One would have expected, off the back of an emphatic 4-1 victory over champions Manchester United in the derby game in their previous fixture, City would be high on life and Villa would be in for a tough afternoon.
Tough it was – let’s not play down City’s clear quality and the danger they posed subsequently – but, instead, let’s have a look at how and why Lambert’s tactical setup designed and then engineered the win.
“The way we lost this game was incredible. We led twice, and we had control of the game,” said Pellegriniafter the game and right he was. City did have control. However, it was that kind of delusional thinking – ‘we are in charge of this game’ – that cost them the three points in the end.
Lambert’s side caught them completely off-guard when they had been the side completely dominated in the game. Lambert went with a 3-5-2 formation which we don’t often see in the Premier League and we seldom see effective but, in this case, it gave Villa a great defensive platform and a solid spine to the team.
They kept their shape well throughout most of the game and Luna and Bacuna had their wits about them enough to know when drop deep to make a backline of five and when to push forward to make a midfield of five. Ironically, that had been something Roberto Mancini had experimented with at the Etihad last term but, in this case, it worked well against them.
Injuries to Christian Benteke and Gaby Agbonlahor would have presented Lambert with a nightmare or two on the Friday night before the game. His two most dangerous, pacey, and creative players sidelined, Lambert didn’t panic – instead, in a strange way, their absences actually helped the team.
Kozak and Sylla came into the side to replace them and both played their parts in the win – City completely dominated possession (67 per cent) and appeared to have complete control in the midfield and central areas of the pitch. But it was delusory possession – it lulled them into a false sense of security from which they got a nasty wake up call ultimately.
City were allowed 21 shots on goal but managed to get just a third of them on target – conversely, Villa had just four shots on target and scored three goals. Lambert’s men would have been prepared for chasing shadows for long period of the game and they knew they would need to be clinical when chances presented themselves and they were very very efficient.
Villa didn’t really get any hold over the game or impetus to even try to win it until they equalized to 1-1 – the midfield trio seemed heavily focused on trying to not concede goals which meant the widemen took on much of the ambition and attacking responsibilities to little avail. It was on the flanks where Villa really grew into the game.
However, the wingbacks Luna and Bacuna were essentially forced back into fullback positions for most of the game – it’s not surprise that all three of Villa’s goals came from central areas in the final third and for all City’s passing and creative play it was a goal-kick that robbed them of three points. That long-ball over the top caught Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic completely unaware – the high line the City backline kept all game was where the chink in the armour was.
Without Benteke and Agbonlahor as their primary outlets, Villa resorted to a more direct game and that was where City were undone. Pellegrini’s side had far more attacking ambition and an abundance of quality ammunition going forward but as long as Lambert’s side kept their heads and absorbed that pressure, especially early on, they knew they would always have a chance to nick it with a ball over the top which, in many ways, actually plays to Andreas Weimann’s strengths, even without Benteke to assist with flick-ons.
Ultimately, Aston Villa robbed a Manchester City side that indeed controlled the game but the template for beating the Citizens may well be to play a back three that is effectively a back five most of the time, accept that you’re going to get out-numbered and out-passes in midfield for most of the game, absorb the pressure in your defensive third, chase the shadows, and sit back.
But, when they lose possession, whip in a long-ball over the top, exploit their high line, and if you’ve got a clever little player like Weimann in your team or a player with pace and technical quality, City’s defenders are going to find themselves running back towards their own goal at least three or four times over 90 minutes. Paul Lambert didn’t just record a fantastic victory for Aston Villa on Saturday; he drew the blueprint for beating Manchester City.
image: © ell brown