The Blues switched things around, bringing in the fresh legs of Coleman and Rodwell for Heitinga and Barkley with Cahill replacing Anichebe up front and Hibbert deputising for Neville at fullback in a 4-2-3-1. Our core strategy was to play more direct balls from back to front and aim to win the second balls and start play from there. Villa’s started off in a 4-2-3-1 with N’Zogbia behind Bent, but the winger moved back to his natural wide berth following Heskey’s injury and the introduction of Bannan. Villa also played quite direct but more long driven balls aiming to exploit their pace in wide areas.
It is clear that with Pienaar and Arteta now departed we don’t have the tools to pass teams to death. For example, last season’s early season defeat to Villa was suffered despite the Blues dominating play – that day we made 597 passes in total (10% of which where long balls). Yesterday we made just 455, with almost double the amount (18%) of long balls. Jagielka is perhaps the best example of the change in strategy – in last season’s game he hit just 8 long balls and averaged 77% pass completion – this season it was 20 long balls and 51% completion. We can certainly mix it though, and the opening goal followed a period of sustained pressure with some great passing by the Blues culminating in a tidy slot by the excellent Osman. The assist was provided by Cahill and the Aussie led the line well throughout – he picks up invaluable free kicks around the box and was our most fouled player winning 3 free kicks in total. He offers a great hold up outlet enabling us to maintain possession in the opponents half.
Press, Press & Press!
The Blues worked extremely hard off the ball – last season in terms of interceptions we averaged just 12 per game – the lowest in the league compared to 09/10 when we had highest average per game (22) in the division. Yesterday we made a whopping 30 (see left chalkboard). We where also extremely combative in our pressing high up field – winning 59% of our tackles in Villa’s half (see below chalkboard), with our aggressive pressing of the opposition characterized by Fellaini who regained possession 6 times, all in Villa’s half. Clearly, as mentioned above, our passing has become more direct and with more direct passing you will always lose the ball more frequently during the course of a game – meaning we have to spend more time working at winning the ball back – but with high energy players such as Fellaini, Coleman and Rodwell the Blues certainly have the raw materials to play this way.
In the second period Villa played more 4-4-2 with Agbonlahor playing more centrally alongside Bent. Due to the Blues playing quite a high line and compressing the midfield, much of Villa’s attacking moves where based on balls over the top aiming to catch their speedy forwards – most of theses balls either went out of play or led to a Villa player being caught offside which they did 6 times compared to our 0.
Pressing for long periods can ultimately lead player’s energy levels to wither as the game goes on. Petrov’s first equaliser was class but Villa’s second equaliser was certainly avoidable – with Coleman subbed the Blues looked disjointed down the right and a few moments later Albrighton was left in acres of space 1 on 1 with Hibbert, crossing for Agbonlahor to head home and equalise Baines earlier penalty . One slight critique here was that Albrighton is all right foot but in the 3 runs he had at Hibbert he wasn’t once shown onto his left as should have been the case.
We really should have buried a Villa side who specialize in coming back against the Blues. This was the 11th game we have failed to beat Villa in the league on the spin despite taking the lead in 7 of those fixtures. All in all though it was a positive display of high intensity and graft off the ball, mixed with some pockets of real offensive quality and was a glimpse of a more direct and high octane strategy which I think the Blues will adopt this season.