Aston Villa’s set-piece conundrum


Dean Smith’s Aston Villa have this season demonstrated an ability to win through a moment of brilliance, a dogged defensive display and in the process, managed to score a variety of goals – Villa are a force in the Premier League once again.

For every mesmeric, dazzling Jack Grealish run, crunching Matt Targett tackle or Ollie Watkins initiated press, Villa have formed an identity built from Smith’s demands of hard work and application.

When Coronavirus suspended the 2019/20 Premier League season back in March, Smith highlighted the ‘togetherness, team shift and counter-pressing’ of Manchester City and Liverpool, to galvanise his squad to ensure eventual safety on the final day of a testing first campaign back in the top flight.

The summer transfer window afforded Smith the luxury of targeting players who could fit into his desired system, with a healthy war-chest provided by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens. Watkins and Matty Cash were in particular the energetic, all-action profiles of player Smith was searching for, whilst Ross Barkley, Bertrand Traoré and Emiliano Martínez all added quality of their own.

When the January window rolled around, Conor Hourihane – Villa’s long-serving midfielder and crucial cog in the Championship promotion campaign – wanted to find first-team minutes elsewhere, as Morgan Sanson’s January arrival took Villa’s spending under NSWE to £240 million on transfer fees alone.

What Villa had lost in Hourihane, they’d replaced through a calibre of a player who was playing in the Champions League earlier this campaign, but while Sanson brings a unique set of qualities of his own, the Irishman’s ability over a dead-ball situation has since been missed.

During Villa’s promotion campaign of 2018/19, Hourihane registered eight assists directly from a set-piece, including from both corners and free-kicks. In his first Premier League season, Hourihane managed another four assists from dead-ball scenarios as he helped win key points for Villa against Newcastle, Everton and Norwich last term, after starting 18 Premier League games.

He even made an assist in his penultimate Premier League start for Villa at Craven Cottage, to display his technical efficiencies once more, but with Smith reluctant to offer him more game time, Villa have struggled to find an alternative set-piece technician.

With Hourihane now looking to achieve a second Premier League promotion of his career with Swansea City, Villa have seemingly struggled to pass down the set-piece mantle, with Jack Grealish, Bertrand Traoré and Ross Barkley all failing to make good of their chance to impress from corners and free-kicks this season.

Despite alternating kick-takers and routines – even after adopting a colour-coded system to communicate a certain type of delivery – Smith’s side have only scored one goal directly from a corner kick delivery this season, which came on the first game of the season against Sheffield United.

Having scored a further four goals during the same phase of play that followed a set-play, it’s clear that Villa have the potential to make greater use of dead-ball situations, with volleys from the edge of the box and cunning passing moves from the flanks both encouraging goal-scoring actions this season.

When Neil Cutler joined the club as part of Smith’s backroom staff in 2018, he immediately took control of both attacking and defensive set-piece meetings ahead of games, as Villa plotted their way out of the Championship. His celebrations in the technical area mirrored the elation in the stands – as he does today, Cutler took great pride when a routine would pay off with great effect.

Cutler also refers to a folder of instructions and routines at various stages in the game when free-kicks are awarded or conceded. Now without the technical expertise of Hourihane in the Premier League, Villa have had to become even more creative to break down defensive shapes that are well versed and often exposed to innovate routines on the training pitch in preparation for matchday.

How Aston Villa can improve the effectiveness of their free-kicks

With Dean Smith’s stock higher than ever after not only achieving promotion at the first time of asking, but also securing Villa’s top flight status in the following season, what had particularly impressed club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, was his ability to recognise his sides’ flaws and indeed improve them, despite not being allowed to work on team shape and set-piece routines at Bodymoor Heath during the first lockdown period.

The league’s indefinite suspension also allowed Smith to take a step back and devise plans to improve defensive frailties and set-piece flaws that had so often stumped his side last season, both in attaching and defensive phases. Grealish had won more fouls than any other player in Premier League history last season, but Villa’s goal count from dead-ball situations was considerably low.

When football returned from lockdown, five of Villa’s seven goals were scored within the same attacking phase that proceeded either a free kick or corner, highlighting how well Smith coached and communicated certain tactics to his players ahead of the all-important Project Restart period.

