In Sunday’s fixture between Melbourne City and Newcastle Jets, David Villa started off in the same left-wing position of City’s 4-3-3 that he played when coming off the bench a week earlier against Sydney FC.
Given that Villa is one of the past decade’s top strikers, it was a source of frustration for some – a waste, it seemed, when Villa was clearly a better fit for the central position, instead occupied by David Williams (against the Jets) and Mate Dugandzic (against Sydney).
Villa has actually played wide left in a 4-3-3 before, at Barcelona. Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona dominated possession to an extraordinary, unprecedented amount, meaning they played very high up the pitch which in turn meant Villa sat very high up on the left, basically playing off the shoulder of the last defender. His job was to make diagonal runs in behind, into the space created by Lionel Messi dropping deep as a false nine – so although ostensibly a wide player, he was practically a centre forward, only starting from his runs into the penalty box from a different position.
There are a variety of reasons why Villa may now be again being used as a left-winger (and of course, fitness and team chemistry are entirely valid factors) but either way, it lead to a recurring issue in the game against Newcastle Jets. Villa showed no interest in defending, and Jets right-back Scott Neville constantly got forward into dangerous positions, often creating 2v1 situations with Joel Griffiths against City left-back Iain Ramsay.
In contrast to the opposite side, where Damien Duff tracked back diligently and tried to occupy David Carney, Neville was simply free to burst forward into space. That meant the left-sided central midfielder, Aaron Mooy, was often pulled across to cover in behind Villa. Mooy did a good job in this role, but the risk, of course, was that it left another player like Marcos Flores unmarked. In the end, John Van’t Schip ended up swapping David Williams, who was playing upfront, with Villa, and immediately, Neville’s influence waned.
You can see examples of Neville’s freedom in the video at the top of the page.
Quite simply, it’s difficult in the modern game to not have all ten outfield players contributing without the ball – the proliferation of ‘universality’, meaning all players must attack and defend, means an attacking threat can come from any zone on the pitch. This was a recurring problem for Sydney FC last season, where Alessandro Del Piero’s physical deterioration meant he barely contributed without the ball, leading to shortfalls no matter if Frank Farina deployed him as a striker, attacking midfielder or left-winger.
In the case of both Villa and Del Piero, though, they are ‘too’ big a name to be left out of a side, even if that comes at the expense of balance. Villa may only be around for a few more games, and will in all likelihood now play upfront, but depending on Van’t Schip’s selection, this might still be an issue – especially in the derby, where Jason Geria gets forward purposefully.
More broadly, this is a good illustration of the problem of bringing high-profile marquees who are past their physical best. They are undoubtedly good for the league, but perhaps at the expense of a side’s tactics.