It’s pretty hard to imagine, but Saturday’s match between Chelsea and Aston Villa could be considered a relegation six-pointer. Even though it’s hard to imagine the Blues actually facing the prospect of going down and joining the Championship next season, their early season form is that of a team fighting for relegation, having amassed just 8 points from their first 8 matches and conceding 17 goals, which is rather unheard of for Jose Mourinho-managed side.
The Portuguese manager finds himself in a rather unfamiliar position in trying to motivate a side who seem to be lacking in the confidence and swagger that saw them hoist the Premier League trophy just under five months ago. Mourinho has said that his new task is to oversee a longer-term project at Stamford Bridge, but this season’s performances show that he may have to dig deep into his bag of tricks to arrest this slide.
The picture is less rosy, if you can imagine that, for Aston Villa. Manager Tim Sherwood oversaw a bit of a revival at the end of last season that saw the Villains keep their Premier League status. However, this season, it appears that the honeymoon period is ending and Villa, having won their first match of the season, have not tasted victory since.
If there’s a Premier League side that looks just as fragile as Chelsea, it might be Aston Villa.
Chelsea have had good results against Villa over the last couple of years, recording 7-1 victory back in 2010 en route to winning the Double with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, and an 8-0 victory over Villa in 2012 under then interim manager Rafa Benitez. If there was ever a time for Chelsea to face the Villains, it would be at the moment that confidence is needed, especially when Villa might actually look worse than the reigning champions.
After Tim Sherwood took over last season, optimism ran rampant through Villa players and supporters, believing that Sherwood and his approach could bring attacking foot all, and successful attacking football, back to Villa Park. However, that optimism has since waned amongst a slew of bad results this season, even going back to the FA Cup Final defeat at the end of last season. It hasn’t helped that Villa sold their two best players from last season in Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, or that they lost the veteran leadership of Richard Dunne and Shay Given, but this so far this season, Sherwood looks as though he has zero idea on how to make up for those particular losses.
Aside from the abject performances on the pitch, Sherwood’s been grasping at straws to find a system that fits his team, and it shows in his scattershot formations and tactics. In fact, he hasn’t started with the same formation since late in August when they met defeat to Notts County and a draw against just-as-woeful Sunderland. Since then, Sherwood’s played various 4-3-3s, diamonds, pyramids, and even resorted to a three-man defence in order to try and regain some potency. None of it has worked.
He has found that Rudy Gestede, who joined this season from Blackburn Rovers, lived up to his reputation as being strong in the air, but some of the decisions of how to take advantage of that strength have been questionable at best, particularly against Liverpool when Liverpool’s attack caused them all sorts of problems before they backed off and allowed Villa to come at them.
Despite facing a Chelsea team that is struggling, Sherwood will have to find the right solution. There are weaknesses in the Chelsea side that he can exploit, but it’s a matter of setting up the team correctly. If he doesn’t and defaults to going out and attacking the Blues, it may be a long afternoon for Aston Villa.
Rudy Gestede has the potential to cause a lot of problems.
Gestede came to Villa this season from Blackburn with a big reputation in the Championship. His scoring record at Blackburn was a very respectable 32 goals in 60 matches, though the questions remained whether he could be an effective Premier League striker. Those questions have been answered with the young Frenchman having scored 4 times in 9 appearances for Villa, including a brace of headers against Liverpool at Anfield.
The interesting thing for Gestede this weekend against Chelsea is that Chelsea’s defence have had issues this season against movement in the box. Last season, the best defensive option was to force play out wide, since John Terry and Gary Cahill cleared crosses into the box on a regular basis. This season, for some reason, that defence hasn’t been able to do so, and teams with strikers that possess clever movement in the box have caused all sorts of issues.
Against Ayoze Perez of Newcastle United, for example, his movement in and around the box bamboozled Cahill and Kurt Zouma, and most of the pull backs and driven crosses resulted in real chances for the Magpies. That could be due in part to Nemanja Matic not protecting the back four as well this season or because of Branislav Ivanovic being ineffective 1 v 1 or in blocking crosses, but the fact is that Chelsea have been vulnerable in that area this season.
After seeing Gestede’s movement against Liverpool, that is one area of concern for the Blues. Liverpool don’t have a great defence, but their inability to deal with Gestede’s movement and aerial ability led to chances created, to the point where every time Villa put a cross into the box, it looked like Gestede might score.
Chelsea must be wary of this, particularly because Villa’s general build-up play has been a bit stagnant this season, and you can cut off that supply line if you want. But if you don’t stop their build-up, Gestede is capable of wreaking some havoc to the Chelsea defenders.
If Jack Grealish plays, make sure you mark him well.
If there’s one player in Aston Villa’s squad that is a creative threat, it’s Jack Grealish. The young English winger proved during last year Villa’s improbable run to the FA Cup Final that he’s capable of moments of magic when the ball is at his feet. However, Grealish’s problem is similar to most young players of his age, and it’s that he’s not really focused on defending. In fact, much like Eden Hazard a few years ago, he tends to stay focused on receiving the ball and attacking his defender. It allows him to produce brilliant moments, but it also means his mentality is often just focused on attack.
That wouldn’t be so much of a problem by itself, but Grealish’s movement off the ball is not terribly good. That’s not to say it won’t develop eventually, but his style of play means that he’s very good with the ball, but you can limit his effectiveness by either making him help out his fullback, which tends to affect his stamina, or by marking him tightly because he doesn’t often come back to the ball or effectively look to find space to receive a pass. It’s why Tim Sherwood has been hesitant to play him recently and also why he criticized him publicly.
It’s important that Chelsea look after Grealish if he plays because Villa’s creativity is lacking in other areas. Gestede needs service, as he’s not great at creating chances for himself, and Scott Sinclair can be a bit hit or miss. Gabriel Agbonlahor’s return from injury could help, but his lack of match sharpness and fitness may limit his minutes if he plays at all.
It’s relatively simple for Chelsea: pay attention to Grealish if he’s on the pitch and exploit his weakness off the ball, and force Villa to rely on their central midfield to create chances.
The loss of Fabian Delph has really hurt Villa’s midfield.
Last season, Fabian Delph was absolutely brilliant in the midfield; so briliiant that he was able to grab the attention of Roy Hodgson and establish himself as an England international. That play also attracted the attention of Manchester City, and when City came calling, off went Delph, lured by Champions League football and a chance to win the league.
For Villa, though, it’s left a massive hole in creativity in their central midfield. Last season, it was Delph who dictated play from that position and controlled the tempo and chances. This season, they simply lack that type of player, filling a squad with essentially holding midfielders or box-to-box players. When your midfield is relying on the likes of Ashley Westwood, Carlos Sanchez, and Idrissa Gueye to create chances and be the playmaking midfielders, you know you have issues.
That’s not to say that Chelsea shouldn’t watch out for that group. Sanchez and Westwood can both cover a lot of ground, and Sanchez, in particular, can be very good at breaking up playing with tackling and interceptions. However, if you ask those two to try and play their way through midfield, it’s not that simply and tends to look rather ugly.
Chelsea’s recent problem has been seeing Matic and Cesc Fabregas sometimes play a bit too attacking in the midfield and not being as solid or as compact as last season. Even though Villa aren’t great at breaking down a crowded midfield, at this level if you give them midfield space, they still can hurt you.