Aston Villa: A big change from Tim Sherwood as he decided to start with three at the back, including the first appearance of Jose Angel Crespo, betting on Jordan Amavi and Alan Hutton as wing-backs to replicate their assists against Liverpool for Rudy Gestede. In the central three he went for high energy, dropping Carlos Sanchez and bringing in Jordan Veretout but leaving out Jack Grealish and Carles Gil. Up front, Scott Sinclair was chosen as second striker over Jordan Ayew.
Stoke: The regular 4-2-3-1 from Mark Hughes but with Bojan Krkic as the midfield conductor, Marko Arnautovic and Mame Biram Diouf providing the wide threat behind lone striker Jonathan Walters.
First-half: Villa's 3-5-2 struggles in defence and attack
Lescott, and Crespo left exposed:
Impacted by Hutton and Amavi's assists against Liverpool, the Villans were set up in a 3-5-2 to maximise crossing into the box with those two as wing-backs and a combative midfield to cover the defensive three.
Unfortunately it was a poor match up against Stoke's 4-2-3-1. I've analysed the 3-5-2 formation before (find my full analysis here) and one of the major issues is when the opponent plays a lone striker who drops back, leaving the central defenders with no-one to mark and vulnerable to men running at them from deep. That was the case here, as Arnautovic and Diouf found space behind the wing-backs and drove at Lescott and Crespo, neither of whom seemed comfortable in a three man defence. In the first 5 minutes Diouf had a shot which was only blocked by the desperate efforts of Micah Richards, the only one of Villa's backline who looked assured.
Villa should have gone a goal down when Hutton lost a challenge to Arnautovic, who laid the ball off to Bojan in the middle of the pitch and continued his run to head the resulting cross into the net but was wrongly ruled offside. Stoke were swinging crosses in from wide areas with ease, especially via their left-back Pieters as Hutton went up the pitch. Overall the experiment just unsettled the Villa defence.
Hutton and Amavi fail to deliver: Sadly there was little attacking benefit either. Despite the two goals against Liverpool, crossing from deep remains a particularly low probability form of attack and Villa didn't even manage that many crosses in the first-half - 7, of which only was successfully met by a Claret and Blue head. Amavi was being held well by the attentions of Diouf and Glen Johnson. On the other side, Hutton had more space to work with as Arnautovic failed to track back but a mix of poor crossing and a lack of presence in the box meant it came to nothing, and he started to drop back after Arnautovic's disallowed goal.
With the plan of crosses from the wings not working, Sherwood's choice of central midfielders looked badly mistaken. Gana, Westwood and Veretout were always playing close to one another, with only Gana willing to drive forward with the ball but often clumsy with his passes. Lacking the creativity of Carles Gil or Jack Grealish, they couldn't connect at all with Scott Sinclair as second striker who had another invisible day, with just 6 passes and 0 of 5 attempted take-ons successful. Again, the choice of Sinclair over Jordan Ayew seemed baffling.
The second-half: Sherwood's subs improve things but early goal allows Stoke to shut down
Villa switch to diamond but self-destruct: At half-time, to his credit Tim Sherwood recognised that his initial plan wasn't working and took off Joleon Lescott for Grealish, with four at the back and a diamond in midfield. It made sense, allowing for Grealish to start linking the attack while the full-backs would still be able to come up the field and for 10 minutes the game began to liven up.
However then Villa self-destructed. Johnson drove from deep and managed far too easily to find Arnautovic between the Villa centre-backs, with Crespo having wandered off to the left of the box, leaving Richards stranded. You have to wonder to what extent Crespo was disoriented from being moved from the right sided member of a three man defence to the left side of a centre-back pairing. The Stoke man easily slotted the ball home, allowing Stoke to drop back and defend their lead.
Just a few minutes later Villa had probably their best chance off the game. Jack Grealish took the ball out left and Ashley Westwood smartly ran inside him, to receive the ball and cross the ball where Richards had a free header but put it wide. Stoke had taken their big chance while Villa wasted theirs.
Villa push but lack edge: At 57 minutes the managers both made switches. Mark Hughes chose to cover his left side where Arnautovic hadn't been tracking back, putting Afellay on that side and pulling off Bojan in the middle, while Sherwood swapped Sinclair for Ayew. Villa were pushing much more, putting in 23 crosses in total in the second-half but they were too easily pushed out wide, with the midfield men (apart from Grealish), playing too many lateral passes.
Both managers then sought to win the central midfield battle, with Van Ginkel coming on for Arnautovic, while Gil replaced Westwood. The introduction of the Spanish playmaker added a vertical dimension to Villa's passing, and he also managed a couple of successful take-ons, but the home side just couldn't crack open a space in the Stoke box with a series of blocked shots and passing around the edge of the box resulting in wasted possession.
Conclusions - Sherwood arrives at the right plan too late:
It was another dreadfully frustrating day at Villa Park. The initial 3-5-2 had some logic behind it but any plan which relies only on crossing can easily be frustrated by a well-organised defence. The real failure was Sherwood's choice of central midfielders and second striker. The trickery of Grealish and Gil and the willingness to shoot of Ayew were missing from the initial line-up. Meanwhile the defence was thrown into disarray and Villa should've been one down at half-time.
Sherwood then did find something like the right plan with the introduction of Grealish and the switch to a diamond, but in doing so left Villa vulnerable as the defensive reshuffle led to Crespo's fatal error which then allowed Stoke to simply shut down around their box. Again, the inability to find the right plan from the beginning proved to be too much of a handicap against Premier League opposition and it's already a long way back for the Villans from the relegation zone.