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No Attack is Not the Best Form of Defence


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by Stevo985

Never mind the rumours circulating that players were sent out on Monday night solely to keep the score down, the tactics and setup of the team provided a much more real and obvious reason why Aston Villa never had a chance of taking any points home from White Hart Lane before the first blow of a whistle.

Martin O’Neill had his game away to Chelsea, Kevin MacDonald had his game away at St James’ Park and Gerard Houllier had his game away against Liverpool. All were toothless performances resulting in embarrassing defeats, more so in the performances than the score lines (although one inevitably led to the other).

Monday night, unfortunately for him and for the fans, was Alex McLeish’s turn to put a performance into this unique group. Don’t let the 2-0 score line, which on paper seems like a perfectly reasonable outcome for an away game against Tottenham, deceive you. Make no mistake, the performance of Villa on Monday fits right into the aforementioned group of frankly awful displays of football. In fact, more or less the only positive that Villa could take from the game was that Spurs were more than happy to coast to a 2-0 victory as opposed to turning the screw, which would surely have led to a number of additional goals.

But score line isn’t the only way in which Monday’s performance differed from McLeish’s predecessors’ equivalent low points. O’Neill’s and Houllier’s disastrous displays could be put down to lack of motivation in the players and a lack of belief, along with (in O’Neill’s case) fatigue. MacDonald can almost be excused for his players’ lack of direction given the state of the club at the time and the fact that Kevin was clearly in over his head managing a Premier League team.

Whilst there’s no doubt that motivation, belief and direction was hard to find amongst Villa’s players on Monday, the overriding factor in the team’s downfall was the downright bizarre tactics, formation and player selection on display right from the start of the game. This combination meant that Villa were destined to leave White Hart Lane with nothing before a ball was even kicked.

The prospect of travelling to London on a Monday night to face a team hovering at the top of the form table is nothing less than daunting at the best of times. The last thing a team needs is to be sent out onto a pitch set up to lose. Yet this appeared to be exactly how Villa were sent out on Monday. I’m of course not suggesting that McLeish sent his team out with the intention of losing the game, but I am suggesting that the way in which the players were sent out inadvertently meant that they never had a hope.

I’ll gloss over the defence very briefly. A back four was played, for which there can be no complaints. The inclusion of Cuellar at right back is arguably a gamble given Tottenham’s pace down that wing and Cuellar’s lack of it, but it’s a perfectly understandable selection, especially given Cuellar’s ability in the air and Villa’s recent lack of comfort whilst defending set pieces. Whilst the defence did not play well, tactically there’s not much blame you can attach.

Where the problems start, and end to an extent, is our midfield. I wouldn’t imagine there was a single Villa fan who saw Monday’s line-up when it was announced and wasn’t at least slightly surprised by the midfield selection. Whilst the pairing of Petrov and Herd in the centre isn’t ideal, it’s nothing compared to having wingers consisting of Alan Hutton and Emile Heskey. This is an especially pertinent point when considering at this point last season Villa fans were enjoying Ashley Young and an in form Stewart Downing playing on Villa’s flanks.

To me this midfield made no sense. Petrov and Herd are a perfectly good central midfield pairing IF they are part of a central midfield three, and they have a third centrally playing and more advanced team mate to use as an outlet pass and a link between midfield and attack. On Monday there was no third central midfielder. To further add to this, Alan Hutton was preoccupied in trying to stop a marauding Gareth Bale. Not only was this ineffective in itself given Hutton’s lack of experience on the wing and therefore poor positioning, it meant that Petrov and Herd were left with even less options when they won the ball. Where they might usually expect to see N’Zogbia, Albrighton or even Agbonlahor breaking out to use as an outlet, they had no-one.

To contrast this, against Norwich two weeks earlier Villa played a similar setup, but the difference here (overlooking the obvious difference in quality of opposition) was that against Norwich, N’Zogbia and a wide drifting Agbonlahor provided constant attacking options to the defensively minded Petrov and Herd. This meant that when they won the ball in midfield, despite the lack of an attacking central midfielder, they were immediately able to release it to the wing and, crucially, were able to link defence with attack as those wingers could then deliver balls into Bent. To reiterate, this link was probably the most vital missing piece in Villa’s tactical puzzle on Monday.

