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Martin O'Neill - The Tactician


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By Heystally!

In three years at the helm of Aston Villa, the tactics of Martin O'Neill have been more than questioned, with midfielders at full back, and strikers on the wings. After Villa efficiently dispatched Liverpool 3-1 in their own backyard, has MON finally shown his tactical genius, and will it stick?

Apologies, but this is a lengthy article. I know these comments could have gone into the match thread, but I feel quite positive about this issue following tonight's game, and I am hoping it is a sign of things to come from our manager.

Many, MANY people on this board, including myself, have questioned some of the tactical decisions made by our manager over the past three years. No one, except MON, wants to see midfield players put into the full back slots, I personally do not want to see a right back at left back, and we generally do not like long-ball football.

However, in the game tonight against Liverpool, in which we won by three goals to one, I thought Martin O'Neill was absolutely tactically brilliant. And here are a couple of reasons why:

1) 4-5-1

Our incredible run in the second quarter of last season, including our club-record away winning streak, saw MON use the 4-5-1 formation extensively for the first time at Aston Villa (if my memory serves me right). At the time it was a midfield three of Barry, Petrov and Sidwell/Reo-Coker, with Ashley Young and James Milner on the wings, and Gabby Agbonlahor up front on his own. This seemed to work for us - stop the other team passing, and hit them on the break.

After reverting back to 4-4-2 since February this year, and switching back for the first time tonight, MON has made the move that most Villa fans were calling for.

451! 451! 451!

Tonight it worked to perfection. We were never going to outplay Liverpool. We lost 5-0 there last season, and that was a team which had our best passer in it. So MON took on the defensive approach: flood the midfield, and attack on the break. Liverpool made some chances, but it could have been so many more without a central midfield three.

2) Central midfield selection

On from the last point there, I thought MON's selection of Petrov, Sidwell and Reo-Coker was spot on tonight based on the opposition.

Stiliyan Petrov just sat in front of the defence and did what he does best: watch the runs being made, intercept the passes, stick with his man, making hard challenges when he has to, and passing his way out of trouble. He occasionally got forward and contributed with passes and trickery, but we were not looking for attacking play from him, and he did his job well.

Steve Sidwell worked his socks off. I don't really know how I'd describe the kind of player Sidwell is. In a 4-4-2 formation, I don't think I'd be comfortable with him playing the holding role and dominating the midfield, or being the attacking source and chipping in with goals and assists. But in a central three, Sidwell does a decent job. He was chasing his players all game, getting back to help the defensive line, and getting forward to provide an outlet for the attackers. Not the strongest box-to-box performer, but he never stops running, and tonight we needed that.

Nigel Reo-Coker was my man of the match tonight. He was the most hardworking player on the pitch. Whenever the nearest central midfielder to him had the ball he was back closing him down, he was never away from his man, making the tough challenges we know he does so well, and making more passes than he has in the pass. I really believe his overall game has come on leaps and bounds, and it showed tonight by a terrific box-to-box performance. He was often the furthest man forward, making some great runs behind the defence, and he gave us the penalty which settled the win. Many congrats to him.

As an overall unit, MON had them drilled to perfection. He told them to stick to their job and give a real industrial performance. Liverpool had the ball for easily 70% of the game if not more. But up against a similar formation, he gave the midfield three individual roles. When Mascherano and Lucas had the ball, who were playing deeper than Gerrard, he told Sidwell and Reo-Coker to go chasing after the ball, don't let them make their passes into the front two of Gerrard and Torres. Then rather than have Petrov man-mark Gerrard, the back three (Davies, Cuellar and Petrov) just zonally marked Gerrard and Torres. Yes they got through a few times, but Friedel had a great game, and I sincerely believe Liverpool would have had twice as many chances without this system.

3) Defending wingers

James Milner and Ashley Young had very good games tonight for us, and for me this was mainly due to their defending side of the game rather than their attacking side. We didn't create many chances going forward, but once we were without the ball, these two were back marking the full backs closely, and this seriously limited the options of Liverpool.

