Comment: Have Aston Villa finally found their modern attacking fullbacks?
Aston Villa got back to winning ways on Monday with an assured 2-0 win over Steve Bruce’s Newcastle, writes Cian Cheesbrough.
While there were strong showings all over the pitch, it was the performances from Frederic Guilbert and Matt Targett that got me most excited about this team as I questioned whether Villa have had right and left fullbacks like them in the last decade.
On Monday, I was sitting in the corner of the North Stand furthest from the away fans, meaning I had a clear view of Targett in the first half and a very distant view of Guilbert in the second half, such were their advanced positions in the game. This also meant I had prime seat for the left-back’s 'unfortunate' incident in the first-half, but we won’t talk about that.
The two were a thorn in Newcastle’s side all night with their willingness to use their pace and get crosses into the box, with Targett’s part in the fluid trio of himself, Jack Grealish and Conor Hourihane proving a match-winning combination.
Successful modern teams place so much impetus on their fullbacks to the point they're relied upon to create the main attacking threat in the some of the Premier League’s best teams over the years, such as Pablo Zabaleta, Gary Neville, Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole.
This season the Premier League leaders Liverpool’s fullbacks Andy Roberston and Trent Alexander-Arnold are arguably Jurgen Klopp’s most important asset - with the two recording countless numbers of assists from those positions, and Dean Smith is trying to use his men in a similar way.
Smith had to wait a while to get the two new fullbacks on the same pitch together. Targett missed the start of the season through injury, meaning his first start came against Burnley at the end of September when he came in for Neil Taylor.
While Smith seemed to want to stay loyal to Taylor, who was excellent in Villa’s promotion campaign last season and made a steady start this season, it was a change that was anticipated by most.
The pace and crossing ability of the Southampton academy graduate seemingly suits Smith’s attacking philosophy much more than Taylor who is perhaps past the peak of his powers.
Since then there have been countless moments of Targett overlapping and driving in crosses from the left-hand side for Villa, and his assist in the 5-1 mauling of Norwich City as well as his winner against Brighton were reward for this forward-thinking approach.
Guilbert was less of a shoe-in for Ahmed Elmohamady’s starting spot, the Egyptian also showing excellent form in the 10-game winning run and providing the assist for Villa’s opener in the play-off final last season.
Frenchman Guilbert was signed by Smith back in January before Villa’s promotion was sealed, and it was unclear as to whether Smith had brought him in to be his starting right-back for a Premier League campaign.
But the 24-year-old’s instant impact when he was thrown in against Everton was clear to see, while his two assists since starting for the first time with Targett suggests it could be another well thought-out tactical move from Smith and co.
Statistics back this up further, too, Targett’s average position since he has come in is on the half-way line, while Taylor can be found much deeper in Villa’s own half in the games prior to that (his average position on the opening day against Spurs is nearly in Villa’s own box).
Similar can be said for Guilbert’s positions compared with Elmohamady, particularly since Targett’s introduction, giving the team a more balanced feel.
Targett’s 15 crosses in seven games surpasses Taylor’s eight in eight, whilst Guilbert’s attempted 1.1 dribbles per game compared to Elmohamady’s 0.2 shows the Frenchman’s clear impetus on using his pace to get forward.
Having the two getting forward from both sides allows ‘wingers’ Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi to cut inside as they like to do without the team losing its width.
It could now be said that Villa have genuine modern attacking full-backs, something that they have often lacked in the last decade at a time when other teams have placed increased importance on them.
Luke Young and Stephen Warnock remained from the O’Neill days during the first few years of 2010 with both past their best in terms of their ability to get forward, while Alan Hutton was brought in by Alex McLeish in 2012 but his extraordinary seven-year Villa career initially struggled to get off the ground.
Paul Lambert tried it with Matt Lowton and Joe Bennett, and while the two have gone on to have a fair amount of success with Burnley and Cardiff, I don’t wish to remind Villa fans of Bennett in a Villa shirt.
Leandro Bacuna also deserves a mention but was always a player with a fractious relationship with fans, after insisting he should be playing Champions League football just as Villa’s relegation had been confirmed and being sarcastically cheered off in his final game for the club.
Jordan Amavi’s arrival and first few games for Villa in 2015 sparked excitement amongst fans, but an injury ended his season before it had begun as Villa limped out of the Premier League in a dismal campaign.
In the Championship Bruce chopped and changed with his fullbacks, seemingly not fancying Taylor and often using Hutton out of position at left-back, as use of attacking fullbacks never being something that Bruce would look to utilise.
But when Smith was appointed last October, it was clear that he was looking for that extra dimension with Villa’s wide defenders as part of much more attacking approach compared to Bruce’s previous system.
While the likes of Elmohamady and Taylor have performed admirably since then, it looks as though Targett and Guilbert could be the men nailed on to hold down those shirts as Villa’s Premier League adventure continues at Old Trafford against Manchester United this afternoon.
You can follow Cian on Twitter by searching for @Cian_cheese.