Just as Villa fans started to despair of Paul Lambert ever changing anything in the set-up, he finally did so against Southampton. And things got better.
Out went the 4-3-3 that has seen us gain 1 point in the last 7 matches. Gabby remained the central front man, but Cleverley came out on to the left along with Weimann on the right and N´Zogbia moved into the central No. 10 position behind Agbonlahor, with Sanchez and Westwood behind them.
The 4-2-3-1 is a flexible formation that has the potential to play much like the 4-3-3 if the wingers bomb up with the lone striker, but it has some crucial differences. In defence, it removes some of the pressure on the flanks as the presence of two defensive midfielder allows them to shuttle over to either side quite easily. In exchange, some of the potential pressing of a 4-3-3 is lost - even should the wingers help the lone front man in his pressing role, the defensive midfielders are less likely to push up in support.
On the attacking side, the lone front man becomes more of a target man than previously. And above all, the man in the No.10 position is given the chief creative role in the absence of another advanced midfielder.
4-2-3-1 - Improved defense, limp attack
Now tactics of course rely on their personnel and Villa only got some of the possible benefits out of the formation change.
In defence the back four were surprisingly solid. Initially the full-backs seemed nervous about leaving space behind for the centre-backs to fill and only pressed on the flanks intermittently, leaving space for Southampton's full backs to pour on the pressure. However as Clark and Okore grew into the game, showing a nice understanding, the full-backs became more confident in coming out. Hutton did especially well, and Clark and Okore kept Pellé very quiet. Okore should particularly be noted for his distribution - his long balls were well struck, hard but floating nicely and he completed 18 out of 21 passes.
In midfield, the story was a little more fraught. Westwood did his customary excellent job both defensively and in his distribution. Sanchez on the other hand gave a performance that marked out his strengths and weaknesses as clearly as you'll ever see. Tasked with winning the ball, he did so well (his height in the midfield was useful considering Guzan's kicks out) but was very poor in possession . While the division of distribution and winning the ball between the double pivot is part of the 4-2-3-1, Sanchez absolutely must improve his decision-making, even if it consists of just laying it off to his partner.
However overall the double-pivot structurally did its job - the space we have seen in front of the back four disappeared and there were generally four clear bands on the pitch, resisting the temptation to fold back into a defensive shell. Westwood and Sanchez came out to the flanks as needed and the dangers we have seen from full-backs in previous matches were reduced - Southampton's goal came when we had gone to 4-3-3, a change I will discuss further down.
The epic failure of N'Zogbia as a playmaker
While in defence the story was generally improved, the attack remained toothless with one principle reason - Charles N´Zogbia's woeful performance in the No.10 role. Even with the low share of possession, 12 attempted passes is terrible for a central midfielder, more so for the one who is in the chief creative position . Compare it with Westwood who attempted 42 (34 successful) including 13 in the attacking third. He was dispossessed on the ball 5 times (context - this happened to Sanchez twice, and no-one else more than once).
The player who should have been the pivot to our attack was instead frequently the point of breakdown of our attack and gave us a somewhat unfair image of a team only looking to be defensive. Ironically, N´Zogbia's cheap surrender of possession started the passage of play that led to our goal, the closest he came to an assist all game.
At the same time Abgonlahor had to compromise in his target-man role - he simply cannot play like Benteke and hold the ball up in the centre against the two centre-backs. So instead he drifted out to the flanks, mostly the left, as shown in the positions he received the ball -
To an extent this worked, especially as Cleverley was unaccustomed to his left flank position and was keen to come inside in any case, to occupy the space Abgonlahor left behind. But the frequent combination of Abgonlahor winning the ball and laying it back to Cissokho failed due to the left-back's poor crossing and the lack of a target man in the centre. Villa needed much more patience in their attack and sorely lacked the attacking penetration offered by Delph in the absence of an obvious target man.
Overall the 4-2-3-1 was a success. Villa were helped by how poor Southampton were on the night - their passing was slow and they got bogged down in the middle far too much, while Villa generally dealt well with the threats on the flanks. Had N'Zogbia been incisive or even tidy in his possession, this might have looked like a genuinely good performance.
Back to the 4-3-3 - and conceding a goal
So then came the controversial switch. N'Zogbia was rightly pulled off for Richardson, but then Sanchez was subbed for Bent. Now Alex has analysed the goal in detail and I agree with his conclusions - those claiming Sanchez would have been in the space Clyne used to score are making too big a leap and had Gabby been alert we would have finished off with the three points. But there are some bigger tactical points to make.
In bringing Bent on, Lambert made what many of us have been calling for - an attacking gamble to win the game. Sanchez was giving away too much possession and inviting pressure, but instead of maintaining a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot of two defensive midfielders (e.g. Bacuna on, or Cleverley coming back to join Westwood) he pushed on Bent and Villa went 4-3-3 (4-5-1 when defending).
So what was the exchange here? As I have pointed out before the 4-3-3 clogs up the middle but leaves the flanks vulnerable, especially to full-backs. But the Southampton full-backs had been very poor at finding anyone in the centre (this is actually reflected in the goal - from left-back to right-back is an unlikely passing combination and it didn't look like Bertrand even knew Clyne was there). In exchange Villa gained a target man who could keep possession near the Southampton goal and act as a stage for further attacks.
On how things turned out, that gamble didn't work, and I agree that Grealish being brought on and Cleverley coming back to a defensive pivot would have been the best tactic. But the idea was not fundamentally flawed and Villa actually pushed on in the last 10 minutes in a way that was partially due to Bent's presence. More importantly, Lambert was looking to attack and pull us away from our own box, suggesting (in addition with the 4-2-3-1) that he's recognising some of the basic issues of the last run of matches. Overall this was tactically a positive match. Villa weren't hanging on like they were against West Ham.
4-2-3-1 - path for the future
For me there are some pretty obvious changes that can make Villa a real attacking side N'Zogbia utterly failed in his playmaking role. Villa currently have one outstanding passing midfielder who is also showing a real desire to get forward and that's Ashley Westwood (note that in the Weimann breakaway at the end, Westwood was one of the three up there). I think it's time to give him a chance to play as a No.10. That leaves a space that Cleverley should shift back into, thus leaving a space on the flanks where we desperately need someone putting in dangerous crosses and taking on a man -Jack Grealish.
Villa's improvements are coming slowly, but they are coming. They should be enough to dispatch Burnley.