Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Leicester's Marc Albrighton returns to Villa Park as a success story
Last Updated: 16/01/16 7:46pm
Allowed to walk away from Aston Villa in 2014, Marc Albrighton is now eyeing Europe with Leicester. In talking to his former England U21 boss Stuart Pearce and revisiting a conversation with the Foxes' head of technical scouting at the time of his signing, Adam Bate examines Albrighton's turnaround...
It's almost seven years since Marc Albrighton made his Aston Villa debut away to CSKA Moscow in the knockout stage of the UEFA Cup. It was a controversial selection by Martin O'Neill as he rotated the squad with his team also chasing a top-four finish. It's been downhill for Villa ever since.
They never did make it into the top four but the man who was allowed to leave for Leicester on a free transfer in 2014 might yet complete the journey. Indeed, Albrighton and Leicester are in the midst of an improbable push for Champions League qualification.
It's not been a straightforward route for the Villa academy graduate, either. He made that debut under O'Neill before enjoying a breakthrough season playing for Gerard Houllier. Even in a turgid season under Alex McLeish, the Scot tipped him for a "great future" at the club.
But having already been asked to fill the void left by James Milner, the opening created by the subsequent departures of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young proved a double-edged sword. With opportunities came expectations that the youngster wasn't ready to meet.
Stuart Pearce worked with Albrighton with the England U21s and named him in his squad for the 2011 European Championship. He recalls a talented but understated young man and isn't necessarily surprised that Albrighton had to leave Villa in order to fulfil his early promise.
"We had Marc in the squad for a while and he probably struggled to make a real impact," Pearce told Sky Sports. "He was in the squad with the likes of Theo Walcott, so he had good competition. What he's done is have a decent grounding at Villa and then found his legs a little bit since leaving.
"That can happen with young players. Some hit the ground running and take off while others can take a little while to get their self-esteem within a group and reach their comfort level. Marc looks like one of those who might be a slower developer who gets there eventually.
"Sometimes when you've gone through the academy at Villa and there's that expectation on you, he's needed to play without that expectation and he's flourished. He was a good kid to work with and someone who wanted to learn the game. He's found a good football club that suits him."
There is always an element of luck when a player lands in the right environment for him to progress, but perhaps not as much as might be assumed. Leicester's recruitment department has been the subject of plenty of praise in recent times but Albrighton's less-exotic tale is seldom highlighted.
Leicester have a host of Birmingham-based scouts and the club's head of technical scouting at the time, Rob Mackenzie, told Sky Sports that they "had been aware of him since he was a kid". He was identified as someone who could make a difference. They spotted what others might have missed.
"We looked at him statistically and thought he could help us," Mackenzie explained. "We didn't create that many goals from crosses because we had wide men coming inside so we wanted someone who could complement that and be a bit more direct and positive in attacking the line.
Although he didn't play all the time for Aston Villa, using the stats and profiling, we were able to say that when he did play he'd actually been very effective.
Rob Mackenzie, Leicester's former head of technical scouting
"If you look at the stats of players who played more than 10 games in the Premier League in 2013/14, only five players created more chances per minute than Marc Albrighton - David Silva, Willian, Samir Nasri, Juan Mata and Mesut Ozil.
"He also delivered more crosses per minute than anyone who'd started a Premier League game. Insights like that were important because although he didn't play all the time for Aston Villa, using the stats and profiling, we were able to say that when he did play he'd actually been very effective.
Albrighton's work rate
Marc Albrighton covered 12.46 kilometres in Leicester's win at Tottenham, more than any other player on the pitch.
"When we looked at it further with video analysis and going to see him live, his work rate became apparent too. Here was a guy still on an upward curve in his career who ticked the biographical profile, the availability profile and in terms of statistical performance, was different to what we had."
The irony, of course, is that Albrighton has flourished on the left wing rather than the right. Instead of offering a different right-wing option to Riyad Mahrez by getting to the by-line, the pair have been used as inverted wingers playing alongside each other.
The tactical tweak by Claudio Ranieri - Albrighton had hitherto not been used on the left - helped Leicester to play a 4-4-2 formation and still have enough of a presence in central positions to avoid being outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. It's been a stunning success.
Albrighton hasn't quite been able to match Mahrez's numbers but he's made a contribution. The 26-year-old ranks among the top dozen players in the Premier League for chances created, the top 10 for assists and the top six for successful crosses.
Marc Albrighton in 2015/16
Not only has he delivered what Leicester were looking for, he's added to his game. "Marc is one of those who was probably a push-it-and-whip-a-cross-in merchant," added Pearce, an England left-back with 78 caps and, therefore, someone who knows plenty about facing talented wingers.
"As a full-back, sometimes they are slightly easier to play against as you know exactly what they're going to do. Then you swap wings and suddenly he can go outside and use his left foot for a cross or alternatively he can drag it inside, drive with the ball and shoot. It gives him that extra dynamic."
Marc is one of those who was probably a push-it-and-whip-a-cross-in merchant... Suddenly he can go outside and use his left foot for a cross or alternatively he can drag it inside, drive with the ball and shoot. It gives him that extra dynamic.
Stuart Pearce on Marc Albrighton
It's the sort of dynamic Aston Villa are sorely missing as they find themselves at the foot of the Premier League table. Albrighton, the man they discarded, has been involved in seven goals this season. His old club have only managed 17 in total.
Having been a substitute on his only previous return to Villa Park, Saturday is set to be his first start on his old ground since leaving. He's come a long way in the seven years since his debut. But then Albrighton and Leicester have come a long way in the last seven months.