Aston Villa 2002-08: A Tactical Analysis

Five successive Premier League titles, including two Champions League titles, five League Cups in seven years and three consecutive FA Cup titles. What do you mean you don’t remember this Aston Villa team?

That’s probably because it happened in Championship Manager 01/02.

Aston Villa’s success eclipsed that of the Manchester United team in the 1990s due to the sheer amount of trophies won in such a small time. They became the first team in English football history to win more than three successive top flight league titles in 2007 when they won their fourth in a row.

The system borrowed from the Dutch total football side of the 1970s and a little from Italy in the 1990s in its three-man defence set-up. Zurab Khizanishvili and Mike Duff were not utilised as wing-backs by any means, they joined Jamie Carragher in a three-man central defence. Even from set pieces they were not attacking and were strictly told never to enter the opposition half.

It was Michael Carrick and Mark Kerr who moved horizontally across the pitch to operate in those wide areas. Mark Kerr was by no means attacking but he lived on the cusp of the final third ahead of Michael Carrick and the unsung hero, Gareth Barry. Barry, the only player to have played for Villa before the success of the 2000s, was utilised in the water carrier role made famous by Didier Deschamps. Carrick was the quarterback whilst Barry was certainly more of firefighter, playing simple passes to the quadrant of attacking wealth up front.

It almost acted as a five-man diamond in the middle of the pitch for Villa but some would argue that the formation was almost a 3-3-4 at times due to how attacking Tonton Moukoko, Joe Cole and Ronaldinho was. They all operated differently, however.

Moukoko was strictly on the right-wing, shuttling forward and back, allowing Gareth Barry to stay more centrally. Almost contrastingly, Ronaldinho on the left acted as more of an inside forward at times, interchanging with Joe Cole who played in a roaming playmaker role.

Villa invested heavily in Ronaldinho, to the tune of £31.5 million from PSG in the summer of their first Premier League title alongside what would be a complete forward in Alan Smith from Leeds. The complications of their 3-3-4 turned 3-6-1 turned 3-2-1-3-1 confused teams on the continent and domestically and could never be replicated or halted.

Ronaldinho would join Alan Smith in the attack at points, in other points he would sit behind him with Joe Cole on the left wing. For a time it was fluidity that had never been seen before. Alan Smith might not have scored the plethora of goals that he had at Leeds up until his transfer to Villa Park in 2003 but he would lay off plenty for Ronaldinho and Cole.

In fact, out of the four seasons in which Ronaldinho and Alan Smith played together, Ronaldinho netted twice as many goals from his attacking midfield role. The ultimate Brazilian trequartista. The two would combine in the Champions League final in 2008 in a 3-2 win over Barcelona. In the game, the rule of not allowing his back three to go forward was finally broken.

Zurab Khizanishvili scored the winner from a corner in extra time of the win. Aston Villa had joined Manchester United of 1999, PSV of 1988, Ajax of 1972 and Celtic of 1967 in winning the ‘proper’ Treble.

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