The ferocity of Aston Villa’s attack has been an early talking point at the start of this new season. Unai Emery’s team have bolstered their attacking options and appear to be on a roll in the final third of the pitch.
Across their opening five competitive games this season, Villa have scored 16 goals and amassed 79 attempts at goal, of which 35 were on target. It is not only that Emery’s side are scoring at a fair lick but also creating an abundance of chances.
The 5-1 defeat to Newcastle United now looks like an opening-day blip — but it must be said that Villa did not necessarily deserve to be subject to such a large losing margin in a game that was fairly even until the latter stages.
Villa are now building a head of steam and it is increasingly clear why so many pre-season predictions had ‘dark horses’ scribbled next to their name. After comfortable league wins over Everton and Burnley, a trip to Anfield on Sunday represents the sternness test yet of their credentials.
The makeup of Villa’s potent attacking unit requires some further studying. Firstly, Villa attack as a team, and that is evident by Emery deploying three ball-playing centre backs in Pau Torres, Diego Carlos and Ezri Konsa.
Also, the goals have been spread around. Of the 16 goals scored so far, lead striker Ollie Watkins has scored in only one game, away to Hibs, in which he netted a hat-trick. Leon Bailey has also scored three, Douglas Luiz and new signing Moussa Diaby both have two and Jhon Duran found the back of the net seconds into his debut against Everton and has since scored another.
Clearly, Villa’s threat is carried by more than one player, but it is Matty Cash’s newfound penchant for goals that is most noteworthy. Prior to last weekend’s trip to Turf Moor, Cash had not scored since May 2022, he has since scored three in the past week — twice against Burnley and once in the return leg against Hibs.
Cash’s goal surge has come as a result of a change in formation. Emery started the season by deploying a back four but for the past couple of games has switched to a three-man defence and a 3-4-2-1 formation.
Whereas Cash is normally an auxiliary right back, he has played in a more advanced position and been more heavily involved in Villa’s attacking play. Similarly Lucas Digne, on the opposite flank, has also been more progressive and, although yet to score this term, has provided four assists already.
Changes in approach and shape are Emery traits
What was notable against Burnley was that Villa allowed their hosts plenty of early possession. Cash explained after the game that the plan was “to sit in a low block, let them have the ball and then catch them on the counter-attack”.
Cash was a regular when he started out at Nottingham Forest and the 26-year-old’s versatility will play into the hands of Emery’s way of working. The Villa head coach is a tinkerer and tailors his team according to the opposition.
Given Villa are already in the swing of Thursday/Sunday football given their European commitments, Emery will need to constantly mix and match his team — but the early evidence suggests that he has the tools at his disposal.
Diaby, signed from Bayer Leverkusen,, has hit the ground running and already raised the game of his team-mates; the link-up play with Cash against Burnley was key. Nicolo Zaniolo, on loan from Galatasaray, will also be keen to get his time at Villa up and running. The competition for places is certainly healthy.
Jurgen Klopp admitted he believes Villa will again be a contender for European places this season. The Liverpool manager labelled them “a machine” and reeled off their strengths: “counter-attacking, organised, everyone is 100 per cent committed, can defend deep, speed on the wings — the players they have brought in make sense”.
Although Liverpool will be buoyant after their dramatic victory over Newcastle, their defending has been questionable at best in the opening rounds of fixtures. Villa’s multi-edged attack, high on the confidence goalscoring brings, will certainly look to continue in its rich vein of form.