Aston Villa's Losses to Tottenham and Everton Highlight Their Lack of Creativity
Saturday's match, coupled with Villa's previous 2-0 defeat to Tottenham, displayed a fascinating shift in Villa's attacking approach. Villa's heavy use of crosses in both matches demonstrates their greatest weakness this season: a lack of creativity.
I think we have got to take our chances...We should have been three up. But I can't be too harsh on the lads. You always know at this level that a team only needs one chance to score.
Although Lambert is correct that poor finishing was a key factor in Villa's losses, his team's predictability was equally detrimental.
Villa have been rightfully characterized as a team that is most dangerous when attacking on the break. Their goals this season support that assertion as the team has routinely struggled to create chances against an organized defense.
The recent home losses are perfect examples of this and the matches provide a holistic view of Villa's attacking flaws.
Lambert fielded different lineups and formations against Tottenham and Everton. He used his favored 4-3-3 formation against a strong Tottenham midfield with Libor Kozak in the place of Christian Benteke.
Conversely, the Scottish manager elected to play a 4-4-2 against Everton with Gabriel Agbonlahor as a striker and Aleksandar Tonev as an additional wide player.
In both instances his teams were devoid of a playmaker in the middle of the park, and this absence was readily apparent.
Against Tottenham, Villa created very few goalscoring opportunities prior to the introduction of Benteke. His arrival lifted the team and led to better chances, primarily headed opportunities from crosses.
The image below, courtesy of Squawka, highlights Villa's key passes during the match, demonstrating their reliance on wide play to create opportunities.
Without a central creator and having fashioned their best chances from wing attacks, it was unsurprising to see Villa place an emphasis on width in the following week's match against Everton,
However, they were extremely unsuccessful in generating opportunities from crosses against Roberto Martinez's team. Per Squawka.com, Villa completed just 2-of-22 crosses, an unacceptable conversion rate.
The combined 45 crosses attempted across the two matches is especially surprising given that, according to WhoScored.com, Villa have attempted the fewest crosses in the Premier League this season, a meager 15 attempts per game.
Crosses directed to the heads of Villa's tall strikers—Benteke, Kozak and Nicklas Helenius—could become a reliable scoring option for Villa, but they are not currently successful for a pair of reasons.
First, Villa's lack of central creativity makes the team easy to defend. If Lambert's side cannot create an opportunity on the counterattack, then their attacking options become severely limited.
Villa have routinely been unable to craft chances through the middle of the park. Over time this has led the team to naturally push the ball into wide areas, explaining the sudden surge in crossing volume.
Unfortunately for Lambert, Villa's lack of threat through the middle makes them very predictable. Everton were well prepared for Villa tactically and were consequently untroubled in defense.
Lambert's team crucially needs to direct more attacks through the center, a threat contingent upon having a creative player in midfield, to make crossed balls more dangerous. Otherwise opposing defenders have less areas of attack to concern themselves with.
Furthermore, Villa's squad is not well equipped to make crosses their primary attacking method, explaining Villa's previous lack of attempts.
Tonev has shown a greater desire to cut in from the wing then to hug the touchline. The injured Charles N'Zogbia is unlikely to return until the end of 2013 at the earliest. Marc Albrighton, arguably Villa's most natural winger, is set to join Wigan on loan.
One player who does possess the crossing quality to make an impact is right-back Matthew Lowton. However, the young defender has fallen out of favor with Lambert and has not played since Villa's home loss to Newcastle.
Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, Lambert's preferred wide players, are converted strikers playing on the flank. They are the players most often in strong crossing positions, yet neither man is the natural crosser that Villa need.
Given these limitations it becomes increasingly crucial for Lambert to introduce a creative player to his team to relieve the attacking pressure upon his wide players.
But who is equipped to be that player for Villa? Within the current squad there are a few possible options.
Long-term absentees N'Zogbia and Gary Gardner both possess the requisite quality to potentially be fielded as playmakers. However, N'Zogbia has been inconsistent for Villa while Gardner's injury concerns have hampered his development.
Current right-back Leandro Bacuna has demonstrated some ability to be a creative influence. He has impressed the Villa faithful in his short time at the club and he is a serviceable option among the currently available players.
Ultimately, though, it seems far more likely that Villa will have to wait until the winter transfer window opens to acquire such a player. Their failed summer pursuit of Japanese international Hiroshi Kiyotake left Lambert without a creator and he must be swift to rectify this error come January.
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