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On Sunday, Aston Villa overcame a tough challenge, as they managed to scrape a 0-0 draw at home against league leaders Manchester City.
Despite not having witnessed a goal, fans at Villa Park are sure to have been pleased with their team’s performance, as the Villains looked solid and improved in their first match under the direction of Remi Garde. The draw put an end to Villa’s appalling run of six straight losses.
Throughout the game, Manchester City were highly superior in terms of possession and control of the game. However, the Villains executed their boss’ plan to neutralize the opposition with methodical accuracy and that made all the difference in their favor.
Villa lined up with a 4-3-3 formation that, for the longest part of the match, looked more like a 4-5-1. Scott Sinclair and Carles Gil occupied the flanks, while, in the middle of the park, Idrissa Gueye and Jordan Veretout sat left and right (respectively) of Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez.
This last one, Sanchez, held the key to Garde’s defensive puzzle. As Manchester City held the ball and aimed to build from their backline, the four other midfielders defended in a tiered formation – a sort of pincer that forced the ball towards the central channel where the tireless Sanchez waited to clear out attempted attacks.
It soon became clear that Manchester City’s middle corridor – the typically strong area from which Fernando and Yaya Toure open space for the rest of the team – was clogged and well-guarded, and that City would have to look elsewhere in the search for a goal. As a result, in the 25th minute, as Wilfried Bony was forced off the field with an injury, Manuel Pellegrini decided to put in winger Jesus Navas instead of another forward.
It was a good move. By the second half, Villa’s disciplined structure had already caused Manchester City to give up their trademark patient build-up style, for a barrage of long balls toward the flanks. And Jesus Navas, on the right, started to become City’s main offensive threat.
One lesson for Aston Villa after the match might have been that 21-year old left-back Jordan Amavi might represent a liability in big games. As Navas became comfortable on his flank, the youngster seemed constantly unable to properly defend his side – his marking and tackling were shaky and he was caught out of position several times.
In fact, Manchester City had a series of clear-cut chances in the second half coming from Amavi and Navas’ sector. However, there were three main factors that kept them from capitalizing. Sterling was a bit lost as a center-forward, De Bruyne was simply sloppy in front of goal and Aston Villa center-back Cieran Clark was in fantastic form.
As City started to take more risks with their long balls throughout the latter parts of the match, Aston Villa were finally able to get some scoring chances through a small number of counter-attacks and set pieces. However, they weren’t able to make a difference in the score sheet.
For Villa, who are still in last place in the Premier League, and who had given up five goals in their last two matches, the positives in the 0-0 draw are undeniable. And fans will be hoping the trend can only get better over the next few weeks.
“We are four points away from safety, it’s a big target because there’s only 28 games to go,” he said. “The players are not so confident but as soon as we get some good results maybe it will get better,” said Garde just days ago during a press conference.
On the other hand, for Manchester City and Pellegrini, the result might represent an important step-back as the race for the title heats up, with Arsenal, Manchester United and the surprising Leicester City close to securing the top spot.
“Of course I’m disappointed about the result but I don’t have anything to complain about with our team because they did well for 90 minute,” Pellegrini told reporters after the match.
“I think first half they created one chance then after that we dominated the game and were very unlucky with three or four opportunities that we had,” he added.