Aston Villa were progressing in form the last couple of weeks and were ready to set themselves in a good position for the Championship play-offs at the end of the season. On Saturday, they entertained Blackburn Rovers, who were hoping to ruin Villa’s ambition. Aston Villa won the game relatively comfortably with a 2-1 victory at Villa Park.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at three tactical trends during this Championship game. We will have a look at how Aston Villa were set with their 4-1-4-1 formation, how Blackburn manifested themselves defensively with their 4-2-3-1 formation and how Aston Villa’s attacking style of play was the key to their success in this game.


Aston Villa vs Blackburn Rovers. Credit: Wyscout

Aston Villa were unbeaten in five games and looking for their fifth consecutive win, their thrid at home. Manager Dean Smith set out to win this game and fielded a 4-1-4-1 formation with Tammy Abraham as the sole striker backed by a four-man midfield.

Blackburn’s Tony Mowbray wanted to make sure this didn’t happen and opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Travis and Bennett posing as a low defensive block.

Aston Villa’s flexible 4-1-4-1

Aston Villa’s 4-1-4-1 with Whelan playing between defence and midfield

Villa’s 4-1-4-1 formation was rather flexible and that came in handy in both attacking and defensive situations. A strong defence which was supported by Whelan when under pressure from Blackburn and the midfield was supported by that same Whelan, when the hosts were in attack.

Whelan closing in to help the defence

When Whelan joined the four-man defence of Taylor, Mings, Hause and El Mohamady, the defensive situation became five defenders vs two strikers. This meant that Aston Villa conceded very few attempts that were on goal: two in the whole match.

The five-man defence turned into a four-man defence again when Aston Villa were attacking. Whelan didn’t play in front of the defence, but joined the midfield, where he had a great impact as a passer: he completed 57 of his 64 passes which amounts to a passing accuracy of 89%.

Whelan distributing the ball to Abraham

The midfield transformed from a four-man midfield to a five-man midfield, as you can see in the image above. In this instance, Whelan becomes the fifth midfielder who not only gives the pass to the striker Abraham, but also manages to keep the playing field wide.

Whelan was one of the greatest influences in Blackburn’s half with 19 completed passes, only second to Grealish with 22 passes.

Blackburn’s defensive 4-2-3-1 

Blackburn Rovers’ 4-2-3-1

When in defence, Blackburn had their defenders lying deep in their own half with Bell, Mulgrew, Lenihan and Nyambe. They had to deal with the attacking force of Aston Villa in this game.

Blackburn’s four-man defence

When Aston Villa attacked the defensive block, Bennett and Travis closed in to strengthen the four-man defence, because more often than not Aston Villa had three or four players in the box.

Defensive block Bennett-Travis playing in front of the defence

You can see Travis and Bennett playing in front of the defence here, but they are not the only ones to assist the defence. Also, the wide-midfielders Armstrong and Conway make runs into their own halves to strengthen the defence. Dack and Graham stay up front in case of a swift counter-attack.

One of their tasks was to neutralise the danger of Grealish and McGinn, as those were the players of Aston Villa who were expected to create the most chances. They created five and two chances respectively.

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Bennett and Travis are tasked with neutralising McGinn and Grealish

Bennett and Travis are the first players that need to stop McGinn and Grealish from creating chances, especially when they play deep into the Blackburn’s half.

The defensive block tries to stop McGinn and Grealish close to their own box

Close to their box the defensive block tries to defend like the defenders do, but away from the box they try to press early. Doing so will make it more difficult for the Aston Villa duo to make their impact on the game.

Bennett and Travis try to press early

This was quite successful on occasions, but Grealish and McGinn still managed to create seven chances in total, which gave Aston Villa the advantage in attack.

Aston Villa’s attacking style of play

Villa had a distinctive attacking style of play which you could see in every attack starting from the back. The first step was that the centre back (Mings or Hause) would give the ball to the full backs, Taylor or El Mohamady.

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The ball goes from centre back Hause to full back El Mohamady

El Mohamady distributes the ball directly to one of the wide midfielders, in this instance, Green. He has two options: make a run down the line or go into space on his left.

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Green goes into space

By doing so, Green forces Blackburn players to follow him and lose their positioning, which benefits the players down the line.

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McGinn passes the ball to El Ghazi, while Abraham makes a run towards goal

McGinn passed the ball to El Ghazi who is unmarked and wants to get the cross in. Abraham anticipates well and makes his run towards goal, hoping to get a goal in and put Aston Villa ahead.

Abraham makes the 1-0

Abraham scores the first goal and even though the score doesn’t completely reflect it, this was the way Aston Villa created a lot of chances. Aston Villa managed to get 10 shots on target and if they had been more clinical they might have won with a greater scoreline.

Final thoughts

Prior to the game, Villa needed the three points to keep up their surge for the Championship playoffs. It’s fair to say the didn’t disappoint and on a better day, they may well have hit Blackburn for five or six.

From a Blackburn point of view, Mowbray set them up not to lose rather than win and it ultimately proved costly as Villa’s midfield won the home side the game.

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