First-half - The 4-3-3 falls flat
Aston Villa set up in a 4-3-3 in the absence of Benteke, with Sinclair and N´Zogbia flanking Agbonlahor up front. The 4-3-3 is one of the most flexible and potentially lethal formations. At its attacking best, the 4-3-3 can commit up to seven players to the attack, as the full-backs push up, the front trio squeeze into the middle to overload the defence and two of the midfield trio come into the space around the box. There's a reason why Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid have all regularly used the formation in recent years.
For most of the first half, Aston Villa managed to commit roughly two players to the attack as the wide players ran up and down the touchline and Westwood and Delph sat in their own half - leaving Agbonlahor waiting as Tom Cleverley thanklessly tried to connect the entire attacking third of the pitch. There was a complete lack of chemistry to both Lowton/Sinclair on the left and Bacuna/N'Zogbia on the right, with barely an overlap to be seen and no thought of drifting inside to worry the West Brom defence.
This moment shows Villa´s attacking struggles. Delph is bringing the ball up the right, but N'Zogbia, instead of moving in towards the goal, is within a few yards of him. Bacuna is walking behind when he should be running up to support the attack. There are five West Brom defenders around the ball. Meanwhile Cleverley, Agbonlahor and Sinclair are doing nothing to move over and provide an option. West Brom´s back four and midfield can easily deal with the attack.
West Brom's 4-4-2 was solid, but had a clear attacking plan, with the full-backs pushing up to support the strikers and two attacking midfielders, while the other two midfielders dropped back to rotate the ball. It almost paid off twice early on, first when Lowton lost the ball under pressure and Berahino got a shot on goal, secondly when Gardner ran in behind a full-back with no-one covering and put in a cross that Brown Ideye should have put away. Those early attacks contributed to the nervousness in Claret and Blue, as the entire midfield dropped very deep.
Villa were very lucky to go into half-time at 0-0, though they had gradually begun to push up the pitch under the relentless barracking of Tim Sherwood and Scott Sinclair´s run into the box just before half-time provided a warning things to come.
Second half - Villa find their wings
Tim Sherwood´s team talk was very effective because the Villa that came out for the second-half was transformed in attitude. Most obvious was the change on the wings, where the full-backs finally began to overlap their wide forwards who then began cutting into the middle and helping out the isolated figure of Gabby Agbonlahor. Leandro Bacuna especially began playing some neat exchanges with Charles N'Zogbia. Delph also began pressing forward much more, as the wide players cutting in created space in midfield.
An attack down the right a few minutes before the goal shows the difference - N´Zogbia is being supported by Bacuna, with Delph running towards the space in the middle. Meanwhile Agbonlahor and Sinclair are adopting more attacking positions towards the West Brom box - now the defence and midfield are stretched.
A reward came quickly with the goal - N'Zogbia making a good run down the wing, but it was Sinclair´s run across the middle to drag away the defenders which made the space for Fabian Delph to receive and launch the ball past the keeper. It was a great demonstration of the potential of the formation at its best.
The match was still in the balance but Villa were looking more adept defensively as Jores Okore transformed from a shaky first-half to hounding West Brom players off the ball across the pitch, while Ciaran Clark swept up, though Joleon Lescott should have equalised when the ball found him at the far post from a corner - this makeshift defence still lacks aerial presence. Tony Pulis decided that the key was to focus on the space that Bacuna was leaving as he ventured forward and to pressure Lowton as well, putting on Callum McManaman and going to a 3-5-2.
Despite that change, Villa still looked more dangerous for the rest of the half, as West Brom were pinned back on the wings and too slow to push through the centre. Gabby was clearly enjoying the support from the wings and his hold-up play created two one-on-one chances for Sinclair, before the ridiculous second yellow for Yacob effectively ended West Brom's hopes. A counter-attack which involved a nice pass from Grealish to Sinclair was finished off impressively to kill the game, before the shenanigans at the end.
This week´s substitutions were much better than last week´s as Sherwood didn´t panic in the first-half until he could get the side moving at half-time, and then looked to shore up the one-goal lead.
Carlos Sánchez coming on at 64 minutes for Tom Cleverley suggests Tactics Tim does indeed know how to use holding midfielders as he looked to balance out the increased attack down the flanks with a strong physical presence in the middle. It was a bit harsh for Cleverley who had done his best at an impossible task in the first-half but with Delph becoming more influential and Westwood also drifting forwards, a good change. Sánchez winning the header to start the counter for the second goal was a nice touch.
Jack Grealish's appearance at 73 minutes for N'Zogbia was also encouraging. N'Zogbia had an excellent second-half but Sherwood is clearly keen to give Grealish time to develop his game, and down the right was the obvious choice with Sinclair running rampant on the other side. The youngster got into good positions and made a lovely pass to Sinclair for the second goal. However, while his second yellow was unlucky it was at least partially a result of his bad habit of looking to draw the foul rather than make a determined effort to get past the man.
Despite my calls for Carles Gil to be in the starting line-up, he only had a five minute cameo. Understandable, but disappointing for the Gilophiles amongst us - but Sherwood hasn't shown signs of binning a player yet and I think he'll get his chance.
Conclusions - Sherwood's job is motivation, not innovation
It´s worth not getting too carried away here - the current record is 2 wins, 2 losses under Sherwood and we were lucky in both matches against West Brom - Tim Sherwood´s Villa hasn't played well for a whole 90 minutes yet.
However there are positive signs. Sherwood hasn't come in and tried to impose revolutionary change, just improve the structure and confidence of the players. In the last two matches we've seen a 4-4-2 diamond and a 4-3-3, both formations that Lambert used. But Sherwood has got the team to play them with more confidence and freedom - considering the likely points total needed to avoid relegation this season, that adjustment is hopefully enough.