Solving Aston Villa’s 4–3–1–2 Riddle

Brighton now have 3 losses in a row, failing to score in all 3 matches. Despite the loss, it was a very interesting match from a tactical perspective and I think Graham Potter sums up the match in a simple, yet precise manner in his post-match interview:


Football can be a bit random sometimes, especially looking at both the goals Villa scored. First, a super shot from Matty Cash in which Brighton had several chances before the goal came in. Then, a one long pass from Tyrone Mings into Ollie Watkins that Veltman mispredicts and Dunk steps in unnecessarily.

Overall, it was a very disciplined riddle posed by Villa to stop Brighton’s progression, and also some productive solutions by the Seagulls to try to break that down.

4–3–1–2 with 2 wide CFs

Aston Villa defended in a 4–3–1–2 just with a little tweak, both CFs positioning slightly wider. Normally, CFs in a team defending with this system will look to narrow down and close pass routes to the attacking team’s DM.

From the picture below, it is clear that Villa’s 2 CFs position wider. This positioning allowed them to put pressure on Brighton’s left / right CB, locking them out wide once the pass was played to them.

2 wide CFs: more focus on pressing right/left CB than blocking central pass routes
Watkins locking Veltman on the right side. Coutinho compressing to deny near side DM

Well, wouldn’t that just open up Lewis Dunk in the middle? This is especially where Villa’s defense were disciplined, every player performing their given task at a high level.

2 CFs (Ings / Watkins):
- Maintained a solid connection with Coutinho (AM) every time before the pass was played out wide.

- Deny passes to Bissouma (near side DM)
- Maintain access to Mac Allister as he dropped off beside Bissouma
- Pressing Dunk while cover-shadowing Bissouma as Brighton circulated the ball at the back line

Villa’s defensive block as a whole kept a compact defensive block at all times, closing down the space in between the lines where Brighton like to play through when progressing.

Compact defensive block to force attack out wide. Staggered connection between Bissouma and Mac Allister can be identified, but Villa is so compact that they can reach the potential pass receiver in between the lines at any time.

Once the pass was guided to the side, the 3 CMs compressed to the ball side or the FB applied pressure to the ball holder. Far side CF also compressed to deny a switch via Brighton’s central players.

Here’s an interesting quote from the opponent manager:

“We created enough and we caught Brighton where we knew (to) catch them which is in the transition and side of the centre-backs.” — Steven Gerrard

The 2 wide CFs definitely matched this counter-attacking structure. Even if this space wasn’t attacked by the CFs, they would be able to attract the CBs centrally, opening up the space for other players (CM/FB) to attack the targeted space.

Ings moving to the side to attack space beside 3 at the back during counter-attack

Brighton’s Solutions

Another really solid riddle following the one Burnley posed. How did Brighton set up in the 1st half?

Initial Set-up: 3–1–5–1 (3–4–3)

It’s a bit messy but trust me, we can work this out…
  • Wide 3 at the back
  • Bissouma positioning in front of the 3 CB as DM
  • Mac Allister with a bit of freedom, dropping off beside Bissouma or positioning slightly higher to receive in between opponent DF line and MF line
  • 2 WBs significantly deep and wide; pinning Villa’s FB and the whole defensive line

Key players in this initial set-up was Mac Allister and Maupay. With Mac Allister dropping off beside Bissouma, Brighton looked to pull out one of Villa’s MF so that Maupay could drop off and receive in the space created. As the match went on, Mac Allister started to be fixed beside Bissouma.

Mac Allister dropping off beside Bissouma which attracts Villa’s DM
Space behind Villa’s DM used by Maupay dropping off in between the lines

Another combination of movements by the two personnel would be the Brighton #10 positioning high and #9 dropping off to receive around Villa’s midfield line. This created an overload in the midfield area, allowing the attacking team to receive through every gap in the 3 CMs.

