After the diamond and the 4-3-3 of the West Brom games, we finally saw what Tottenham fans had been warning us about - the Sherwood 4-4-2. Pacy wingers and a big man-little man combo on the top - and it was glorious.
Villa's attack is right on
This wasn't quite a straightforward 4-4-2, down the wings and stick it in. Tim Sherwood has talked a lot about Charles N'Zogbia in recent weeks, and he was key to the plan today, given license to roam inside from his right wing, as a kind of wide forward. With Leandro Bacuna's eagerness to come forward, that set up an incredibly attacking-minded right flank, though one that was equally vulnerable if caught too far up the pitch. Bacuna took every opportunity he could to come up the field.
Image from WhoScored.com. This heatmap shows the respective positions of Lowton (on the left) and Bacuna (on the right). From the beginning Bacuna took up some incredibly attacking positions, while N'Zogbia pressed inside. Sunderland couldn't deal with the pressure this created.
Sunderland set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, the surprise being the return of Fletcher to the side, who took a position to cut in from the left to help out Defoe. Their midfield was set up to press high, but with Fletcher looking to come inside, there was space to be found on that side.
The race was on as to which side could exploit the other first down that flank. Bacuna's early yellow seemed ominous, but it was Villa who made it count for the crucial first goal. The Dutchman had no hesitation in overlapping N'Zogbia's clever flick and when Gabby and Sinclair made the runs to drag away the defenders, Benteke slotted home - John O´Shea´s efforts to get to him only leading to a deflection. Almost exactly the same thing happened a few moments later with Sinclair missing one of the easiest chances you´ll ever see.
The fourth goal again exposed Sunderland down their left - Fabian Delph looked out to find Bacuna, now eager to come up for every opportunity. He wasn't tracked by Fletcher and Van Aanholt was too slow to challenge him, giving him the time and space to put in the kind of quality cross we´ve been lacking so often for Benteke to head home.
Sunderland don't defend
While Villa's flooding down that flank would probably have given them a healthy advantage, the margin of victory was greatly helped by Sunderland's lifeless defending. The second and third goals were due largely to defensive errors, with the back line just unable to live with Gabby's pace.
However there were problems across the whole pitch, in a Sunderland team that lacked any kind of desire to challenge for the ball. In the second-half their lack of pressing was probably down to a simple desire not to leave themselves open to another loss like the 8-0 against Southampton. But even in dangerous areas they were incredibly slow to challenge for the ball.
Here's a look at Villa's passing in the attacking third -
Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre,
141 passes successfully completed out of 178 attempted. That's both an incredibly high number of passes attempted, indicating a lot of possession in the final third, but also a ridiculously high completion rate - 79%. Even Arsenal, in a dominating passing performance this week, only managed a 77% completion rate in the final third. Either Villa's attackers all became Arsenal-like in their passing ability (and remember, two of those attackers are Gabby Agbonlahor and Charles N'Zogbia) or Sunderland were failing even to press around their own area.
The rest of the match was a formality although inevitably the men in Claret and Blue got a little careless and exposed some of the potential issues of the formation. Bacuna carelessly lost the ball to Steven Fletcher who got a cross in for Defoe and then Sunderland found far too much space in between the lines for Fletcher to be released behind and hit the post. But the damage had already been done.
After going up by four goals in the first half, there wasn't a lot of need for substitutions but Sherwood still made some interesting ones.
Carlos Sánchez on for Ciaran Clark - The weirdest one on first look, but the explanation is almost certainly that Clark is only one yellow away from his tenth of the season and a two match ban and Sherwood didn't want to risk him picking up another. Sánchez's physical prowess makes him the best makeshift option with Vlaar, Senderos and Baker out.
Andreas Weimann on for Charles N'Zogbia - A like for like change but perhaps suggests Sherwood is still thinking N´Zogbia is behind on fitness levels.
Russian Hepburn-Murphy on for Christian Benteke - Sherwood goes full Sherwood by debuting a 16-old. While it´s a great experience for him, we´re probably not going to be seeing Hepburn-Murphy playing a big role any time. But the boost that it gives to the whole youth set-up, seeing that they could be rewarded by being in the first-team, could be huge.
Conclusions - Keep It Simple, Stupid (but with a few twists)
For some this match might be the perfect refutation of the ´football hipster´ tactics obsession - fancy foreign coach with his fancy 4-1-4-1 gets shot down by straight-talking Sheriff Sherwood and his trusty 4-4-2, proving that a good bit of running about and shouting will beat your funny foreign tactics any day.
But even with Sunderland´s incredible lack of effort colouring their performance, there was a tactical element as well. Sherwood often played a lopsided 4-4-2 at Tottenham with Eriksen tucking in from the left - now he´s doing the same with N´Zogbia on the right, highlighted by Bacuna's wonderful supporting performance. Poyet gambled that having Fletcher out on the left side would help expose the Villans´ weaknesses, and instead that side was ripped apart. Tactics Tim indeed.