Whilst Hutton tried to get forward, he lacked the awareness and experience in the position to be anything more than sporadically available, and while Heskey is an attacker by trade and doesn’t lack in effort, it seems increasingly obvious that his pace continues to deteriorate and, if anything, his defensive ability is now his best asset. As a result, he also failed to provide any relief for Villa’s central midfielders, and also provided an all too tempting target for Villa’s increasingly regular hoofs from the back.

This lack of an outlet ball for Villa’s defensively minded midfielders meant that the over-defensive setup became merely a liability as, if any attack (and there were a lot of them) were successfully repelled, there was nowhere to play the ball to safety and Tottenham were simply able to launch another attack more or less immediately.

Now we come to the attackers and, crucially, the lack of a link between them and the defence. Agbonlahor and Bent are both strikers who play on the shoulder of their opponents. Whilst Agbonlahor has been known to play “in the hole” on occasions, he’s not most effective there and more importantly, if this was where he was asked to play on Monday (which would make a lot of sense given the positions of the rest of the players) he certainly didn’t listen to his instructions as he seldom, if at all, dropped into a deep position. As a result, Tottenham’s defence were given an extremely easy night.

A defensive line, put simply, has two options in a game. Firstly, they can choose to play a high line. Whilst this increases the risk of an opposition attacker finding space behind them, it also congests the space between them and the midfield, meaning any players playing in an attacking midfield (or deep lying striker) role for the opposition are starved of room and, in theory, struggle to play balls into the more advanced striker(s). The second option for a defence is to sit deeper. Whilst this means the aforementioned starvation of space for the opposition attacking midfielder no longer occurs, it also means there is much less chance of an opposition striker finding that precious space in behind.

Why have I explained this? Well this is Sunday League football stuff. It’s pretty much the basics of organising a defence. Yet this is exactly where Villa played right into Tottenham’s hands on Monday night.

Ideally an attacking team will play one “on the shoulder” striker, as I like to call them, and one traditional deep lying striker. The tried and tested “big man little man” combination. This means that the opposition defence are torn between the two options outlined above. If they push a high line, one striker can drop in behind. If they sit deep, the other striker has lots of time and space in the hole. If an attacking team does play two “on the shoulder” defenders, then an attacking midfielder is essential to again give the opposition defence a problem in choosing one setup or the other. Again, I would consider this Sunday morning tactics.

On Monday, Villa did neither. Partly due to the inexperience of the “wingers” in their positions, and partly due to the constant attacking threat from Tottenham’s flanks, quite often the most advanced Villa midfielder was Petrov or Herd, usually not much further up the pitch than the halfway line. This meant that all Tottenham’s defence had to do was sit deep. Villa’s strikers attempted to play on the shoulder of this defence leaving a 30 odd yard gap between the ball in the possession of a Villa midfielder and the Villa frontline. This also allowed Scott Parker to roam freely in a defensive midfield position for Tottenham to mop up any passes that were attempted, or to disrupt Agbonlahor or Bent when they did attempt to drop deep (which was rare). Villa had no-one filling that attacking midfield or deep lying forward position. Again, this meant that Tottenham’s defence could sit deep and safely ensure Agbonlahor and Bent had no room to run into, whilst not risking leaving too much space between their own midfield and defence because Villa simply had no-one to take advantage of that space.

All of this also meant that whenever Villa’s “wingers” did get the ball in anything resembling an attacking position they had no option inside of them. They either had to try and beat their fullback, which is impossible when your name is Hutton or Heskey, or try and find Agbonlahor or Bent with a hopeful, and often long, ball which came to nothing the vast majority of the time. When they did manage to find a deep lying Petrov or Herd, they were often isolated against Parker and/or Modric and so unable to launch any sort of meaningful attack and so inevitably lost possession.