Grealish will continue to win on average five fouls a game. Due to Grealish’s higher starting position in most Villa attacks – considering his newly adopted left-wing berth – Villa must maximise their threat from set-piece opportunities, with more fouls being won towards the final third of the pitch.

In the instance below, Hourihane stands over the ball wide of Alphonse Areola’s goal. As highlighted, an area of space covering the six yards operating the penalty spot and Areola’s six-yard box is the target for Hourihane, which Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa are looking to exploit.

Fulham’s high-line is nothing new in the Premier League, but despite its fashionable use in the top flight, with a poorly executed offside trap, Mings and Konsa are afforded the opportunity to run from a deeper position, in order to gain a vital advantage over their opposition markers.

Fulham’s Aboubakar Kamara and Tom Cairney sit deeper than their teammates, behind the grass cutting around 20 yards from goal. Mings assesses the line he’s working against, and with a change of acceleration, bursts through Tim Ream and Michael Hector in hope of meeting Hourihane’s delivery towards Areola’s penalty spot.

Ezri Konsa also battles to run free of Denis Odoi after realising the deeper starting position of Cairney. In the following shot, we can observe how both of Villa’s centre-backs manage to assess a poorly designed offside trap, time their runs to perfection, and make use of Hourihane’s accurate delivery.

Fulham v Villa set-piece

Notice John McGinn’s position in both of the above examples, his position barely moves. The reason for McGinn’s deeper starting position is mainly due to his ability to pick up the pieces inside the box in case a wayward clearance falls into his path. Also, as Fulham’s markers adopt their starting defensive line, McGinn forces their defensive shape to push higher than necessary to keep him offside in at least the first phase of play. Here, we can observe an excellent free-kick routine. Its simplicity is encouraging, though Villa should still be creating more chances of a similar nature considering the volume of fouls won in wider areas of the final third.

In the following example, we can analyse where the loss of Hourihane has clearly impacted Villa’s effectiveness from dead-ball situations. Against Brighton, in a 2-1 home loss in November, Bertrand Traoré stands over a free-kick in a similar locality to where Hourihane assisted Mings’ first goal of the season at Craven Cottage earlier in the league campaign.

Villa v Brighton set-piece

We can clearly identify that Brighton have a deeper defensive line when compared to the positions adopted by Scott Parker’s side in September. Perhaps in part due to the in-depth analysis carried out by Potter and his analytics team, Brighton have made the possibility of Traoré finding a team-mate incredibly harder.

Yet, due to the powerful and intelligent running of Konsa, Traoré’s delivery towards the edge of Matt Ryan’s six-yard box should have been turned goal-bound by the centre-back. Below, we can see that Konsa and Ollie Watkins came within an inch of scoring, having failed to make an all-important firm connection with the ball from inside the box.

Villa v Brighton Set-piece

Much like the goal Konsa scored at Goodison Park during Villa’s Project Restart survival battle, he and Watkins evade Brighton markers to latch onto a wide delivery, even if it tests the durability of hamstrings by stretching every sinew to reach the ball.

Trezeguet, as highlighted towards Brighton’s back-post, is almost always preparing to redistribute the ball from the opposite wing. Having come up trumps during Project Restart, it was Trezeguet’s goal against Arsenal that propelled Villa above the dotted line for the first time during that post-football lockdown period. From the same back-post position that he so often arrives from – also to win the Carabao Cup semi-final tie over Leicester City last season – Trezeguet can offer a goal threat even when the initial danger of an in-swinging delivery is mitigated by the opposition.

In that same home defeat to Brighton, as seen below, in the second-half, Trezeguet again adopts a back-post position where unmarked, he’s able to provide a threat while almost going unnoticed to Brighton’s preoccupied defence.

Though, his threat isn’t required when Traoré’s delivery is so comparable to that of a quality Hourihane delivery from a wide left position. Despite Brighton conceding another free-kick in an almost identical position to that of the free-kick previously analysed, their line is slightly higher than otherwise observed.

Villa v Brighton Set-piece

Whilst Ryan fails to command his own six-yard box, the Burkina Faso international is simply invited to sweep the ball across the Brighton penalty area to find Konsa at the far post.

