Aston Villa monstered Pep Guardiola’s Man City like no team before

Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz celebrates after the match - Aston Villa monstered Pep Guardiola’s Man City like no team before
Manchester City had just two shots to Aston Villa’s 22, in Wednesday night’s defeat - Reuters/Chris Radburn

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have lost Premier League matches before but never like this 1-0 defeat by Aston Villa on Wednesday night. Villa dominated and dismantled his team from first whistle to last with a performance that demonstrated Unai Emery is capable of more than spoiling the elite’s best-laid plans. He can master them with some of his own.

Villa had 22 shots on goal to City’s two, the lowest tally by a Guardiola team in the 535 league games he has managed. No opponent has peppered Guardiola’s goal more frequently than Villa across those same 535 games. Leon Bailey’s deflected winner may have been fortuitous but it was without question just.

Seven of those Villa shots were on target, and 12 came from inside the penalty area as they amassed 2.38 Expected Goals (xG) to City’s 0.65, all of which came from a Erling Haaland double-chance in the 11th minute, which Emiliano Martínez repelled. In the remainder of a game that featured nine minutes of stoppage-time, City had zero shots on goal (which, naturally, means an Expected Goals value of 0.00).

The xG difference between the teams was the third-worst City have suffered under Guardiola in the Premier League. The other two matches came behind closed doors in 2020, one of which saw City concede three penalties at home to Leicester City. While City’s defeat in a dead rubber at Chelsea that year saw them lose the chance creation battle heavily, they still controlled territory in a way they never managed at Villa Park.

Those shot statistics were the result of territorial dominance, as City were pinned back in their own half for long periods. This was no reactive, counter-attacking performance from Emery’s team. Villa were the “protagonists” in the contest, to use a word of which the Basque coach is fond.

Villa had 36 touches in the penalty area to City’s 13. When City tried to progress the ball through their thirds in their usual ordered fashion, they were stymied by Emery’s compact unit out of possession. Villa won possession 13 times in the final third, the most any Premier League opponent has managed against Guardiola’s City since the 2016-17 season.

City struggled to move themselves and the ball up the pitch, as shown by their deep average positions and pass map:

Man City pass map vs Aston Villa
Man City pass map vs Aston Villa

City completed more passes than Villa with 452, but just 86 of those passes were successful in the attacking third of the pitch. Of 372 completed Villa passes, 89 came in the attacking third, with more of their possession coming in dangerous areas. Villa completed 18 passes in the penalty area to City’s 12.

The bedrock of Villa’s performance was their tight midfield four of  Boubacar Kamara (44), Douglas Luiz (6), Youri Tielemans (8) and John McGinn (7), who outplayed and outworked City’s central players.

Villa’s narrow midfield formed a box against City

Aston Villa average positions against City
Aston Villa average positions against City

As has become Villa’s tactical trademark under Emery, the nominal wide players Tielemans and McGinn drift inside when Villa have possession, creating a midfield box. This asks a question of the opposition full-backs: do they follow their men inside and leave space for an overlapping run or a peel in behind from Ollie Watkins, or stay put and allow a central overload?

McGinn was the pick of the bunch, completing more dribbles and winning more duels than any player in the match. The Scot also won more tackles than any Villa player, and tied with Douglas Luiz for the most chances created with four.

As well as that impressive statistical output, McGinn also offers something harder to quantify: an ability to shield the ball under pressure, something that buys time for support to arrive and passing options to appear. Once McGinn gets his backside between man and ball, few players in the Premier League are harder to shift.

Given Emery regularly picks teams with four ostensible central midfielders, it raised an eyebrow to see Guardiola name summer signings Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes on the bench with Rodri suspended.

John Stones started in Rodri’s role, with Manuel Akanji stepping out from the back-line into midfield in Stones’s usual role. In front of them was Julián Álvarez, who despite deputising for Kevin De Bruyne this season is a natural forward, and Rico Lewis. The England international is technically adept and very promising, but has so far been used at full-back by City. While he might receive the ball inside as an ‘inverted’ full-back, a central starting position is a different assignment.

In effect, City went to Villa Park with five centre-backs and two strikers, so little wonder their build-up play was scratchy and their midfield short of ingenuity.

Guardiola once said he dreamt of picking a team with 11 midfielders, but he barely picked one on Wednesday night. The result was one of the most thorough goings-over he has ever had to endure.

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