Battle of the 3-5-2s
With the recovery of Ron Vlaar, Paul Lambert chose to echo Louis van Gaal's favoured 3-5-2 shape and there were individual battles across the field.
The 3-5-2 is a very flexible formation - played with attacking wingbacks and a central defender in the back three who steps up to play passes in possession (such as Michael Carrick), it can be hugely aggressive, with 8 players effectively in the attack. This is what Manchester United seemed to be aiming for.
Played with wingbacks who are natural defenders and a more defensive minded midfield unit and it can be a very defensive formation, packing the midfield and obstructing the wings at the same time. In Aston Villa's formation, Cissokho and Lowton who normally play as full-backs certainly fit that mould. However there was some attacking intent in Villa's midfield due to the fact that Fabian Delph and Andreas Weimann naturally look to get forward.
So a cagey battle was set up, with a United team ready to bomb forward and a Villa side designed to soak up the pressure and hit back hard. Except things didn't quite work out that way...
Man United trip over one another
United's line-up arguably had the power to blow Villa off the field but failed to do so, largely due to a stuttering central midfield.
Seemingly almost foxed by their own possible flexibility, Rooney, Mata and Fletcher failed to find any sort of rhythm or division of duties, with none of them dropping regularly into the No. 10 spot to stretch the Villa defence and feed Falcao and Van Persie. Villa's energetic midfield held their structure well and challenged the United players to find a way through, which they failed to do.
Rooney was seen regularly dropping deep on the left and floating long balls to the wings, which were picturesque but surely a waste of his attacking talents. Fletcher lacked the passing ability to go with his movement, and Mata lacked his normal exquisite weight of pass. The few times any of them did find a pocket of space behind the Villa midfield, Ron Vlaar stepped up intelligently. ‘Concrete Ron' was very impressive throughout, both making vital blocks and interceptions but also commanding Okore and Clark well - Lambert may be tempted to experiment with this three at the back again.
Meanwhile Villa were limited in an attacking sense by their wing back's inability to cross dangerously on the few occasions they made it past their opposing numbers, and by Abgonlahor's poor touch.
However Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke provided more edge. Delph's box-to-box work was invaluable in a midfield that could easily have become pegged back, frequently finding Benteke dropping deep and then bursting forward. One of those bursts led to the free-kick which Benteke so exquisitely finished. Delph very clearly provides a dimension to Villa's midfield that none of the other midfielders in Claret and Blue can match. While he may not be as neat a passer as Cleverley or Westwood, his energy and desire to get forward utterly change the speed of the Villans' transition from defence to attack.
United find their feet and a goal
At the start of the second-half Van Gaal made a very interesting decision. Fletcher went off. Angel Di Maria was sitting on the bench but on came Tyler Blackett. Instead of one of the most gifted attackers in world football, he brought on a 20 year old centre-back.
However there was method in the madness. Blackett went into the back three and Carrick came up into the midfield. This would have a twofold effect - Carrick's passing would possibly open up the Villa defence, and Mata and Rooney would more reliably push up the field in front of Carrick. Villa would be strangled by increasing pressure.
The change quickly brought its benefits. United set up camp in the Villa half, with Carrick acting as the pivot of a passing carousel. While the equalizer eventually came from a simple run and cross from Ashley Young, beating Matthew Lowton and finding a fine header from Falcao, it was the culmination of pressure that had been applied due to Van Gaal's tactical change.
Red card - a blessing in disguise?
The match looked set for United to go on and win, and they were piling on the pressure. Then in the 65th minute came Abgonlahor's ridiculous sending-off for a tackle that was neither malicious nor dangerous.
For a brief spell United threatened another, especially Di Maria who came on for Van Persie, but then Villa, roared on by a furious Villa Park, started to fight back. Benteke acting as a lone front man and the central trio keeping up a great work rate, panic was kept out and the shape stayed solid.
Whether that would have lasted is hard to know, but Van Gaal apparently decided he saw the way to winning and subbed off Valencia, whom Cissokho had marshalled well all game, for the striker James Wilson. Di Maria went to the left, Young swapped over to the right and Wilson went to partner Falcao. Paul Lambert responded by switching N'Zogbia on for Weimann and Bacuna for Cissokho and went to a 4-4-1.
Villa got the best of the changes, stabilised by two defensive banks of four. The full backs were protected by their wide midfielders and neither Di Maria nor the previously dangerous Young could make an impact. Space should have appeared in the centre for United but they seemed to lack the patience to exploit it as Villa compressed well, and Brad Guzan cleared up everything behind. Instead the ball kept going to Young, and Clark did well to keep him from putting across a truly dangerous delivery. The game ended in a deserved draw.
Conclusion - Lambert reacts cannily to van Gaal
This game was a battle between an active and a reactive manager. Van Gaal is famous for his 3-5-2 and Lambert gambled that his players could successfully stifle it in an unfamiliar formation. In many ways he was proved right - the back three, the central midfield trio and Cissokho all did their jobs excellently. They were helped by some uninspired performances from United's midfield but they could only do the job in front of them.
The goals came from situations that the managers had little control over. Benteke proved to be too much for Evans, Young too much for Lowton. Both managers would probably not have played their respective defenders if they had other options. Van Gaal deserves credit for his counter-intuitive move to push on a centre-back to free up Carrick and achieve an attacking push up the field.
However after the red card, Lambert definitely won his tactical battle. Van Gaal's decision to swap Young over to the right, away from Lowton, was strange. Lambert took full advantage by shoring up his left flank and playing the more attacking Bacuna over on the right. United badly needed more invention and drive in the middle of the field but Van Gaal had already used all his second and third substitutions for changes that proved ineffective.
Adam's Formation of the (next) Week
On Boxing Day Villa will face a dangerous passing side in Swansea but with hope that they can go on and get a win from this.
After this performance, Lambert may well be tempted to keep the back 3. If so, an obvious change suggests itself in switching Bacuna for Lowton and thus gaining a more attacking wing-back option. Abgonlahor's suspension may be lifted on review but even so it is debatable whether he deserves to be in the starting XI - his poor touch cripples too many attacks. Delph is nailed on to start, as is Sanchez after another good performance. Space then opens for Cleverley to return and help shut down Swansea's passing game, while Villa fans should salivate over the renewal of the Benteke & Weimann firm of goalscorers.
As such, here's my recommended formation...
As ever let me know your thoughts below! Is this the best formation? Should Grealish be playing? Or Gabby? Or even N'Zogbia? (Just kidding on that last one - if you think he should be playing, best to keep it quiet)