Villa v Brighton Set-piece 4

Once more, Konsa’s ability to evade and steal a march on opposite markers, in this example, Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster – two very reliable defenders in their own right – determines that Traoré’s deliveries will be gobbled up by the centre-back if their teammates can also play their role.

Watkins’ indispensable role in Dean Smith’s side has proven a major part in Villa’s success this season, with his and invaluable hold-up play, but also, his role from set-pieces is very important. Watkins will occupy central markers, whether it be from free-kicks or corners, where he plays the fall guy in order to allow the likes of Konsa and Mings to roam into the areas of maximum damage to an opponent’s defence from such dead-ball scenarios.

How Aston Villa can improve the effectiveness of their corner kicks

The tactical possibilities for corners have a high ceiling that has barely been discovered by modern teams, who may often see set-pieces as an afterthought to focus on pressing, tactical structures, and passing combinations in the last decade of Premier League history.

Liverpool are one example of a club that are very forward-thinking in how they approach set-pieces, including the analysis they use to isolate methods and after appointing a throw-in coach in Thomas Gronnemark, other clubs should follow suit in respecting every detail in which a football match can be won or lost.

From the first demonstrated image below, we can see that on Villa’s opening game of the 2010/2021 Premier League season, Matt Targett stands over a corner kick as Hourihane is replaced moments earlier.

Sheffield United goal v Aston Villa

Here, movement is key to the eventual desired outcome. Well occupied by a bunch of Sheffield United defenders, we can analyse an effective tactic deployed by Villa whereby Konsa and Mings split their respective runs towards goal.

Mings darts towards the near post to vacate empty space in the box, as John McGinn and Keinan Davis, draw the attention of Sheffield United’s central markers – all three of which are on static and not expecting the movement of Villa’s centre-backs.

Sheffield United goal

As highlighted above, we can observe the effectiveness of Mings’ movement and indeed the positioning of Konsa, who also arcs his run to find space towards the far post.

Here, we can see the effect that Mings’ run across the face of goal has caused. Five Sheffield United defenders are all ball watching, or ‘Mings watching’ as Konsa is afforded enough room to meet Mings’ near-post flick-on towards Aaron Ramsdale’s opposite post.

Sheffield United set-piece

In the Championship, Jack Grealish would often work a neat sequence of passes to unlock an opportunity to cross the ball in closer proximity to an opponent’s goal, which ultimately increases the possibility of creating a goal.

Corners taken short have had an 18.7% chance creation rate and 3.7% goal threat since the Millennium. While overplaying from a short corner can be frustrating to watch, the taker can benefit from an adjusted delivery angle if the ball is released quickly enough to catch out the defence. While Dean Smith’s team has the assets to make the most of the limited goal threat corners can provide, Villa seem to have moved away from taking short corners.

In the below instance, in a 2-0 win over Newcastle United, Villa were forced to recycle the ball after Karl Darlow punches Grealish’s corner to initial safety.

Newcastle set-piece

Often, as referenced below, Villa will dot three players outside the box, where the ball can be retrieved and another attacking sequence can be explored. Targett, Traoré, and Marvelous Nakamba manage to successfully keep the ball despite oncoming pressure from five onrushing Newcastle defenders.

Douglas Luiz – whose presence in the box is rather futile – sprints back towards the 12-yard box to assist in not only retaining the ball but occupying Newcastle defenders, who were initially more likely to force Nakamba to play a backwards pass, rather than work another attacking move, thanks to effective movement and quality of passing.

Newcastle Set-piece

As the passing sequence develops, Grealish and Luiz are both involved in the move, by circling around the perimeter of Newcastle’s box. Here, Grealish can use the ball as if he had played a short corner with a teammate.

Newcastle set-piece

Having sent all five of Newcastle’s defenders back towards their own goal with a series of crisp passes, Grealish tops the lot by locating the only angle of space in which Traoré can take a shot towards Darlow’s goal.

It could be proposed that a different variation of a corner kick, from more generic routines to a basic short corner, Villa have enough quality to make good use of a variety of routines. Grealish in particular has the ability to make something out of nothing, and while a short corner might seem dull from the outside, Villa’s talisman can unlock a defence from almost any angle, and indeed against almost any player in a one-on-one situation.

