Aston Villa – Chelsea: Tuchel Tweaks Tip The Scales (1-3)

As the title charge seemingly grinds to a halt, gaining the three points was an absolute necessity for Chelsea. Standing in the way was Aston Villa, along with Chelsea’s own offensive issues.

Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.

As Thomas Tuchel tries to work through his team’s offensive issues without Ben Chilwell and Romelu Lukaku, he faced two difficult tests in a week which was otherwise notable for the Premier League’s dubious handling of the rise in COVID-19 cases. With the league prioritizing games over player welfare (the result of insisting on playing games despite the congested fixture list), teams had little choice but to allocate resources and compete while keeping an eye on player health.

For Chelsea, this meant a test against Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa, who are a mercurial team capable of going toe to toe with the best of teams on their day. With Chelsea’s offensive issues now becoming common knowledge, it was poised to be an intriguing clash, with Romelu Lukaku finding a place on the bench after missing the past few games through injury.

Tuchel went with the trio of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount up front, with the usual double pivot of N’Golo Kante and Jorginho controlling the middle. They were flanked by the wingback pair of Reece James and Marcos Alonso, with Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalobah and Antonio Rüdiger chosen as the center-backs.

Aston Villa went with what was described as a 4-4-2 diamond shape, with Douglas Luiz at the base of midfield and Emi Buendía at the tip of the diamond. They were supported by wide midfielders Jacob Ramsey and Morgan Sanson, and in turn supported the strike duo of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings. The defense comprised of the usual suspects, with Emiliano Martínez receiving protection from fullbacks Matt Targett and Matty Cash and the center-back pair Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings.

Villa’s changing shape

While described as a 4-4-2 diamond, what Aston Villa actually used was a 4-3-2-1 shape with Emi Buendía and Ollie Watkins playing behind striker Danny Ings in attacking midfield roles. Another curiosity was the way the formation unfurled in buildup, with the fullbacks pushing high and the midfield trio spreading itself across the middle in a bid to support the attacking quintet ahead.

Villa’s 4-3-2-1 shape which turned into the commonly seen 2-3-5 formation.

With fullbacks Cash and Targett pushing up the pitch, Konsa and Mings supported Luiz, who was the deepest midfield player receiving support from Ramsey and Sanson on the left and right respectively. Ahead, Buendía and Watkins dropped to receive passes to feet depending on how the play developed. If Villa tried to play down their right, Sanson and Buendía would be the ones initiating the sequence, with Cash providing the width and dragging Alonso away in the process. In the center, Ings and Watkins would make runs in the channels, while the Ramsey an Targett would be ready to pounce on the second ball.

Despite the play design, things rarely worked out as intended for the home side. Chelsea’s 5-2-3 shape, while far from being impenetrable, remains difficult to play through, and turnovers in midfield doomed Villa’s chances of ever creating something out of the buildup structure. Hudson-Odoi, Jorginho and Rüdiger would break up the Villa sequence as it developed, forcing the home side back into their defensive shape. However, this was a more than comfortable situation for the hosts, since Chelsea struggled to create from open play at least in the first half.

Villa’s defense stymies Chelsea

The 4-3-2-1 block was a lot more effective defensively, as the midfield trio could guard the channels between the defenders while remaining in a good position to shift over as required. With Chelsea naturally trying to build down the wings, it was easy to close off the wingbacks’ options, before engaging in a duel to win the ball.

To counter this, Chelsea either had to play quickly or manipulate Villa out of their block, and it was the latter that was the preferred course of action. They were aided in this respect by Kante’s advanced position, as well as the convenient angles provided by the wide center-backs. While the wingers were easy to reach, it was much harder to find Pulisic in the middle, even when the American dropped to receive and prompted a defender to come with him.

Villa stayed in a medium block for the most part, but one disadvantage of the 4-3-2-1 shape was the ease with which Jorginho or Kante could stride through the center before passing out wide.

2nd minute: Here, the back pass to Silva results in the availability of an easy pass to an open Chalobah. Watkins is not in an ideal position to press due to his position in the shape.

This was possible by drawing Ings and one of Watkins or Buendía to one side, before passing back to the center and quickly into advancing into the Villa half. They seemed to respond to this issue midway through the half, when Buendía began moving into the frontline to form a narrow 4-3-3 shape.

Now, the easy back pass to Silva or Jorginho was eliminated, though the compact shape meant that it was still possible for wingbacks to pass down the flank. Still, it was evident that Chelsea needed a spark, in order to manufacture meaningful offensive opportunities.

A change of plans

To begin the second half, Tuchel subbed out Chalobah for Lukaku. This had a knock-on effect, since James slid into the wide center-back spot and Pulisic moved from the middle to the right wingback position. With James staying wide as compared to Rüdiger on the opposite flank, Chelsea could now engage in rotations involving all of their personnel on the right. Pulisic moving inside prompted Mount to move out; Lukaku moving into Mount’s place meant that Hudson-Odoi could take over the center.

With these quick positional exchanges, it was evident that Chelsea had switched their focus to playing down the right. This also tilted Villa’s block, since James’ wider position meant that the hosts tilted to Chelsea’s right from the top. This meant that Chelsea’s left faced a potential underload, and this was the source of the second goal. A short exchange with Alonso saw Hudson-Odoi wide on the left, with Lukaku being defended by Mings in the box. The winger sent in a cross that Lukaku reached all too easily, as Mings almost refused to defend the cross.

The game then followed a familiar pattern, but Chelsea now had a bit more bite than in the first half. Somewhat surprisingly, Villa did not change their approach despite trailing, though they did make a flurry of substitutions to bring on some fresh legs. Apart from their opener – the result of a deflected header – they produced very little, with a couple of passes being cut out by Chalobah and Mendy before they could turn dangerous. That proved to be the best that Villa could muster, as another penalty – again converted by Jorginho – meant that the visitors saw out a comfortable victory.


This was a necessary win for Chelsea given their position in the table and ambition in the league. After the disappointing game against Wolves, they needed to quickly gain points and move on, which they did against Villa through a returning Lukaku. Next up is a difficult game against Graham Potter’s ascendant Brighton, which promises to be a fascinating tactical encounter.

Villa needed a different approach in the second half, as Tuchel could not have been happy with his side’s display in the first half. Continuing in the same vein was a curious choice and one that ultimately backfired. Providing Buendía with some help would have been the ideal move, since the hosts struggled to retain possession when it mattered. Gerrard’s ideas were interesting, but Villa were badly lacking in execution.

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Manasvin covers the Bundesliga and Champions League for Between The Posts. He can be found on Twitter @RPftbl. [ View all posts ]


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