Aston Villa: Rémi Garde wasted no time in stamping his mark on the team with six changes and a 4-1-4-1 formation using Carlos Sánchez as a sitting midfielder behind Idrissa Gana and Jordan Veretout. On the flanks, Scott Sinclair and Carles Gil were set-up to tuck inside, though Sinclair moved out left when attacking while Gil cut inside. Jordan Amavi and Ciaran Clark returned as the left side of the defence.
Manchester City: Manuel Pelligrini opted for the City standard 4-2-3-1. In the continued absence of David Silva and Sergio Aguero, Wilfried Bony started up top supported by the attacking trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Yaya Touré and Raheem Sterling. Behind them were Fernandinho and Fernando, the former of whom drifted upfield. Aleksandar Kolarov was a very attacking left-back in City's solid defensive unit.
First-half: Compact Villa frustrate City
City forced wide as Touré falters and Sánchez shines: Garde's obvious first priority was to get his team set out in an organized fashion and his 4-1-4-1 did the job well. City had ripped apart Sevilla in the week when their powerful midfield unit pressed high before their wide players finished the job.
To stop it, Garde flooded the midfield, placing Sánchez in his favoured deep-lying role while Gana and Veretout buzzed energetically ahead of him. City struggled to get the ball into dangerous areas centrally, especially when Bony went off after 25 minutes and De Bryune took up the advanced central position while Jesús Navas went to the right wing. Villa blocked the passing lanes and Micah Richards and Ciaran Clark stepped up well when needed. Yaya Touré was particularly subdued, dropping deep rather than cutting through the centre.
City's threat was reduced largely to the left, where Gil occasionally gambled on receiving the ball and let Kolarov get a headstart on him, where he combined dangerously with Sterling, which resulted in two of City's shots in the first-half. Brad Guzan did just enough to stave them off.
Villa's possession a useful defensive tool, not so much offensively: Villa retained possession very well in the first-half, with Sánchez, Gil, Veretout (after the first 20 minutes) and Ayew all very tidy. That ball retention minimized City's attacking chances, though the Villa Park crowed was occasionally frustrated as the ball headed back to Guzan from the City half.
However the possession resulted in little by the way of attack. City's defence is one of the best in the league and they suffocated Villa's attacking threats in Ayew and the Amavi-Sinclair combination. The one outball that they allowed was to Alan Hutton who had space down the right but never attempted to take-on Kolarov and his crosses were poor. Hutton will never equal Amavi's ability to beat his man and get to the byline and he needed Ayew and Sinclair to come over to his side to combine with down that wing, as Gil is more a playmaker than a winger. Instead they tended to wait in the centre for crosses that rarely made it past the first man, apart from a short spell when Sinclair drifted over to the right which it would have been nice to see continue.
Second-half: Substitutions and luck see Villa ride out the City onslaught
Sterling/De Bruyne switch and Navas put Villa on the back-foot: After a first-half when City only attempted three shots, they came out blazing in the second-half. Sterling swapped with De Bruyne and his movement in the box was much more uncomfortable for the Villa defence. Meanwhile Navas began to get the better of Amavi, who perhaps still isn't quite used to a 90 minute defensive performance against this quality of winger, and Villa were extremely lucky that from his crosses neither Sterling's header nor De Bruyne's attempted backheel found the net.
Garde guards his flanks: Recognising that Villa were in danger of being overrun, Garde first put on Charles N'Zogbia for Gil and then Leandro Bacuna for Sinclair, in both cases looking to cover his full-backs with speedy players who could provide a threat on the counter-attack.
Villa conceded more possession without Gil on the pitch and were forced to bunker down in front of their goal, but City began to penetrate less easily from the wings. N'Zogbia even provided a couple of attacking flashes, getting a dangerous cross in from the byline. A final spell of sustained corners saw Fernando's header cannon off the crossbar and Fabian Delph's shot flash wide, but with that one last piece of luck, Villa saw out the draw.
Conclusions - Garde makes his own luck in a way Sherwood never did
Let's be clear, this game could have been a 1, 2 or even 3-0 loss easily. Villa rode their luck enormously in the second-half when they had no answer to the quality of Sterling, De Bruyne and Navas. On the other hand, the fact that the side in 20th with seven losses in a row couldn't be a match over the 90 minutes for the league leaders and well over a £100 million of attacking talent shouldn't be a surprise.
Garde's job was simply to give them a fighting chance in a way that Sherwood's bizarre selections and substitutions never did. The formation did that, forcing City to go wide and take more difficult chances which they couldn't finish in the end. Players were in their proper positions and working as a clear unit, to earn a result, something rarely seen under Tim Sherwood.
Perhaps the only tactical qualm was that of Carles Gil. The Spaniard was typically elegant and composed on the ball but was forced out wide due to the need to field three defensive midfielders against City. His occasional defensive lapses and his lack of speed on the counter showed why he prefers to be the No.10, the central attacking midfielder and surely in weeks where defence is not such a priority he'll be given a chance to excel in that role.