Ahead of our trip to Villa Park, a ground our manager has never come away from with three points, Jose Mourinho has been discussing the strengths of today’s opponents as well as commenting on the tactical discipline of his own side, with our defence in mind.
Villa have endured a somewhat topsy-turvy season that has included an opening-day victory at Arsenal, an impressive draw at Anfield and a fine showing at Stamford Bridge in the second game of the season. That evening they could count themselves a little unfortunate to have left west London with nothing, and Mourinho has been impressed by what he has seen from Paul Lambert’s men this season.
‘If I haven’t won there it’s because it’s difficult to win there,’ he pointed out.
‘I think they are a good team. When I saw at the beginning of the season the way they played at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge I thought they would be a team to be between fifth and seventh or eighth.
‘They have one thing which I think is very important which is an identity. Sometimes they play 4-3-3, sometimes they play 4-4-2 with a diamond, but the tactical system doesn’t matter – the philosophy and identity of their game is more important.
‘Their game has a clear identity. If you press high there is space for counter-attack, but if you keep the block low they put balls in the air for Benteke to win and the other guys go for the second ball. They press close to your box so they have qualities to make it difficult.
‘Everyone knows what they want to do and everybody knows the way they want to do it. It is one thing to know this; another thing is to cope with it. When they are at the top of their game everybody finds it difficult to play against them, so for me they are a very difficult opponent.’
We travel to the Midlands 14 games unbeaten in the Barclays Premier League and having conceded only five goals in that time. Our impressive recent form has owed much to that remarkable defensive record, and Mourinho has underlined just how important shutting teams out is as we continue our quest to pick up valuable points in the season’s final quarter, and how best to go about it.
‘We know we are not a team to score a lot of goals – though we have done in the last two matches – and if you don’t score a lot of goals you cannot concede a lot of goals,’ he explained. ‘We are trying to defend in a different way than the team was defending in previous years. The block was too low and the team was not very comfortable assuming a little bit of the risk when you press the opponent high.
‘If the attacking players press, the defensive line is more comfortable and is not afraid to step up a few metres. If the attacking players don’t press and the opponent takes the ball up from the back in a calm, free way they can have time on the ball, see the movement and choose the right pass. In this case the normal tendency for every defensive line is to try to protect the space in behind.
‘Against West Bromwich Albion, why was my team so deep in the last 10 or 15 minutes? Because we stopped pressing, so the normal tendency is to go back. This is a clear example of the distance between the lines. If you press everyone is comfortable to move away from the defensive block.
‘It’s for the defenders to look at what is happening in front of them and if they have a passive team in front the normal tendency is to occupy spaces and defend by accumulating players with short distances between them as close as possible to the edge of the box.
‘If in front of them they have people that attack defenders and midfielders in possession, reducing spaces, what a team has to do is close the distances between lines and take the defensive line away from the edge of the box. It’s more about the collective idea.
‘Normally we are solid and we know how to cope with the opponents’ qualities. For example the way we played against Man City in the Premier League was a big step for the team – they felt confident to go away to such a difficult opponent and to impose their defensive style.’