For years, Aston Villa has been something of a bogey team for Chelsea, mostly away from Villa Park. But there have been some interesting fixtures between these two at Stamford Bridge as of late, the 8-0 Chelsea win under Rafa Benitez, Andre Villas-Boas’ side losing 3-1, and Carlo Ancelotti’s side hammering Villa 7-1. On Saturday, Chelsea will hope that two out of those three fixtures foretell the result when Aston Villa visit the Bridge.
Chelsea are fresh off of a midweek victory against Bolton in the Capital One Cup, but more importantly, drew away at the Etihad to Manchester City last Sunday. The latter result not only kept Chelsea’s unbeaten record in the league intact, but it kept the gap between the two teams at a solid 5 points and increased the lead over second place Southampton to 3 points.
Meanwhile, Aston Villa are coming off their first league defeat this season, to Arsenal 3-0, and will be looking to regain the momentum that has carried them to third at this stage in the season. Paul Lambert’s men boast the best defence in the Premier League, having conceded four goals, three of which came in the defeat to Arsenal. However, their opponents weren’t the only opposition that they had to battle. A mysterious virus descended on the squad, and four of their first team squad were stricken and unable to play with the rest being left weakened. They have all been said to have recovered, and just in time to visit the league leaders.
How will Villa recover from the defeat to illness?
Aston Villa have had a wonderful start to the season, largely based on their increased organization defensively. But that all went out the window in 10 minutes early in the second half against Arsenal when they were blitzed with three goals and never recovered.
Anyone who watched that match and knew the backstory could see that Villa weren’t quite firing. Until that point, they seemed to be gamely hanging on against Arsenal and giving it everything they had, despite quite a number of them being under the weather. But for 10 minutes, Arsenal raised their tempo and Villa just crumbled under the weight of the pressure and intensity and couldn’t get it back.
This weekend, it’ll be interesting to see how Villa respond. Lambert shut the doors to the training facility in an effort to curb the illness, and it seems to have helped. Ashley Westwood, Nathan Baker, Darren Bent, and Andreas Weimann have all recovered from the virus that caused them to miss last Saturday’s game and will be available to face Chelsea. The real question will be how much this virus has sapped out of them. Even if you are healthy, your energy levels will have been sapped, and you still have a bit of recovery. Should Villa lack that little edge in concentration and energy that carried them through the first 4 matches, they could be taken to task again by Chelsea.
Paul Lambert and Roy Keane have rebuilt this squad’s defence into a solid unit.
Last season when we visited Villa Park, we faced an outfit that was strong defensively, well organized through the midfield, and had pace on the break with Fabian Delph added the late run from midfield. This season, they’ve added a bit of bite in the midfield to that defensive organization, and it’s served them very well.
The one thing you see when you watch Villa is how well that midfield presses the passing lanes. They don’t necessarily go in and win the ball off the man, but rather they play really nice angles and take the ball in the transitional phase. Last year, they were very adept at intercepting the ball in the final third and breaking once they found an out ball. This season, they’re doing the same thing, only the midfield is breaking up play in the middle third, and that’s allowed the pace of Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor to shine on the counter.
That’s not to discredit that back line, which has done amazingly well considering the absence of captain Ron Vlaar who is missing due to injury. In his stead, Philippe Senderos has had something of a revival of his career and has played very well as the experienced center back alongside the youngster Baker. Alan Hutton has rejuvenated his career and given them solidity at right back. And Aly Cissokho is showing the player that he was at Lyon, and not the player who struggled at Liverpool last term.
The biggest thing is that in a division where defending seems to be a lost art, their method of a solid defence with a good counter attack seems to be working for them this term and has them sitting comfortably with 10 points from 5 matches.
Aston Villa’s midfield might be their strongest area of the team.
The strength of the Villa midfield is something we discovered late last season when the trio of Karim El Ahmadi, Westwood, and Delph pressed and harried us, securing a vital 1-0 win at home for Villa. This season, El Ahmadi has moved on, but Villa have secured Tom Cleverley on loan for the rest of the season. As maligned as Cleverley is, he is very good in all aspects of the game, but not great at any of them. That’s really been the knock on him during his career. He doesn’t stand out in any one area, but he’s always willing to work hard, and he’s one of those players that can make a difference in a system.
That’s how I think Lambert has envisioned it working. With Cleverley in the midfield, it’s allowed Villa to play Delph a bit further forward alongside Weimann, and allowed him to bring Bent on from the bench and start Agbonlahor up front on his own. Notationally, it goes down as a 4-3-2-1, with Kieren Richardson on the left side of a midfield three, but it’s very flexible in that when defending, Delph comes deeper to add a fourth in midfield and when attacking, Agbonlahor and Weimann are free to use their pace through the channels, which is where they excel.
It’s a formation that’s very fluid in terms of changing how you set out to play. Because of having basically two strikers and a midfielder who can attack and create in any setup, it’s allowed them to adapt to their opposition. For instance, against Liverpool, they basically played a 4-4-2 diamond to match Liverpool, and sat Delph right on Steven Gerrard and took him out of the match, something that teams have replicated as of late.
Villa’s midfield allows them to do a lot of things, but more importantly, they cut out space extremely well, and it makes them tough to break down.
Jose Mourinho has one big decision to make.
A lot of this match will depend on the fitness of Diego Costa. Jose Mourinho himself has stated that Costa can’t play three matches a week. Well, with the Champions League match against Sporting CP on Tuesday and a matchup with Arsenal looming next weekend, Mourinho has a big call to make. Does he play Costa on Saturday and leave him out against Sporting CP, knowing that he really needs a win in the Champions League? Or does he sit him against Villa in order to keep him fresh for the next two fixtures, which are arguably more important?
The Diego Costa hamstring problem is one that really does affect the way we play. As he is right now, Didier Drogba doesn’t give me enough to justify starting him in the league ahead of Loic Remy, and without Costa, the threat of the big man is gone, and that really changes things.
Should Mourinho opt to rest Costa, whoever plays in his place must provide a threat. Drogba looked slow and off the pace against Schalke, and Remy was largely unlucky against Bolton. There’s a strong possibility that one of them is going to get an audition to be the clear number two striker against Villa. It’ll be interesting to see who takes that chance.