I was particularly impressed with Ashley Young, who I don't think I have ever seen work so hard defensively. After the first fifteen minutes, Glen Johnson had shown a couple of attacking flashes, which proved so dangerous against Stoke. After that, Young was back as often as he could be to prevent Johnson getting forward, and that was that. Many pundits have said Johnson will be key to Liverpool, as it has been a while since they have had an attacking right back like Johnson. But Young weakened his influence, and that was key to our victory.

4) Selection of Gabby over Heskey

This is not to say that I thought Gabby had a fantastic game because whilst he did well, he wasn't outstanding. However, I believe he was the right selection to be made in this game, and MON got it right.

It is arguable that Gabby can be lazy. Ok not arguable, fact. But tonight we did not need him for his defensive duties. As MON had chosen a system which was going to flood the midfield and prevent the Liverpool attackers from making their passes, the defence could be given the ball as much as possible, because the players near the goal were going nowhere. We did not need Gabby to chase down every ball until times were critical, and we felt like we were hanging on to the win.

However, we did need the threat of his pace up front. Maybe Gabby has put on a few pounds over the summer, but he is still a damn quick player, and we needed this for the quick counter attacks which took pressure off the defence, and got us up the other end of the pitch. And when we were up the other end, we took our chances and we took them well.

Had Heskey been selected, we would have got a more hard-working player, chasing balls all over the park, but we would have been less of a direct threat on the counter attack. Heskey is not faster than the Liverpool back four, and we could not have played some of the through balls which got Gabby away.

5) Heskey substitute for Ashley Young instead of Albrighton

However, I did believe when Ashley Young was substituted (smart move MON, don't risk him when we're winning), Heskey was the right player to bring on.

Albrighton has been impressive in pre-season, no doubt, but he is still young and inexperienced. In the last ten minutes, we needed composure, strength, experience, and also height, and Heskey added all of these things. He kept his position on the left, despite it being unfamiliar to him, and he just acted as a defender essentially, not heading forward too much, not chasing down the defenders, just holding off until the midfielders and full backs were in possession.

Overall, I felt it was an impressive performance, from a Villa side low on confidence, and missing two key players from last season. It wasn't a pretty performance, and it wasn't a dominating performance. But we were efficient, we were disciplined, we were tough, and we were clinical when it came to our chances. And I believe a key influence in this victory was Martin O'Neill.

Maybe this is a changing O'Neill. He kept players in their actual positions: right-sided defender at right back, left-sided at left back, wingers on the wings, central midfielders in central midfield. He played a formation based on the opposition he was playing, as opposed to playing a formation he feels suits the team. And he played an ugly game when we needed a scrappy, hard-working performance to keep a good side quiet and try to sneak a victory. And I applaud him for the job he did tonight, and hope he keeps looking more carefully at his tactics for the rest of the season.

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Excellent article 'Heystally' and i enjoyed the read. Agree totally about O'Neill's tatics and for once he got them spot on. We should now revert back to the successful 4-5-1, particularly in our away games for the rest of the season. If we had played 4-4-2 again against Liverpool, i would have shot O'Neill myself! :D

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I agree but I think my mother would have picked that team and she knows nothing about football. MON should have been playing this at the back end of last season IMO when necessary and to go 4-4-2 to Anfield (for the 5-0 spanking) was sheer lunacy, especially with Stan and Barry as the CM pairing.

He has just done what most of us on the site have been screaming for for ages - played a 4-5-1 and brought in NRC. Does that make us all tactical geniuses?

MON's challenge will come in selecting a formation to play lesser teams with a 4-4-2 and revealing his plan B/making substitutions when things are not going so well?

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I don't think it was as simple as playing 4-5-1 and playing NRC. The amount of chances they had we could have been beaten if we simply did that. But MON had them organised and drilled, he gave them their own jobs to do, and told them to stick to it firmly.

Basically he had a plan, based on the players we had and the players they had. We haven't seen that too often from MON, and I hope we see more of it this season.

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