in 21-year-old Englishman Keinan Davis to lead the line up front. Smith would’ve surely been hoping for more than one point from the games against Sheffield and Chelsea, but I don’t expect to see him make any wholesale changes for Wednesday night.

Defensive Woes

Villa have the worse defensive record in the league having conceded 58 goals in 30 games, which is almost two goals per game. There are a few reasons for their leaky defense, the first being the number of individual mistakes they’ve made that led directly to a shot. Villa have made 24 such errors so far this season which is the worst in the league and eight higher than second place Southampton (16). The worst offenders in the squad are centre-backs Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause who’ve both made five mistakes each.

The lack of protection the Villa midfield offers their defense is another concern as it’s been too easy for teams to mount pressure on their back line. In the middle third of the pitch Villa are 17th in the league for presses made and 20th for tackles won. This is a contributing factor to the amount of errors the centre-backs have made - they’re being given too much work to do by their teammates. The lack of protection from the midfield may also be the reason why they’ve conceded the second most amount of shots on target and the third greatest number of crosses into their box. Crosses in particular are bad news for Villa as they have one of the lowest aerial duel win % - this is a route in on goal that Newcastle should look to exploit.

Villa allow teams time and space to deliver balls into the box

Although Dean Smith has clearly been using the break in football to work on making Villa harder to beat, Chelsea’s first goal in Villa’s 1-2 defeat on Sunday was a perfect example of Villa making it too easy for teams to get balls into their box. With Matt Ritchie and Allan Saint-Maximin both playing well against Sheffield United, I’m optimistic that Newcastle can cause problems for Villa in the wide areas on Wednesday evening, particularly down our right flank.

Going Forward

For a team currently in 19th, Villa’s attacking stats are OK – they’re 12th in the table for goals scored, although I’m sure they would have expected a better return from £22.5M summer signing Wesley, who only has five goals to his name. Interestingly, Dean Smith has opted to play Keinan Davis upfront since the season restarted, despite him having only scored 2 goals in 48 league appearances – apparently, this is on the basis that he makes Villa more difficult to play against with his physicality. Davis also has by far the highest xG per game (0.54) in the Villa squad, so it’s surely only a matter of time before he starts scoring… let’s just hope he doesn’t start on Wednesday.

Although they’re on the receiving end of quite a few, Villa play a lot of crosses into the box themselves and this is how they scored against Chelsea on Sunday. They’re also one of the top performing teams (6th) when it comes to shot creating actions per game which is, in the main, down to their star player Jack Grealish. It’s hard to overplay just how important he is to the Villa attack and, according to Smarter Scout, he’s been involved in 80% of the goals they’ve scored this season. The Villa captain has highest goal contribution in the squad and is both their top scorer and top assist maker.

Grealish is a right-footed player playing on the left-wing so you would expect him to cut inside more times than not, however, he’s not afraid to continue moving down the outside toward the by-line. By doing this he isolates the full-back in a deep position before using his trickery to work his way into the box. From here, he’s as likely to beat a take a shot as he is to pick out one of his teammates with a pin-point pass. This makes him unpredictable to defend against.


Grealish plays a high volume of balls into the penalty area leading him to be in the top four players in the league for the number of shot-creating actions he completes. Not only this, but he’s the most fouled player the entire league having drawn 131 fouls this season, which is 35% more than Wilfred Zaha in second place. Not all the fouls he draws are valuable though, and he would benefit from releasing the ball sooner rather than taking the contact, but it’s still something we must watch out for - we don’t have the best record for giving away silly fouls in dangerous areas.

Outside of Grealish and Davis the other two players we need to be aware of are right-winger Anwar El-Ghazi and midfielder Conor Hourihane. Dutchman El-Ghazi has the highest open play expected goals for Villa this season and likes to shoot on sight. He’s also Villa’s most productive crosser which, as we’ve already discovered, is one of Villa’s main attacking plays. Hourihane on the other hand has the second highest expected goal contribution in the whole squad; he’s a threat both with his shooting ability from outside the box and has an eye for a pass.

Head to Head

Based on 2019/20 season

The break in play caused by COVID has made it difficult to talk about form and tactics with any kind of confidence as it’s basically like starting a new season – you only need to look at our win against the Blades for evidence of this. Without a win since January you’d be forgiven for thinking Villa are a lost cause and that the Championship awaits with open arms – and you won’t find many NUFC fans shedding a tear if that happens. However, despite only having one point to show for it, they’ve looked more solid in their last two games and I expect them to arrive at St James’ Park with the belief they can do the double over the Magpies and earn their first win in nearly five months to kick-start their Great Escape.

However, Newcastle were revitalized on Sunday and look like a different team now Bruce has committed to his new 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system which offers much more of an attacking threat and provides the support Joelinton needs. It remains to be seen whether Bruce will change things up on Wednesday with one eye Sunday’s FA Cup Quarter Final, but we know from today’s press conference we’ve picked up no new injuries. If he does change things up, I would expect to see him rotate in centre-midfield and bring Bentalab in for Shelvey. One player Bruce was full of praise for was Matt Ritchie - you can never write the mad man off – his attitude and desire are a great example for the rest of the team and, with a goal and an assist on Sunday, he’s still got something to offer going forward.

Final thoughts

I’m confident Newcastle can build on Sunday’s result and claim another three points against the Villans. The lads will have a spring in their step as the prepare for this one and our number 9 in particular should be feeling up for it. If you count the friendlies (I know!) against Boro and Hull, then Joelinton’s actually scored a goal in each of his last three games – he’s got to take some confidence from that.

For all Jack Grealish’s skill going forward, his defensive output is low and this should be an area Newcastle target with the pace and skill of Saint-Maximin and Almirón. As you can see from the average position maps, Villa’s number 10 likes to drift centrally which opens a lot of space down their left flank. It was Grealish who failed to close down Azpilicueta quick enough on Sunday night and this isn’t the first time he’s been caught out in the position.

Newcastle can exploit the space behind Jack Grealish

They say one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but Sunday’s win and the positive noises about the takeover have certainly made the last few days feel like it’s starting hot up. HOWAY THE LADS!