Tactical football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) reviews the weekend, picking out a series of themes he believes we can exploit in future weeks.
Weekend Debrief: 6th January 2020
After a busy Christmas period, where squad rotation, injuries and the sheer volume of fixtures has meant its been a tough time to keep up with, the dust will finally settle, as most sides have the week to finally rest up.
With the transfer window open, clubs will have the dilemma as to whether they wish to settle for what they have, or gamble on promotion, survival or European football up and down the footballing pyramids, and how sides adapt to this mean the outright markets could shape up differently come the end of the month.
What next for Aston Villa?
Aston Villa are one the sides currently in the midst of an injury crisis, and given the financial benefits of staying in the Premier League, they have the dilemma as to whether to stick or twist with the squad they have for the rest of the season.
Currently sat one point above the drop, two wins in three have boosted their survival hopes, but with injuries to key players mounting, the Villa board have to consider whether or not to spend in January, and reinforce a stretched squad.
Tom Heaton and Wesley were the latest injury casualties after a win over Burnley on New Year's Day, joining influential midfielder John McGinn on the sidelines, and how Dean Smith replaces these players will be key to their survival hopes.
Wesley has been their second top scorer behind Jack Grealish with five goals, and he is the only recognised striker to net for Smith’s side this season in the league. Back up Jonathan Kodja has only played 96 minutes for Smith’s side, so it is expected a reinforcement is needed to come in.
However, its not just Wesley’s goalscoring that Villa will miss, and his replacement will need to not only get into the goalscoring positions he has been able to (racking up an xG of 7.10), but also replace his movement up front and hold up play, so key in creating space for the creative players in behind.
Michy Batshuayi has been linked (1/1 SkyBet), but a poor performance against Nottingham Forest does reinforce doubts about the Belgian, although he has impressed when given a run of starts in a team, particularly for Crystal Palace last season, and his movement up top and ability to get into goalscoring positions can’t be underestimated.
However, he has a reputation of needing a high volume of chances to score, and in a side where they are heavily reliant upon Grealish for creativity, the pressure on the Englishman will be huge. Oliver Giroud is another striker who has been linked, and whilst his presence up front and target man abilities are arguably some of the best in the league, his lack of mobility is becoming a worry, and could lead to a one-dimensional approach for Villa.
Rumours linking Grealish with a move away will not help, but Villa cannot afford to lose another key player in what is proving to be an already stretched squad. McGinn is another who has been ruled out by injury, and it required a tactical switch from Smith to adapt to his loss against Burnley, but the loss to Wesley will require another rethink.
His box-to-box midfield role, linking with the target man, cannot be overlooked, whilst his defensive work and statistics will take some replacing, even on the short-term with his injury expected to last till February at the earliest. With three goals, two assists, an average of 1.5 key passes per-game, McGinn's attacking output is key for a side near the bottom, but his 2.5 tackles per-game also highlight the defensive side they are missing, and makes it no surprise to see their underlying statistics fall in recent games.
Interestingly, Jarrod Bowen is now odds on (SkyBet) to move to Villa, and as I wrote a few weeks back, there should be a few Premier League teams sniffing around the winger, and he would certainly suit the system Smith is incorporating at Villa, but it would still mean Villa need to replace the injured Wesley.
Smith requires reinforcements quick, and without any concrete signings made, it is no surprise to see them priced at 10/11 (Betfred) for the drop. This could drop in recent weeks, and may be worthy of a back to lay, especially with injury worries and their underlying figures in recent weeks not making for good reading, even with their two wins in three.
When looking short term, these attacking options which are now missing would mean that approaching Villa with caution on the goal markets is worth doing, reinforced that despite their two wins in three, they have xG has only been 0.65 (Norwich), 0.61 (Norwich), and 1.58 (Burnley), so the loss of McGinn, and now Wesley cannot be underestimated.
The three games also highlighted the defensive worries Smith’s side have, and by losing keeper Heaton, these will not be eased. Although too short to back to go down, wins over the next few games, especially without reinforcements, could be few and far between, whilst don’t be surprised to see the goals drying up.
Spurs still Improving
After a quick start to life in North London, Jose Mourinho has encountered troubles on the pitch in recent weeks, and the draw to Middlesbrough encapsulated just those woes, both attacking-wise and defensively, highlighting the need for a good January window if they are to kick on in search of Champions League football.
Even before Harry Kane’s untimely injury, the need for a striker for Tottenham as a back up to the Englishman has been evident. Since Fernando Llorente left in the summer, Spurs have relied upon a combination of youth in the League Cup, and the likes of Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura to lead to the line in the Englishman’s absence.
Whilst offering an outlet on the break, it became quickly evident against Middlesbrough that they lacked a central focal point, and whilst the fluidity of the attackers caused the Middlesbrough defence problems in picking them up, it meant that Spurs attacks often lacked structure, and they became very congested in central areas, much like under Mauricio Pochettino earlier this season.
Kane’s 11 goals in the Premier League this season will require quickly replacing, and if Spurs can get in a striker, who will be willing to play second fiddle at times, they should be well placed to avoid a blip.
Who they should get in however, remains a tough question. Mourinho will be pressuring Daniel Levy to open his chequebook sharp, but he has shown a reluctance to do so in the past, particularly on what could be a short-term fix to a long-term solution. It also begs the question as to the availability of these players, and who would fit the system Mourinho is opting to play.
Traditionally speaking, he likes to have a focal point in his attack much like Romelu Lukaku or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which allows the quicker, flair players to build around him, which makes both counter attacking and working the ball into the box options.
Krzysztof Piatek has been linked with a move in recent days, and whilst he would fit the mould of a Mourinho striker, the Polish player has struggled for form in Milan, with only one goal from open play and an underwhelming underperformance his xG.
Ibrahimovic’s move to Milan has seen a move away mooted for the striker, but realistically Milan would need to bring in another striker, to allow for him to move on. Currently priced at 6/1 (SkyBet), although he would be a good fit tactically, confidence is low, and a move to a Mourinho side may not help.
Vedat Muriqi is an intriguing option priced at 5/2 (SkyBet), and the Kosovan striker is currently plying his trade for Fenerbahce in Turkey. Standing at 1.94m, he would represent the target man, and plan B option when Kane is fit, that Mourinho often looks to have, and the 25-year-old has netted an impressive 10 goals in 16 games in Turkey.
Certainly one to keep an eye on as transfer rumours build, he would certainly be the kind of striker Spurs are missing, acting as a replacement for the summer-departure Llorente, but whether Mourinho would venture into a signing similar to that of flop Vincent Janssen awaits to be seen.
From a personal point of view, I’d argue Aleksandr Mitrovic would be the perfect fit for Spurs, but realistically a January move from Fulham is a long way off, and on the back of a strong European Championships, if Serbia qualify, Fulham may then look to cash in.
In terms of betting in the coming weeks, Spurs are going to struggle to create against sides operating a low-defensive block, where their forwards will struggle for space to exploit in behind, so much like Aston Villa, the goal markets are worth being cautious on.
The problems with defensive shape, particularly the defensive line to long balls over the top in a back three, shows Mourinho still has plenty of work to do, so when looking at backing Spurs, be wary of these issues that are still rearing their heads on North London.