An obvious approach to take against any opponent is to target their best individual players and minimise their influence, which is why teams began packing their midfield to gain numerical advantage against John McGinn and Jack Grealish early in the season.
It became apparent quickly that the key to beating Aston Villa was shutting down their midfield and kicking Jack Grealish, and Dean Smith needs to come up with some sort of way to change the record fast - Villa have only won two of their last 11 Premier League games and the rest of the division have sussed them out.
Once McGinn was ruled out through injury in December, Grealish was left as the only player to really worry about and having been moved to the left wing to lead attacks, was receiving the ball in advanced areas more often, helping explain why he is by far the most fouled player in the league, hacked 4.98 times per 90. The closest player to that figure is Wilfried Zaha on 3.33.
Despite this, Grealish is still Villa’s most creative player by a distance, producing 2.18 chances from open play per game as compared to McGinn’s 1.18 and Anwar El Ghazi’s 1.14, statistics that suggest it is vital to reduce his influence. Stop Grealish and it becomes a whole lot easier to defend against predictable Villa attacks.
Villa's match strategy can be undone by committing fouls early to prevent counters gaining momentum, with stealthy hackers lowering their risk of bookings by doing so early enough that yellow cards aren't warranted, tilting the game in their team's favour. These illegal tackles are often referred to as tactical fouls, and are essential against sides who want to play on the break.
That is not to say there is not hope for Villa, since fouling a key player is a tactic both teams can adopt. Adama Traore is Wolves’ most creative player and their most fouled too, creating an average of 1.62 chances from open play per 90 this season, having jumped from 1.13 chances in open play per 90 pre-December to 2.22 from December 8 onwards, which is around the time that everything seemed to click for Traore and he went supersonic.
In theory, Villa can just kick Traore to stamp out the threat he poses but for whatever reason, he appears far trickier to stop than Grealish and has been fouled fewer times since December (when his output increased), suggesting opponents don’t really know how to deal with him.
The winger's physical attributes, namely balance, acceleration and core strength have certainly helped, with defenders bouncing off him rather than halting his run, which raises the question for Villa ahead of the match against Wolves on Saturday: if they can’t stop Traore, and can’t avoid Grealish being kicked out of the game, how else do they possibly hope to win?
Against a superior Wolves side full of confidence, there is little Smith can do other than motivate and prepare his side to win the tactical-foul battle. Whoever does will hold the keys to victory.