It could be argued that McLeish was just trying to be safe, maybe overly so, and playing defensive players to cope with Tottenham’s pace on the wings. But for me he could have done this much more effectively with more traditional wingers. Playing a fullback on the wing doesn’t automatically make the formation defensive. It just means there is someone playing out of position. If 4-4-2 was stuck to (which I wouldn’t have but I’ll go with it) then the more effective winger, in my opinion, would have been Agbonlahor, with a defensive remit. This would have meant that had Bale got past him or overlapped him, he’d have had the pace to get back at him or cover for Cuellar whilst he tried to deal with Bale instead. It would also have meant some sort of outlet ball for the midfield and a chance to get the ball from back to front quickly and effectively. Even N’Zogbia under similar instructions would have been more effective, in my opinion, than Alan Hutton. Once Hutton was overlapped he lacked the pace to get back at Bale and help out Cuellar, which essentially negated the reason Hutton was put there in the first place (which was, I assume, to nullify Bale). Carrying little attacking threat, as previously explained, this left Hutton in no-man’s land for large parts of the game. The same can be said for Heskey, however I feel Stephen Warnock performed the better of the two Villa fullbacks and so the frailties were less obvious down that flank.

So N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor as wingers would have been a far more effective combination. Albrighton probably lacks the experience to stick to a defensive position effectively.

Further to that, deviating from the 4-4-2 which would have been preferable, playing one up front (Bent obviously) and putting someone (Stephen Ireland for lack of anyone better) in the attacking midfield position would have been a much more viable setup. I won’t go over again why this would have been an advantage, but at the very least it would have given Parker something to think about and meant the midfield didn’t keep getting isolated against the Tottenham midfield “enforcer”. Even if Bent continued to get no service, at least in this system it would only have been one wasted striker, rather than having two strikers doing nothing, which is what McLeish’s system provided.

The most frustrating thing for me, as a Villa fan myself, was that I noticed most of this within about 15 minutes of Monday’s game. However, at no point was it changed. The introduction of Bannan on around 65 minutes helped slightly, mainly because he added a bit of pace on the wing and could hold onto the ball a bit more whilst getting forward. But the system remained basically the same right up to the final whistle.

I don’t want to say that McLeish and the team had given up long before half time, but there certainly didn’t seem to be any real effort to try something different in the hope of grabbing a goal.

The lesson is this. Whilst attack is not always the best form of defence, a complete lack of attack is certainly not the way to keep a clean sheet.

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the overriding factor in the team’s downfall was the downright bizarre tactics, formation and player selection on display right from the start of the game. This combination meant that Villa were destined to leave White Hart Lane with nothing before a ball was even kicked.....Whilst attack is not always the best form of defence, a complete lack of attack is certainly not the way to keep a clean sheet.
In fine analysis, this struck me as the most pertinent. I also suspect, that while the performances at Chelsea and Newcastle you mentioned were genuine one-off bad days, there's a fair chance that we'll do more of the type of thing we did on monday, again and again. Apparently the manager was livid with the way we let both goals in (and rightly so, it was pitiful) but the problems oare deeper than individual errors - they are as you say, problems of approach to (some) away games.
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the overriding factor in the team’s downfall was the downright bizarre tactics, formation and player selection on display right from the start of the game. This combination meant that Villa were destined to leave White Hart Lane with nothing before a ball was even kicked.....Whilst attack is not always the best form of defence, a complete lack of attack is certainly not the way to keep a clean sheet.
In fine analysis, this struck me as the most pertinent. I also suspect, that while the performances at Chelsea and Newcastle you mentioned were genuine one-off bad days, there's a fair chance that we'll do more of the type of thing we did on monday, again and again. Apparently the manager was livid with the way we let both goals in (and rightly so, it was pitiful) but the problems oare deeper than individual errors - they are as you say, problems of approach to (some) away games.

Exactly right, imo.

The point I was making, which you seem to agree with, was that even if the players were unbelievably motivated and up for the game on Monday, I still don't think we'd have had a chance to get anything from the game because the setup was so poor.

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Excellent analysis! I particularly agree with your suggestion that a system with Agbonlahor playing on the same side as Bale would have been more effective. For a start it would have meant Bale having to give some consideration to defensive duties instead of having the freedom to get in in advanced positions so often. The worry of what Gabby's pace might have done to Assou Ekotto in a one on one situation could have limited Bale's adventurous instincts a bit. Once Villa got possession Tottenham didn't have to worry too much about the outlet on the right.

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