Aston Villa Focus – Have Villa become a long ball team?

The general consensus from the majority of observers since Paul Lambert took charge at Aston Villa has been that his side play quick, snappy football, although physical in places, which helps get the best out of the front three. Since the start of the season, however, more than one manager has commented on their approach, citing aggressive and direct tactics.

The first to claim such a thing was Jose Mourinho, after his Chelsea side narrowly defeated Villa at Stamford Bridge on August 21. He said: “They don’t play a lot. Every ball the goalkeeper kicks, so they don’t play but they created great difficulties. In (Christian) Benteke they have a special player with special qualities. They play from him. They use this and they play on the counter-attack.

Tottenham Hotspur boss Andre Villas-Boas was the next to voice his disapproval, claiming Villa’s tactics were “aggressive, used long balls and were direct.” Lambert has been very quick to dismiss the suggestions, calling his side a ‘passing team’, but statistics provided by the Daily Mirror appear to help support the beliefs of the Portuguese duo.

Villa have played 153 long balls in their six Premier League games so far, which is third on the overall list behind West Ham United and Crystal Palace. They are also ranked third in terms of long passes while no team has made more flicks-on. Indeed, Brad Guzan’s long kick led to the winner against Manchester City on Saturday.

The type of forward players that Lambert has signed does suggest that he wants a major physical presence. Benteke is renowned for strength and power, and although he along with Nicklas Helenius and Libor Kozak are seen as ‘ball players’, their size and height does make them prominent target men, and it provides defenders with more of an excuse to send high balls forward.

To be fair to the manager though, this talk is somewhat harsh, as he is hardly in the same ilk as Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, who both have long-standing reputations for their direct approach. There are players in the squad – Ashley Westwood to name just one – who are most effective when playing the ball on the ground, and, furthermore, Villa are one of the best counter-attacking teams in the Premier League.

There is no question that Lambert has made the way Villa play much more entertaining to the neutral. Achieving positive results has proved difficult, but looking at the bigger picture, the fans are much more involved with this new team, and the fare on offer is far better to watch than the tiresome football that was regularly served up by Alex McLeish.

On the whole, Villa have several players in midfield and attack with high physical attributes, so whether they are a physical side or not is a valid argument. However, suggesting that they are a long ball team is unfair, as Villa do not typically strike spectators as direct under Lambert. But the Scot will be keen for the debate to die down, as long ball tactics are not universally lauded in the modern football environment.

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