How Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Digne can fit into Aston Villa’s tactics

Aston Villa’s stunning new signings of attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho and left-back Lucas Digne have undoubtedly excited the fanbase and brought a renewed optimism to Villa’s rest of the season.

While Coutinho and Digne are huge talents, the question remains: how will they fit into Steven Gerrard‘s tactical system? Let’s see how it might shape up for the Villians ahead of Saturday’s clash with Manchester United.

Aston Villa’s Tactics

When Gerrard and his coaching staff came to Aston Villa from the Scottish Premiership’s Rangers some nine weeks ago, there was a ton of speculation about how Villa would set up tactically. The idea was that Gerrard would bring in a 4-3-3 system in order to make the most out of Villa’s collection of wide players. For the first couple of games under Gerrard, that’s how the team generally lined up. But over time, as Gerrard’s influence has grown, so has the system.

For the past few weeks, Gerrard has favoured a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation. This system’s benefits are many and it does quite a good job of complimenting the squad’s strengths.

One of the most obvious benefits is that this system has unshackled Villa’s fullbacks Matty Cash and Matt Targett, allowing them space to bomb high up the pitch for overloads and crossing opportunities. In the final third, Villa ostensibly attacks with a potent front five, with Cash and Targett tasked with whipping in crosses and occupying the opposing wide areas.

Cash has flourished in this new role whilst Targett has struggled for consistency. Under Dean Smith’s system last season, Targett had the benefit of linking up with Jack Grealish on the left side, which likely covered some of the deficiencies we’re seeing under Gerrard’s 4-3-2-1. With Digne, Villa not only shore up their depth at left-back but have a legitimate attacking threat who has proven to be far more consistent at crossing and setting up plays than Targett has been.

The 4-3-2-1 has also solved a lot of Aston Villa’s defensive problems and has turned the midfield into a nigh-unbreakable unit. Often clogging up the middle out of possession with five players, opposing teams are forced to play out high and wide. This strategy of clogging up the midfield worked well against teams like Brighton and Leicester City who struggled to create scoring opportunities. The strategy has also shown to be effective against the so-called “Big 6,” but hasn’t yet reaped the benefits of a win against the top sides of the Premier League.

Attacking-wise, what the front three triangle has lacked in goal-scoring has more than made up for in creativity and intense pressure on opposing defensive lines. Unlike a traditional 4-3-3-, Gerrard’s Christmas tree system focuses the attack into a spearhead, thrusting into the heart of opposing defenders. While Ollie Watkins, Emi Buendia, and Danny Ings have been snakebit in recent weeks, the addition of Coutinho as the left-sided 10 is a mouthwatering proposition.

Why Philippe Coutinho Will Probably Flourish at Aston Villa

Any doubts about Coutinho should be left at the door because if all goes well, it’s likely that the Brazilian international will be the perfect ornament in Gerrard’s Christmas tree.

With Coutinho, the biggest question mark has always been whether he’s best as a left-wing or as an attacking number 10. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Coutinho showed glimpses of why he’s the third most expensive player ever but struggled to find consistency in their systems. His best days were at Liverpool, where he was often fielded in a similar position that he’s likely to play at Aston Villa.

Liverpool’s Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho (R) celebrates scoring his goal with Liverpool’s English midfielder Steven Gerrard (L) during the English Premier League football match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool at Loftus Road in London on October 19, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS
RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or live services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

This exactly is why you should be excited about Coutinho in claret and blue. He won’t be tasked with being the squad’s only creative outlet, instead, he will be playing off his squadmates Jacob Ramsey, Emi Buendia, Ollie Watkins, and now, Lucas Digne on the left side of the pitch.

In attack, you’re likely to see Coutinho cutting inside looking for his trademark 25-yard screamer or to break a pass for Watkins with Digne bombing up the flank with overlap providing width and a dangerous left foot cross.

While he likely won’t provide much in the way of defence is a moot point since Coutinho wasn’t signed on loan for his defensive prowess.

Lucas Digne’s Pinpoint Crossing

Last season, Digne was a statistical darling for an engaging, if unambitious Everton team. Among Premier League fullbacks, Digne created more potential assists than anyone else since 2018-2019, bested only by Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson. One of the France international’s best assets is his ability in dead-ball situations and set pieces, areas where Aston Villa has struggled in the past.

His ability in open-play is also noteworthy and highly underrated. Over four seasons with Everton, Digne collected 18 assists — a staggering amount on any team. To put that into perspective, no current Aston Villa player has come close to that number of assists over the past four seasons.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 07: Lucas Digne of Everton controls the ball during the Premier League match between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park on November 07, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

As one of the focal points of Carlo Ancelloti’s Everton, Digne’s fall from grace under current Everton manager Rafa Benitez was as much a result of the Toffees’ system change as it was a diminished usage.

Don’t let recency bias fool you  — Digne is an extraordinary player and has consistently been one of the top Premier League left-backs since he arrived in the league.

In Gerrard’s system, Digne will find the freedom to attack with style and whip tantalizing crosses into the box for the strikers. Connecting with Ramsey and Coutinho is also likely to be a huge benefit to the Frenchman, giving him the freedom of space to run the left-side channel and cause havoc on opposing defensive structures.

Defensively, Digne is similar to Targett in that he isn’t the most fleet of foot and might occasionally get caught out by a winger with speed to burn. However, when in a proper position, Digne is a staunch defender who rarely gets beat with dribbles.

It’s certainly an exciting time to be an Aston Villa fan!