Reality came abruptly back into focus on Sunday afternoon when Aston Villa suffered a frustrating 2-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur in London.
Flying high after back-to-back Premier League wins over Everton and Manchester United, Villa entered Sunday’s match confident in taking three points from a struggling Spurs side.
The Villans started the match well, dominating possession in the opening 10 minutes, but an organized and patient Tottenham absorbed the pressure and took the lead in the 27th minute via Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.
A much more direct Villa side threatened in the second half and found an equalizer in the 67th minute when Matt Targett, marauding down the left side, played a low cross for a surging Ollie Watkins who made no mistake in front of goal.
Villa deserved the draw and a point for their effort, but only four minutes after Watkins brought the match level Targett was credited with an own goal. The left back was beaten by Lucas Moura at the far post and, in an attempt to deny a point-blank goal, directed Son Heung-min’s cross into his own net.
Spurs rode out a 2-1 result in the final 20 minutes of the match and exposed Villa and their 3-5-2 system. Here are the three biggest takeaways from a frustrating afternoon.
Spurs exploited the 3-5-2’s weaknesses
Since switching to a 3-5-2 formation, Aston Villa have looked tidy without the ball and threatening in possession. At Chelsea on September 11, the side dropped a 3-0 decision but controlled play for large portions of the contest.
In wins over Everton and United, the back three and midfield three stymied opposition attackers and created scoring chances on the break. It seemed manager Dean Smith cracked the code for Villa, and although we have not seen the end of the 3-5-2, Spurs exploited the system’s weaknesses.
Son was dangerous all afternoon and took up space on the left-hand side between right back Matty Cash and right center back Ezri Konsa. In the 3-5-2, Villa rely on the wing backs to provide width in attack, and when Cash pushed upfield, Son moved into the open space on the left flank.
According to @pgr_analytics on Twitter, Son led all players with nine touches in the box, six shot-creating actions, and four carries into the box. His exploits directly created the game-winning goal when he took up space on the left and played a cross into the box.
Moving forward, we’ll see Smith experiment with natural wingers to give width to Villa’s attack so that the likes of Cash and Targett can focus more on defending, but the 3-5-2 will remain an option for future contests.
Danny Ings needs more touches
The shock signing of Danny Ings from Southampton helped soften the blow of losing Jack Grealish in August. The forward started the season hot, tallying in each of Villa’s first two matches.
But Ings has failed to find the back of the net since, and his involvement has continued to diminish. Smith’s goal is to find a way for Watkins and Ings to play together, and despite the latter’s experience playing in a two-man front line with Southampton last season, he’s struggled for touches since Smith switched to a 3-5-2.
In 2020/21, Ings averaged three shot-creating actions per game. This year, he’s averaging just one. In the match at Chelsea, Ings had just 14 touches, and in the loss at Spurs on Sunday, he generated zero shot-creating actions.
Ings is among the Premier League’s best-pressing forwards, but Villa’s success this season will hinge on the England international’s ability to create and score goals. Perhaps a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 formation would provide Ings with more reliable wide options.
Inconsistency is still an issue for Aston Villa
Villa started the season with a disappointing loss at newly-promoted Watford and followed that result with a convincing win at home over Newcastle. A 1-1 draw with Brentford felt like a fair result before the first international break.
In the four games since, Villa have collected six out of a possible 12 points in matches with Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, and Spurs. Decent business on the surface, but after the United win, many supporters went into the Spurs match feeling like Villa should take all three points.
The loss isn’t a step back, but rather a reminder that the Premier League is relentless and Villa are a work in progress. Watkins, Ings, and Emi Buendia are not yet scoring regularly, and Leon Bailey has rarely been fit.
Expect Smith to switch to four at the back again after the international break. It doesn’t mean he and the coaching staff have gone back to the drawing board, but rather he needs to get some of his big-money signings involved better.
In a lot of ways, the 3-5-2 was safe. The squad was built to play in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. There may be some growing pains along the way, but once the team gets into a groove, it will push on and challenge the Big 6.