Mac Allister positioning higher and Maupay dropping off to overload midfield
Maupay attracts one of the CB to open gap in Villa’s defensive line for March to attack

On paper this makes sense and is an interesting idea, but on the pitch, it didn’t flourish as much with Villa’s MF not getting out of shape unnecessarily, closing down the space in behind and guiding them to the side which triggered CF’s pressing to lock Brighton out wide.

Brighton’s possession all comes down to whether they can shift the defensive block with player’s movements and create a free player further up the pitch. Circulation in the back line creates the time for those movements to be made and baits the defenders so that Brighton could create more gaps to progress from the free player. If the defensive block doesn’t budge and they are able to eliminate the free player just like Villa did in this game, it’s likely that Brighton’s progression becomes less damaging.

Therefore, Brighton need to explore other ways / movements to shift Villa’s 4–3–1–2.

Building the Bond of 3

What in the world is this? 3 wide players on both sides? I’ll try to explain how this functions and the substitutions that follow as well.

3–4–3 but without a Player in Half-Space

There are no change in personnel but big change in the dynamics of the attacking structure. Compared to the initial set-up, parts that has changed are the players providing width at the deepest end, and 2 midfielders right beside Villa’s 3 CMs.

As the two wings on the deep / wide position has a similar task of pinning the defensive line, the focus has to be on March and Moder. It is difficult to describe them in a certain position; they act like a wide CM but defends as a WB.

When the CBs possessed the ball, the two quickly looked to position wide. As soon as the pass was played to them and Villa’s 3 CMs squeezed to the ball side, they looked to play through the gap within the midfield.

It is very important to note that the two were placed on the side opposite to their preferred foot, meaning that left footed March was on the right and right footed Moder on the left. This made it easier for the two to play a pass to the center of the pitch. If it was the other way around, it would have encouraged the attack to go more straight-forward, which is just an easy attack for Villa to deal with since Brighton would only be attacking on one side rather than swithching play constantly.

Brighton switching play via DM. Easy to play a pass centrally even when pressured.

Once the two had moved wide, the 2 wingers up top had the option of positioning slightly inwards, right between Villa’s FB-CB. They made sure that if Villa DFs were to jump into March / Moder out wide or Maupay dropping in between the lines, the 2 up front can attack the gap in the defensive line.

The most significant part about this change was building that bond down on both sides with CB / Wide midfielder / Winger. Creating a structure to start their attack down the sides, attract the opponent, and placing players to encourage central progression.

Similar Structure, but with 4 at the back

Brighton go more aggressive with the 62 minute substitution of Welbeck coming on for Moder. They really want to win this!

By reducing central defenders from 3 to 2, Potter decided to place Welbeck on the far left and change to a 4 at the back.

This means that Cucurella and Lamptey would take on the role that March and Moder had been doing, stretching them even wider by not entering the central area but keeping the wide position. The bond remains the same as described in the picture below.

Because they have reduced one central defender, they can now add an extra player (Trossard) in between the lines along side Maupay which stregnthens the attack down the side.

Cucurella stretching Villa’s 3 CMs and Trossard receiving in the gap within it

Change to a 4 at the back worked well especially against Villa’s wide CFs. As they were forced to track back Brighton’s FBs, Cucurella and Lamptey, it had them defend much deeper, reducing their threat in counter-attacks.

Watkins tracking Lamptey as the pass is played
Less threat for Brighton in transition moments. More time in Villa’s half.

However, the opponent scored a crucial 2nd goal while Brighton was adjusting to their new system in-game which is a likely way of conceding a goal especially if it’s a manager like Graham Potter who prefers to change up their system a lot. This made it comfortable for Villa to sit back; checkmate against Brighton.

This was my take on the match. The defending team does set the standard on the intensity both physically and tactically of the game itself, and Villa did exactly that in this match which made it super interesting both from the attacking and the defending perspective.

Any other thoughts, feel free to DM or comment. Thanks for reading as always!



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