The West Midlanders' own boss is undergoing something of a media makeover, writes Alex Keble...
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It's easy to dismiss the fist-pumping, gilet-throwing Tim Sherwood as a manager too passionate for philosophy, or too charismatic for tactical nuance. But as recent Aston Villa performances have shown, the media’s polarisation of suit versus tracksuit is a false dichotomy; right now, Sherwood’s Villa are out-witting their opponents week after week.
Among various tactical tweaks and stylistic shifts implemented since his arrival, the positional transitions of Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley are arguably the most impressive.
Though often presented as a 4-4-2 diamond or 4-3-3, the fluidity of Villa’s movement is too loose for the definitions of a formation grid.
A more accurate definition would be 4-1-2-2-1, with Charles N’Zogbia and Jack Grealish lurking ominously behind Christian Benteke, Delph and Cleverley scuttling across the lines.
No other Premier League team attempts such a formation, and enormous credit should be given to Sherwood for the tactical intelligence that underpins the intriguing symbiosis of these five players’ respective roles. Grealish and Delph are the stars of this revived Aston Villa team, for different reasons.
Grealish’s flitting movement (along with N’Zogbia) sucks opposition players towards the centre of the pitch, thus creating space out wide for Delph to charge into. This scenario led directly to Villa’s opening goals against Everton and West Ham, and should prove fruitful against Southampton.
However, the strategy is more complex and diverse than this. Cleverley and Delph have adapted to unusual – and extremely ambitious – dual roles where they interchange and help Villa dominate in central areas. As a result, Sherwood's side can at times move the ball quickly through the middle (where up to six of their players reside), and at others shift the ball out wide where Delph or Benteke have drifted, unseen.
It takes good intelligence, work-rate and fitness to pull this off, but when successfully implemented it is unsurprising to see the opposing team unravel.
Southampton, stumbling aimlessly towards their summer vacations, are likely to find Delph’s movement problematic. In their last four matches (in which they have collected a solitary point), numerous chances have been conceded to crosses into the box from deep, leading directly to three goals.
Note the similarity between chances created against Saints, and Delph’s long passes into the box.
With Morgan Schneiderlin out, nullifying these movements will be particularly challenging for Ronald Koeman’s side. Watch out for Grealish, Delph and Benteke popping up in spacious pockets on the left.