Aston Villa v Leeds United comes under the tactical microscope, and it could be a cracker…
It should be an interesting style clash and territorial battle at Villa Park as the hosts, for the second time this season, are allowed to sit a little deeper and wait for opportunities to counter-attack. The other game ended 7-2, of course, and yet Aston Villa face a much sterner test here; Leeds United will swarm and harass as they always do, pouring forward with enough bodies to put Dean Smith’s back four under pressure for arguably the first time this season.
The biggest threat to Villa is their possession recycling in their own third. So far, Smith’s insistence on probing for a short option for a good 10-pass sequence before hitting it longer has been met with little resistance, but the Leeds’ press may force an error. What’s more, the detail in Marcelo Bielsa’s vertical possession football is more complex than anything Villa have faced. The hosts could counter-attack behind Leeds’ high line, or they could simply get blown away.
Key battle zone
Wolves’ back five was able to nullify Leeds’ use of the wings on Monday night but Villa surely won’t be as strong when attacks are filtered down their left flank. Right-back Peter Ayling gets chalk on his boots, pulling the opposition left-back with him, while Mateusz Klitch comes across from midfield to act as a wall pass and Rodrigo runs between the two. This creates a famous Bielsa triangle, overloading the right flank for a quick one-two-three in behind.
Villa are particularly vulnerable on this side in a way Wolves are not. Jack Grealish won’t be able to track Rodrigo well enough, while Matt Targett is Villa’s weak link positionally. Unless Smith’s side can pull off the sort of ruthless, backs-to-the-wall defensive display we saw towards the back end of last season, Leeds will do damage here.
Keep an eye on… Grealish and Watkins counters
Not that Villa don’t have cause for optimism. They are arguably the first truly counter-attacking side Leeds have faced in the Premier League this season, and after even Fulham managed to score three times by breaking out from a defensive shell, Villa – through Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins, and Ross Barkley – ought to have the firepower to get in behind Bielsa’s high line.
The most important player for Villa is John McGinn, playing a deeper midfield role alongside Douglas Luiz this season that allows him to play the first line-splitting pass out to the forwards. His ability to use his strength to evade the Leeds press, and then distribute out to Grealish or through to Watkins, could ultimately define this game.
One to watch… Pascal Struijk
Bielsa has confirmed that 21-year-old Pascal Struijk will replace Kalvin Phillips at the base of midfield while the England international is out with a shoulder injury. Struijk, normally a centre-back, has only played twice in that position for Leeds in Championship games against Charlton Athletic and Derby County. He has big boots to fill.
Phillips, who could be out for up to six weeks, is the quarter-back of the team whose primary job is to ping long balls forward towards the four or five Leeds runners. Struijk clearly cannot replace that technical ability, which could disrupt his side’s rhythm at Villa Park, but he is an upgrade from a purely defensive standpoint. Often Phillips is abandoned in central midfield as Leeds empty out the middle in favour of overloading the flanks. With Struijk, they might fare better against Barkley and McGinn.
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Alex Keble hosts a Premier League pre-match tactics show at twitch.tv/EPLtactics