Aston Villa were defeated, 3-0, by European champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday in what was perhaps the most encouraging three-goal defeat the club has endured in years.
Villa are a team full of ambition, but getting a result in London was always going to be a tough ask, especially without the services of Argentina internationals Emi Martinez and Emi Buendia.
Romelu Lukaku was on the mark twice and Mateo Kovacic, with a goal and an assist, turned in a man-of-the-match performance. That’s what the scoring summary will tell you, but that’s not the whole story.
The Villans started strong but fell behind in the 15th minute when Lukaku struck on the break. Ollie Watkins had a handful of opportunities to level before halftime but failed to convert. Four minutes into the second half, a defensive miscue led to Kovacic’s goal that effectively sunk Villa.
But there was a lot of good in this match for Aston Villa. Here are the three promising signs we saw.
Jacob Ramsey’s performance
Jacob Ramsey’s progress this season has been a welcome surprise for Villa supporters. The academy product had a decent run in last season but failed to cement himself as a regular starter or bench option.
Carney Chukwuemeka’s strong 2020/21 season, which saw him earn Villa’s Academy Player of the Season honor, suggested the 20-year-old Ramsey could be passed over in the near future.
But that has not been the case. You could make the argument that Ramsey has been Villa’s most consistent player four games into the year.
Playing in a midfield three at Chelsea, Ramsey offered cover in front of defense and quality going forward. He boasted 100% passing accuracy and a 100% dribble success rate, according to @pgr_analytics on Twitter.
Ramsey’s WhoScored.com’s rating was a 6.7 in the match at Chelsea, the second-best of any Aston Villa player, trailing only John McGinn (7.3). This season, Villa have progressed the ball at a rate of 1.98 meters-per-second, and the versatile No. 8 has played a major role in producing that stat line.
Dean Smith’s 3-5-2 formation looked good
Perhaps the biggest question heading into this match was how Aston Villa would line up with both Danny Ings and Watkins fully fit.
A 4-4-2 would have exposed Villa in midfield, and a 4-3-3 would have meant one of Watkins or Ings played wide–an option Dean Smith insists he’s not interested in.
And so it wasn’t a shock to see Villa line up with three in the back. Bringing Axel Tuanzebe back on loan signaled a 3-5-2 formation could be in the cards at some point this season.
Matty Cash and Matt Targett were more than capable as wing backs, but the best things about the 3-5-2 for Villa were: 1) having Ings and Watkins up top together, and 2) securing the midfield with a three-man unit.
Villa’s press at Chelsea was strong, and at times they smothered the European champions. At the final whistle, Villa generated 18 shot attempts to Chelsea’s 12 and won seven set-piece opportunities while limiting the Blues to just one. Villa also had the edge in xG (expected goals), 1.37 to 1.35.
The 3-5-2 enabled Smith’s Villa to deploy high pressure with Ings and Watkins up top and secondary pressure via the wing backs, McGinn, and Ramsey.
Aside from Lukaku’s goal, delivered by Kovacic’s sublime searching ball, Villa did well to quell Chelsea’s attacking options on the break.
Overall it was a strong performance, in and out of possession, that could have produced a result if Watkins converted on prime goal-scoring chances.
Aston Villa bench depth
With the squad getting healthier daily, Smith has tough decisions to make every week. On Saturday, the gaffer elected to play without natural wingers, instead selecting wing backs and two center forwards.
Down two goals late in the second half, Smith brought on Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore, effectively moving to a 3-4-3. Villa failed to score in the final minutes, but for the first time in a long time the club has at its disposal a deep and talented bench.
The duo combined for six dribbles, with a 100% success rate, and was credited with three shot-creating actions, according to @pgr_analytics. Bailey came on in the 56th minute, and Traore was introduced in the 69th minute.
When trailing late in matches in recent years, Villa lacked the game-breakers that top clubs have in reserve. In Bailey, Traore, Anwar El Ghazi, and others, Smith can call on pace and quality to turn a match on its head.
We got a taste of that on Saturday, albeit against possibly the best team in the world. Results will come, and the bench will win Villa matches this season.