Remi Garde took charge of Aston Villa for the first time against Manchester City – here, Mark Holmes assesses the Frenchman’s key decisions.
Garde said in the week that he would show no favouritism towards the French players in Villa’s squad, but Jordan Amavi and Jordan Veretout were both recalled against City, with Charles N’Zogbia named on the bench for the first time all season.
Two more French speakers, Idrissa Gana and Jordan Ayew, also returned to the side, along with captain Micah Richards, back from suspension, and Spanish midfielder Carles Gil.
Kieran Richardson, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Westwood, Jack Grealish, Leandro Bacuna and Gabby Agbonlahor were the players to make way.
Speaking before the game, Gary Neville suggested Garde may have made a mistake with his selection.
“It looks like he’s brought football players back in,” Neville told Sky Sports. “He’s brought the French players back in, the new signings; he’s obviously got more faith in them than Kevin MacDonald did on Monday.
“In the long term you’d want younger players to come through to play football, but to play against Manchester City and try to take them on that vein will be difficult.
“If they can play counter attack they may get a chance, there may be a new manager bounce. But they’re playing against a fantastic team and I’d be very surprised if City were caught cold.”
Despite the reintroduction to the side of all four players signed from Ligue 1 over the summer, Garde reiterated that everyone would get a fair chance under his stewardship, regardless of nationality.
“I just picked the team which I thought was the best,” Garde said. “As I told you earlier, it doesn’t matter to me what country a player is from.
“But this is only the first game, there are 27 after this one so there will be plenty of chances for every player.
“Some of the players who are not starting today did not train the past week. I saw some stuff that made me change my mind about the weekend.”
“We didn’t have a lot of time, but we tried to give a shape to the team, a new shape, so we’ve had to work on that,” Garde said before kick-off.
“Of course we are playing a very difficult team today so hopefully we will have this shape during the game, but the opponents are very good so we will see what happens.”
Reacting to Garde’s pre-match interview, Thierry Henry had a favourable comparison for the new Villa boss and expressed his belief that his fellow countryman could keep the Midlands club in the Premier League.
“He’s like a Wenger clone in so many ways,” Henry said. “The way he speaks, he’s very calm; he has a certain philosophy about the game; he wants his team to play a certain way.
“He believes in what he wants to do with Villa. It looks like he thinks he can save Villa by playing with a certain way. He was talking about shape and they will have to be really in shape to beat Manchester City.
“He’s not going to play any type of long balls, otherwise he would have put Gestede on the field. He’s going to play with Jordan Ayew, who has a lot of ability on the ball, so I think he’s going to keep it tight and make sure that Villa have control on the ball and rely on the counters to catch City like that.”
There may have been subtle differences in the way that Villa set up, but it was more or less the same 4-2-3-1 formation that Tim Sherwood had used. Gana and Carlos Sanchez started in holding midfield roles, with Jordan Ayew, Jordan Veretout and Carles Gil providing support for Scott Sinclair in attack.
It was that selection which said most about Garde’s plan. Instead of using Rudy Gestede, another French speaker, or Gabriel Agbonlahor as a target man, Garde picked an attacking line-up which encouraged – forced, in fact – intricate passing in the final third as opposed to hopeful balls into the penalty area.
It was a policy which helped and hindered Villa in almost equal measure during the first half as they enjoyed several nice passages of play only to run out of ideas in the final third. On several occasions they worked the ball into wide areas but were reluctant to cross due to the lack of an aerial threat.
Villa kept City largely at arm’s length at the other end, however, which could not be said of their second-half display as they were forced to withstand heavy pressure from the visitors.
Raheem Sterling missed the best chance for Manuel Pellegrini’s side, heading straight at Brad Guzan from point-blank range, while Fernando hit the bar with another header in the dying moments.
City did not manage to create too many other clear-cut opportunities, however, and Garde will surely be pleased with his side’s defensive display on the whole.
The challenge for the Frenchman in the coming games will be to marry that new-found defensive solidity with more of a threat at the other end. Villa managed only three shots, none of which were on target, and had only five touches in the City box, perfectly summing up their inability to turn decent possession of the ball into anything resembling a chance.
Garde stuck to the French theme with his first substitution of the day, introducing N’Zogbia in place of Gil in the 65th minute. It was a like-for-like change and, in truth, had little effect on the game, with N’Zogbia managing only 12 touches during his 29 minutes on the field.
Garde’s next change, bringing on Leandro Bacuna for Sinclair in the 72nd minute, was a sensible one and temporarily helped to stem the tide of City attacks, with the Dutchman even going close to getting on the end of a through-ball for the chance of an unlikely winner.
Bacuna had little involvement otherwise but played his part in helping nullify the effectiveness of City’s left-hand side, though by this point Pellegrini’s side were doing much of their attacking through substitute Jesus Navas down the right.
The final change saw Gestede replace Ayew in the 84th minute, but by this point Villa were largely content to simply clear their lines as they became only the second side all season to prevent City from scoring.
Neville was somewhat dismissive of Garde’s approach before the game, but the way in which they kept the ball, particularly in the first half, was a large reason behind them keeping the league leaders so quiet.
But Villa didn’t attack with abandon; their shape was indeed much better with Gueye and Sanchez holding their positions well, allowing Amavi the freedom to progress down the left.
Only time will tell, however, whether their failure to create chances during their periods of dominance was down to the strength of the opposition or the lack of presence in the final third. Not that there is anything to suggest Garde has already settled on a preferred line-up; it will be interesting to see if he mixes up his selections in future weeks for different challenges.
For now, with only 90 minutes of evidence to go on, Villa fans are sure to feel much happier with Garde in charge of a relegation fight than they were Sherwood.
Aston Villa have failed to score in six of their last eight league meetings with Manchester City.
The Citizens have lost just one of their last eight away Premier League games (W5 D2), keeping six clean sheets in that run.
However, City are winless in three Premier League away games (D2 L1).
The Villans kept their first PL clean sheet since the opening day of the season, and first at home this season.
City have drawn two of their last three league games 0-0, this after a run of 60 games without a goalless draw.
Villa failed to register a single shot on target for the first time in a Premier League match since August 2014 (vs Newcastle).
Man City have allowed their opponents just 28 shots on target this season, fewer than any other team in the Premier League.
Villa kept their first clean sheet against Man City since January 2011.
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