Villa have had a very 'middle of the road' start to the season, which inevitably has bred worry for what we can manage to achieve this season. It is sensible, of course, to recognise that we're only 5 games into the Premier League season, and 3 games into the Europa Conference League (including the 2 qualifiers).
It is also sensible, however, to recognise some of the differences in the team and system compared to last season, and how they're affecting performances and results. Villa are in a transition to try and become more dominant and expansive, at the same time as working within our FFP boundaries, and trying to achieve some form of success this season again.
Now, success this season will look different to each individual. What one fan deems success this season, another may disagree with; and the club will ultimately have its own targets (positionally, financially, and stylistically).
For me, this season was about sustaining a European position in the league, and really pushing for silverware. With the value of our squad, and the pedigree of our manager, i would personally be thinking that the Conference League is a very achievable target. Knockout tournaments are brutal, though. One game with a loss of focus can cut short your dreams of a trophy, and last night provided that very warning for Villa.
Moving in a new direction:
Last season, Villa were noticeably an extremely well drilled team, that played in early intense bursts, and then were happy to soak up pressure for a period of time, before striking again.
We still set out to play with a high-line, and often pressed high when the time was right (before settling into a mid-block, then eventually a low-block consisting of a 6-2-2 shape). But that high-line was much more achievable when fielding the likes of Mings, Konsa, and Moreno; and even then we would get caught out on occasion.
Since the arrival of Pau Torres, Villa have maintained that high-line. But with Torres not possessing much pace at all, alongside the absence of the injured Moreno (his spot being filled by Digne, who is also not fleet of foot), has meant that our left side can be targeted by direct play and strong runners.
What we have lost in athleticism, however, we have gained in ball playing dominance. Pau Torres is world class at playing through the lines, and orchestrating a team through phases of play. This is the very thing that Unai Emery wants. To be on the ball. To be a threat.
Finding the balance between solidity and attacking threat is going to be top of the agenda right now. The return of Moreno and Jacob Ramsey will be a big help. Between Moreno's recovery pace and ability to beat a man out wide; to Ramsey's pressing from the front and powerful ball carrying that creates space.
Choosing attacking threat over defensive stability, for now?:
As mentioned earlier, Villa are still bound by FFP. We can still spend well, but it had come to a time where we couldn't use the "we sold our academy graduate for 100m" get-out card for much longer. Hence the sales of other academy players for a pure collective profit of ≈ £40m. This cut a chunk out of the ≈ £90m we spent on incomings this summer.
Our recruitment this summer was all pretty much focused around ball playing ability/technical ability, or attacking threat. There wasn't really any defensive minded/ball winning ability added to the squad.
I quite often refer to Liverpool. Not because i think we should be competing with them, or have a similar stature to them, but because i always find it interesting seeing how they develop and evolve. They're a club that like to generate through sales still, even though they have an elite clubs revenue.
In the 16/17 summer window, they most notably brought in Sadio Mané, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Joel Matip. Added threat, added athleticism, and added physicality. Then over the 17/18 and 18/19 windows, after the sale of Coutinho, they added their final necessary pieces in Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson, Salah, and Fabinho.
In particular, Van Dijk, Fabinho, and Alisson were key. They allowed the team to be so expansive because they were excellent in 1v1 duels, and able to cover a lot of ground, so counter attacks were dealt with often really well. It did also help that their front line and midfield had the legs to press energetically so they'd often win the ball high.
My point to this is that we're still a couple of high quality players away from being able to play really expansively, consistently. I would be very surprised if we didn't sign an athletic right sided centre back over the next 2 windows. This isn't to replace Konsa, by the way, who has been excellent on the whole so far this season. I know there would still be a role for him to play in the 11, perhaps in a Ben White type role.
I also think we actually need a couple more full backs. For all Digne's creativity from crossing, he lacks mobility and struggles to beat his man. For all Cash's box-crashing, goalscoring ability, he also struggles in beating his man often (but he at least possesses the work rate and energy).
One more thing i want to touch on in this segment revolves around the midfield. Kamara and Luiz have often looked excellent together, both good at winning the ball, and both very good at playing forwards (Luiz also now a big goal threat).
But defensively, especially during turnovers, they sometimes seem confused on which of them should drop, and which should jump. The same when we're attacking, both drift quite high, when one could do with dropping slightly (Kamara best equipped).
I've had a feeling we might venture to a 433 soon, with a sitting midfielder behind the two, allowing them to get forward, and win the ball high. Currently, Dendoncker suits that sitting role behind them best. But he lacks real athleticism, and ability to launch direct attacks when space opens up. This is another area i think will be addressed in the coming windows.
The positives so far:
There are positives so far this season, alongside the concerns. Villa are playing a more sustainable brand of football in an attacking sense; scoring 11 goals from an xG of 10.9 (in the Premier League). So we're creating plenty of clear-cut opportunities, aswell as putting away tougher chances; Duran vs. Palace, for example.
The addition of Pau Torres, Nicolo Zaniolo, Youri Tielemans, and Moussa Diaby in particular, have given us more talent in the ranks to create, and put away, more chances in different ways.
For example, in the game against Legia the other night, Zaniolo receives between the lines, rolls his man, and unleashes a fierce shot that was saved by their keeper, before Duran headed home. Zaniolo's shot itself only had an xG value of 0.01, but it created an opportunity for Duran, who's goal had an xG value of 0.16, and a post-shot xG of 0.82. That ability from Zaniolo created a big goalscoring opportunity.
One other example is that pass from Youri Tielemans to Ollie Watkins in the Palace game, that resulted in a penalty. The vision, accuracy, and weight of pass, made it easy for Ollie to receive, and ultimately win the penalty (which of course creates an xG value of ≈ 0.79).
So, whilst we're floundering a bit defensively (especially away from home, in tough environments), we're heading towards a more healthy attacking style, you could say. This will come across very naive at times. Going to places like Newcastle and Liverpool, trying to go toe-to-toe, and trying to be in control of the ball and throwing players forward. It's all part of the plan, short-term pain for long-term gain (hopefully, ha).
We saw last season the power of Unai's coaching, on an individual and collective level. We're currently moving a slightly new direction, and although pre-season is a good starting block for practising new ideas, it doesn't replicate competitive games, or the work load of the Sunday/Thursday fixture list.
We need to be patient with this. Of course, we can be critical when necessary still, but we can still generally see what the idea is, and what we're trying to do. We'll find the right balance between the system and the team selections, given time and patience.
That also applies to the scouting and investment, too. I fully expect Monchi to truly start flexing his talent identifying ability over the next few windows, and the investment will be there, within compliance.
So, whilst the start to the season hasn't be all of what we hoped for, in hindsight it's probably been an ok start everything considered. I fully expect us to pick up form over the next few gameweeks, and i still expect us to top our group in the Conference League.
For now, Up the Villa!