Aston Villa’s Miracle-in-Progress


Jul 23, 2014; Frisco, TX, USA; Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph (16) dribbles during the game against the FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

What exactly do we make of Aston Villa’s new groove under Tim Sherwood? Are we to believe the rhetoric that all Villa were lacking in their woeful campaign up to his arrival was heart? What part of a heatmap does heart show up at most? By what measure do we gauge a team’s heartiness?

Of course ‘heart’ is among those many intangibles in soccer, along with luck and Tom Cleverley. It resists quantification. In fact, were we not to know how wretchedly toothless Villa were under Sherwood’s predecessor Paul Lambert, we might not even be able to recognize the heart with which they now play. Any team featuring the talented spine of Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke would rightfully expect this level of quality. So, what then is the difference? What has Sherwood done to spark a late season resurgence?

Before we talk about Sherwood’s bite, it might be best to start with Lambert’s lack thereof. Prior to taking the helm at Villa, he led Norwich City through two successive promotions to bring the club into the Premier League in 2011. Once there, he became known for a direct, dynamic style of play. A favorite tactic of Lambert’s, mostly unheard of at such a high level, was to reshuffle his tactical lineups at the interval. The shifts often upset opposition just enough to earn Norwich the advantage. His efforts earned him a chance to move up the Premier League hierarchy. He moved to Villa in 2012.

Lambert struggled for most of his time in the Midlands, spending much of the last two seasons fighting off relegation. The dynamism that characterized his time at Norwich slowly faded. His team became rigid and predictable. By his sacking in February, Villa had managed to score a mere 12 goals in their first 25 games. In a side featuring the aforementioned talents on Benteke, that seems like a criminal waste. According to WhoScored, in the eight games that preceded his sacking, Lambert’s Villa scored an average of 0.25 points per game. In the eight games since Sherwood’s arrival, that figure has jumped to 1.25. That doesn’t seem like much at first. A season’s worth of such performances, however, will earn a team nearly 50 points, above the mythological 40 points required to avoid relegation.

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Oddly enough, when we compare the rest of the numbers over the same stretches of games using WhoScored, we don’t see much of a difference. Shots per game, for and against, remained steady. Possession stayed around 50 percent. Villa scored only one goal in Lambert’s eight games, compared to 12 goals under Sherwood. Eight of those have come from Benteke. Conversion rates are never steady, on a team or individual basis, but such an alarming uptick has to be attributed to something.

Much has been made of Sherwood’s perceived lack of tactical sophistication. It’s a prejudice he inherited from his former boss at Tottenham, Harry Redknapp. Though he often makes light of it to the press, there is something going on here. Benteke’s been prolific before, so it’s not like he’s suddenly blossoming. Interestingly, there’s some precedent with Sherwood’s getting the best out of a center forward. Emmanuel Adebayor enjoyed a massive renaissance after Sherwood took over at Spurs last season. Though he only played a little over half the season, Adebayor was responsible for 20% of all of last season’s league goals. As it stands now, Benteke’s goal contribution for Villa sits at 42%.

So the question becomes what exactly has Sherwood done to capitalize on Benteke’s talents. Let’s examine two games, one from before Sherwood and one after he took over, to see how differently the team plays. Villa’s 2-1 home victory against Leicester City in December was one of only two multiple-goal games under Lambert this season. Benteke started but didn’t score. For Sherwood’s Villa, let’s pick Benteke’s hat-trick game, the 3-3 home draw against QPR. The difference in attack is immediately clear. Though Lambert’s Villa passed significantly more overall, Sherwood’s Villa managed a higher percentage of his passes within the attacking third. You could likely guess that this would be the case just by looking at Sherwood’s lineups. He presses high up the pitch, often leaving a single nominal holder in midfield. This might expose his defense, but that is often offset by increased attacking potency.

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  • Benteke’s benefited from his proximity to other attacking players, particularly down Villa’s left. Fabian Delph, Kieran Richardson and youngster Jack Grealish overwhelm the opposition’s right-back, something that was evident in Villa’s recent FA Cup semifinal victory over Liverpool. Two of Benteke’s goals against QPR came from passes down the left. In contrast, Lambert’s Villa scored one goal off a free kick and the other from a pass from the center of the park in their game against Leicester. Both goals were scored by defenders.

    Sherwood’s Villa has benefited from a more gung-ho approach in the opposition’s third. The higher density of passes is predictably a direct result of the amount of player’s Sherwood has forward. It’s easy to understand how we might see this more positive play and describe it as ‘heart’. Over a full season, though, this might not be sustainable. Benteke’s bound to have a cold streak, and when he does it might not be as simple as slotting another striker in that position. More importantly, oppositions will inevitably find ways to exploit the lightly defended area left in behind the attack.

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    Provided Villa survive relegation, any success they have next season will likely be a muted version of Sherwood’s games so far. Beyond the fact that they’ll be lucky to hold onto Benteke over the summer, some balance will be needed. ‘Heart’ is a label usually given to scrappy underdogs, ones that have to muster that extra 10 percent to get the job done. Unfortunately, that’s not the model for an entire season. Sherwood will have to learn that lesson sooner rather than later.