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Decoding Aston Villa’s gameplay – how does Dean Smith set up his side

Aston Villa are one of the surprise packages of this season. This truncated Premier League season has seen teams struggle. Just take champions Liverpool for example. In light of that, the Villans have done really well. Currently, they are 8th in the table after playing 23 matches.

This is the same Villa side that finished one point above the relegation zone last season. So how is Dean Smith operating them this term? What is the secret behind this success? We take a closer look to understand how they do what they do.

Understanding the formation and what has changed

Aston Villa have mostly been playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season in the league which according to football betting tips is one of the best to use in the Premier League. This is a formation they never deployed in the league last season. This has seen Dean Smith play with a double pivot (usually Douglas Luiz and John McGinn) behind an attacking midfielder, mostly Ross Barkley. (h/t Transfermarkt)

This is surely showing positive signs, as you can see in Image 1 and Image 2 below. Aston Villa have had more possession this season (49.5%) than they did last season (45.7%). They also are completing more passes in midfield.

(Image Credits: WhoScored)

More possession means more opportunities to create chances. And when a team completes more passes, it means a better chance of finding a way to the goal. Moreover, it means that they are losing the ball less, keeping it more, and allowing the opposition less time to attack them.

One of their summer signings was Ollie Watkins, who is their target man. He plays with Jack Grealish on his left and Bertrand Traore (and Mohamed Trezeguet on some occasions) on the right flank. As seen in Image 1 and Image 2 above, it has led to an increase in shots per game.

Signing the former Brentford man is proving to be useful. After all, he has more goals this season after 22 league games (10 goals) than their top scorer did last season at the end of gameweek 38 (Jack Grealish, 8 goals).

Grealish has stepped up his game too. He has 6 goals and 12 assists so far in the league. One can argue that this is mainly because he is getting inside the box more. As his heatmap suggests in the image below, is getting more on the ball in attacking areas down the left-hand side.

(Image Credits: SofaScore)

How do the players operate?

As from Grealish’s heatmap above from this season, it can be seen that he is a true left-midfielder who likes to drive inside the box as well. He hugs the touchline, but his touches inside the box in the heatmap shows that he is cutting in to get into scoring and assisting positions.

The heatmaps of their full-backs this season tell another story. New signing Matty Cash, who plays at right-back, and left-back Matt Targett are clearly bombing forward at every chance. However, they are diligently present in defence and are also prevalent in the Villa defensive box when the team wants to defend narrowly.

(Image Credits: SofaScore)

It is also interesting to see how Ross Barkley operates in the number 10 role. He and Grealish occasionally change position on the field. This is also visible by comparing the former Everton man’s heatmap below to Grealish’s heatmap above.

Ross Barkley this season. (Image Credits: SofaScore)

You can see how he tends to drift to the left side of the midfield at times. This allows Grealish to cut in, hence his heatmap showing more activity inside the box and around the edge of it even more during this season.

This is perhaps best visible in the match when Aston Villa thrashed Liverpool 7-2. Ross Barkley (the one shooting the ball in the image below) is playing as an attacking midfielder that game. Yet, he is on the left-hand side. Grealish, who started as a left-midfielder that game, is inside the box, almost where Watkins should be.

Ross Barkley scores Villa's 5th against Liverpool as Grealish (circled in black) watches. (Image Credits: Aston Villa website/YouTube)
Ross Barkley scores Villa’s 5th against Liverpool as Grealish (circled in black) watches. (Image Credits: Aston Villa website/YouTube)


So now, we have a deeper understanding of what Smith’s Villa entails tactically. It seems to be working wonders for them as they are truly in contention for a European spot in the league this season.

The manager was brave to switch to a new formation after a harrowing season in the league. He was decisive in his new signings, and they are paying dividends as Villa are exceeding the expectations of many with their superb performances, none more than their 7-2 win against last year’s nearly-centurions Liverpool.