Aston Villa: Tim Sherwood sprung more than a few surprises with his line-up, selecting from an almost fully fit squad. Kieran Richardson and Jordan Ayew kept their places from last week's match against Chelsea, although Ayew shifted to the right to allow Gabriel Agbonlahor to come into the left side of the attacking midfield in the 4-2-3-1, while Carles Gil dropped to the bench. However the big talking point was the introduction of Leandro Bacuna into central midfield, replacing Ashley Westwood in a very unfamiliar position for the Dutchman.
Swansea: In comparison Garry Monk has a pretty set 4-2-3-1 orientated around the dangerous wide men André Ayew and Jefferson Montero, supporting Bafetimbi Gomis. On the right, Ayew had more freedom to drift, with Kyle Naughton coming up the field behind him, while Jonjo Shelvey drove forward from deep midfield.
First-half: Stalemate as pacy wide men cancel out and playmakers falter
Wide players cancel each other out: Sherwood's selection seemed like an attempt to answer two contradictory needs, getting enough attackers on the pitch to score and controlling Swansea’s dangerous wide men, Montero and Ayew.
In defensive terms it seemed to do its job and the pacy wide men essentially cancelled each other out. Alan Hutton did an excellent job against Montero, keeping him from putting across an effective ball and making some early bursts forward, while the left side just about kept a hold of André Ayew. On the other hand Agbonlahor and Jordan Ayew were unable to make much attacking impact, with a lack of passes for them to run onto.
Central attacking players struggle: With the flanks turned into an inconclusive running battle, there was more space in the centre but both central playmakers struggled badly. Jack Grealish and Gylfi Sigurdsson were essentially invisible, suffering from a lack of accurate balls into their feet and creating no chances. Sigurdsson had probably the best chance of the first-half from a Swansea counter attack but put it wide.
The failure of the advanced playmakers was matched by and partially caused by their creative partners further back, Bacuna and Shelvey. With the introduction of Bacuna presumably the idea was to take advantage of some more dangerous long balls and crosses, in contrast to Westwood's tidy but sometimes unambitious passing. To be fair, Bacuna did attempt this, with 17 out of his 23 attempted passes in the first-half being into the final third. Unfortunately that ambition was not matched by accuracy, with only 9 of those passes completed, with a number of passes overhit to Ayew on the right. Shelvey was even worse, with only 3 completed passes into the final third, out of 9 attempted. Both might have been better off to seek out their advanced playmakers.
The dominant players were therefore the destructive central midfielders, Ki Sung-yeung (three tackles and an interception) and Idrissa Gana (two tackles and four interceptions), but both sides went into the half-time break looking in dire need of improvement.
Second-half: Villa find joy on the counter but defensive frailties strike again
Villa's counter finally clicks: Villa's pacy counter finally began to flourish in the second-half. First a Rudy Gestede flick-on released Grealish, who found Agbonlahor who opted to shoot rather than lay it across to Ayew coming up on the right. Then, after a great save by Guzan from André Ayew, Grealish did excellently to beat the covering Ki, and help switch the play across to the right where Agbonlahor was lurking. This time he did look for Ayew and clipped a nicely weighted ball for him to head back across the goal and into the corner.
It was an excellent piece of play, especially by Grealish who produced something even on one of his worse days and a nice combination between Gabby and Ayew, with Grealish dragging away the central defenders, though Gestede lumbering up behind while the counter was on showed how he is still ill-fitting in the side.
Villa's defence implodes again: But Villa can't have nice things and just six minutes later, before Sherwood could even really contemplate making a defensive change to see the game out, Swansea were level. Micah Richards let Sigurdsson get a step ahead of him just outside the box and rashly lunged in, giving away a free-kick which was far more dangerous than a shot on the run under pressure would have been. Sigurdsson, invisible up until that moment, dipped a perfect free-kick over the wall and Brad Guzan couldn't really have done anything.
Sherwood was unlucky in the timing of Swansea's equalizer as he was forced into making a substitution to chase the win rather than hold onto the lead. As such Carles Gil came on for Grealish. The youngster had been having a bad game, but considering his pivotal role in Villa's goal, it might have made more sense to pull off Gestede who was too static to make an impact in an end to end match.
Unfortunately that left a couple of players in defence who were clearly dead on their feet, most notably Idrissa Gana who had thrown himself about with his typical energy but was clearly exhausted and should have been replaced. In the 83rd minute Richardson was sucked inside to a foolish attempted challenge as Swansea stayed high up the pitch, allowing Naughton to come upfield and Gana simply failed to cover. The right-back had time to drive in a wonderful cross and Hutton, perhaps also tired, lost the race against André Ayew who steered it home.
Villa never really looked like they were going to get back into it, with the introduction of Adama Traoré coming far too late to make a real impact. Joleon Lescott hooked over a central defender's shot when he managed to get loose in the box for a well-hit Bacuna corner and that was that.
Conclusions: Sherwood's (last?) gamble still not enough
In what could be his last match with Villa, Tim Sherwood went in for yet another change, hoping that using pacy strikers as wide men could be a key to both defence and attack against a tricky Swansea side.
To give him his due, it almost paid off, with Agbonlahor and Ayew combining for the goal. It feels like counter-attack is probably the only viable plan for this side over the next stretch of matches and therefore it was good to see Jordan Ayew get his first goal and put in a tricky all round performance while Jack Grealish continues to produce even on his worst days.
However this can't really be interpreted as Sherwood finally finding the key and has to be put down as another, and hopefully the last, tactical failure. Gestede still looks lost in this side, with the choice of Kieran Richardson over Jordan Amavi leaving the team woefully short of crossing ability. Playing Bacuna may have been designed to counteract this but surely not from a central midfield position, which smacked of a poorly thought-out compromise.
The effects of having Bacuna in central midfield weren't felt for a long time against a very poor Swansea but it may not be coincidental that his midfield partner Gana was essentially dead on his feet at the end, having thrown himself around for the entire match. The failure to shore up that central midfield eventually cost Villa for the second goal and may well cost Sherwood his job.
It's surely time for another manager to be given a chance to make something of this team. On the evidence of today there's certainly a counter-attacking side to be forged out of it, though perhaps not with Gestede. Or perhaps there's a possession based team or a crossing team or something but Sherwood hasn't found it. He can blame his players, he can blame the recruitment, he can blame anyone he likes but 4 points from a potential 30, with 8 points lost from winning positions (that would see Villa above Chelsea in the table if they'd won those games) means the blame must first and foremost rest with him.