By altering the method of set-piece delivery deployed, this will generally make it harder for an opponent’s defence to study the possibilities of Villa using certain routines on matchday – from near-post runs to crowding the goalkeeper’s six-yard box. Where Villa can also find success is by developing pre-existing tactics.

Here, in Villa’s infamous 7-2 victory over Liverpool earlier this season, McGinn’s volley to add a third Villa goal before the 35th minute is another example of where Villa successfully populates the edge of Liverpool’s penalty area.

Newcastle set-piece

While Grealish became a master of guiding the ball into the back of the net from a corner sent towards the edge of the box in the Championship, McGinn’s attempt against Liverpool – while more fortuitous – was nonetheless just as effective.

Against Southampton and Leicester last season, Grealish popped up from a deeper position, away from the penalty box melee as it were, to score two of his best goals last term. In this campaign, Grealish also scored in a similar fashion to that of the wonder goal he managed against Derby County on his return from injury two seasons ago, against Burton Albion in the Carabao Cup.

How Aston Villa can improve defending set-pieces

Aston Villa have by no means conceded the most goals from set-pieces this season, but neither have they conceded the least. If Villa are to realise their European ambitions in the coming years, the finer details in defending set-pieces will be crucial in this regard.

Effective communication and taking responsibility for roles are just two major functions needed to successfully defend corners and free-kicks throughout a Premier League season. Below, in a 4-3 home loss to Southampton, Villa look well organised and set to defend James Ward-Prowse’s in-swinging delivery, located wide of Martínez’s goal.

Liverpool

As highlighted, Jannik Vestergaard is marked by John McGinn. This is a mismatch if both players directly compete for the ball, but as Villa employs a zonal marking system, Konsa is aware of Vestergaard’s presence and will endeavour to get touch-tight as Ward-Prowse approaches the ball, and Vestergaard makes his move.

Southampton

Though, the communication between McGinn and Konsa must improve to mitigate a similar threat in the future. Vestergaard towers over McGinn without any effective pressure from Konsa. While McGinn needs to be more aggressive to limit the power in which Vestergaard can jump and approach the ball, Konsa must also be aware of the Dane’s movements as Ward-Prowse prepares to deliver the ball.

Against West Ham United in what was a frustrating 2-1 loss at the London Stadium this campaign, similar flaws were exposed again.

West Ham set-piece

Watkins, Konsa and Mings are all dotted across the six-yard box, while Targett occupies the space towards Martínez’s far post. On the face of it, here we have a well-organised defensive shape. Though, with Mings only pointing towards the oncoming run of Angelo Ogbonna, Targett is left to defend the West Ham defender’s run by himself.

West Ham

In the following image, we can see that neither Mings or Konsa are even close to Targett, who unsuccessfully contests the ball with Ogbonna, to score West Ham’s opening goal through some sloppy Villa defending.

While we can’t expect Trezeguet to become a fifth zonal maker inside Martínez’s penalty box, he can at least disrupt the run of Ogbonna, who is afforded enough time to break stride and attack the ball with power, against a static Targett. In general, Villa’s defensive shape is too static – you’d be able to throw a blanket over the seven Villa defenders who are populated around the six-yard box.

On the whole this season, there are very few negative features that are pressing issues for Smith’s side, but by analysing where Villa have come unstuck from defending corner kicks this season, the same weaknesses seem to reappear.

Burnley

In the next instance, we can again analyse a solid defensive shape, where Villa’s two banks of three are primed to block Burnley runners, while Targett, Mings and Konsa are again used to attack the ball against the likes of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski.

Burnley set-piece

Ross Barkley – who’s responsible for disrupting Mee’s route to goal – fails to impose himself against the Burnley centre-half who escapes his grasp to overload Konsa’s far post territory. Douglas Luiz, who successfully tracks the run of Tarkowski, cannot manage against both of Burnley’s aerial targets.

Common mistakes will become a point of reference for opposition teams to channel their pre-match preparations towards Villa’s defensive frailties from corner kicks. It must be stressed that in no way are Villa a soft touch from set-pieces, but whilst the ambitions of the club rest firmly in Europe, there’s always room for improvement.

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