An exciting game was set up by contrasting formations. Tim Sherwood stuck with an open 4-4-2 with attacking full-backs, aiming for a lot of width. Leandro Bacuna retained his place in the side after a great attacking performance against Sunderland and Alan Hutton came back into the side at left-back.
Garry Monk went for a diamond formation, with former Villa man Wayne Routledge as a second striker roaming horizontally and Gylfi Sigurdsson at the tip, with Jonjo Shelvey also drifting forwards.
The key battle was clear - could Aston Villa make their pace on the wings count before Swansea's advantage in numbers in midfield sunk them?
First-half: Monk punishes Villans
The first-half answer was very clearly no. Swansea had by far the best of the game as their midfield found far too much space to play the ball, especially Jack Cork and Ki Sung-yueng, their two deep-lying midfielders. Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley were overwhelmed while Villa's strikers got hopelessly lost between tracking back into midfield and pressuring the centre-backs and doing neither particularly effectively. Swansea repeatedly looked for balls over the top but the real danger came when they found space in front of the defensive line and slipped Bafetimbi Gomis in behind - the men in Claret and Blue were enormously lucky that the French striker couldn't convert his chances in the first-half.
Villa on the other hand were very clumsy in attack. There was space on the field, especially when Christian Benteke dropped back into the build-up and was overlapped by Scott Sinclair and Charles N'Zogbia, but there was too little composure on the final pass, with Sinclair the worst culprit. The full-backs were too cautious, floating in balls from deep rather than overlapping and looking to get a cross in at speed. Brad Guzan's oddly nervy performance wasn't helping matters, putting pressure on his own back four. Cleverley going off for Sánchez shored up the defensive structure towards the end of the first half, but slowed down Villa's passing as well.
Villa tried a lot of passes in the attacking third but lacked composure with the final ball in the box. They had a 58% completion rate of passes in the attacking third. Image and statistics from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre.
The first-half showed Sherwood's naïveté in hoping that the flat 4-4-2 could recreate its success against a very well-drilled Swansea side who play excellent possession football. While the pace on the counter-attack still posed some threat, the space that Swansea found between the lines was far more dangerous.
Second-half: Sherwood motivation falls flat against Swansea's tactical switch
Again, the half-time team talk seemed to change things for Villa. Sherwood had clearly yelled at his full-backs enough for them to get the message and push up the field, and suddenly Swansea's lack of width was being exposed. For a 15 minute period Villa were on top, culminating in their best chance, after Benteke dropped back well and played the ball out to Alan Hutton whose cross dropped for Gabby Abgonlahor who was unlucky to see his shot deflected wide. With the initiative on their side, it looked like Sherwood's 4-4-2 gamble could pay off.
Unfortunately Garry Monk is a canny manager and his Swansea side have far more to them than Gus Poyet's Sunderland. They switched to their regular 4-2-3-1 by pulling Sigurdsson off for Jefferson Montero, who went out left to confront Bacuna, while Routledge dropped off to the right. Now if Villa's full-backs went forwards they would be facing the threat of a counter-attack and Montero instantly made Bacuna look like a man stranded on the Moon out at right-back.
Three successful take-ons in half an hour - Montero utterly dominated Villa's right wing. Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre
Before I go on, let me make this clear - I desperately want Tim Sherwood to succeed at Villa and think he can save us from relegation. But that doesn't mean I can give him an easier ride than I gave Paul Lambert in tactical analysis, and Sherwood badly messed up in his reaction to the Swansea shift.
With Benteke limping and Bacuna struggling at right-back, the match was screaming for a tactical change to shore up the wings. The obvious change would have been to switch Alan Hutton over to the right, probably put Kinsella in at left-back and drop into a 4-5-1, putting in another central midfielder. Instead, Sherwood stuck with the 4-4-2, subbing on Westwood (for N'Zogbia) and Weimann (for Benteke), and left Bacuna in position - gambling we could still win the match. Swansea then scored when Sánchez and Westwood lost the fight for the ball in the centre, the ball came out to Montero who left Bacuna for dead again and Gomis finally got the better of Ciaran Clark to stab it home at close range.
To their credit, Villa didn't collapse and almost produced a stunning goal when Sinclair volleyed over in the last few minutes from Delph's floated pass. But Sherwood pushed his luck too far after a lucky escape in the first-half, while Garry Monk made an excellent change to reverse the momentum of the game.
Carlos Sánchez on for Tom Cleverley - A change brought on by Cleverley's early injury and a controversial one, coming on instead of Westwood. Regular commenter Wabbit_Season did his Plus and Minus analysis of the match and judged Sánchez as the worst player. I have to say I disagree. I suspect Sherwood wanted someone to win back the ball and disrupt the Swansea midfield. Sánchez did a pretty good job of that for the majority of the match but he was left exposed by playing in a 4-4-2 for the whole match when he works best as the deepest man in a trio. His slowness in possession and lack of attacking threat were too evident.
Ashley Westwood on for Charles N'Zogbia - A very odd substitution which was presumably designed to answer Swansea's formation shift and shore up the wings, but failed badly. Westwood added very little in the middle, while it forced Delph out to the wing and Sinclair to swap over to the right, when they had looked dangerous in their original positions. Essentially wasted a substitution which became very costly when Benteke had to come off.
Andreas Weimann on for Christian Benteke - Another injury forced substitution and a big gamble to try and win the game rather than try and shore up the defence. The wrong decision in the end, though had Delph looked for Weimann instead of going for glory late on, it might still have paid off. But Sherwood should have used the substitution to fix the problem at right-back.
Conclusions - Villa have to find a new balance
Villa now have a very welcome break to allow some of our players to recuperate and go into the next crucial string of fixtures at something like full-strength. When they come back, they need a new balance in the side and they have some of the building blocks.
Sinclair and N'Zogbia have transformed the attack - These two together have added the width and threat from midfielders that we've lacked all season. Even with Sinclair's wastefulness on Saturday, it's clear that he's a huge threat, while N'Zogbia is a transformed man.
Two in the middle, two up top is outdated - Cleverley & Delph in the middle of the park and Abgonlahor & Benteke staying up front worked against Sunderland because Sunderland were a terrible, terrible side that day. Against better sides we cannot afford to only have two men in the centre of the pitch and two staying up in the hope we can get a counter.
Leandro Bacuna is not a right-back - Something we've all known for a long time but should be doubly obvious now. Bacuna is a serviceable squad option down the right wing or as a wing-back but he cannot be part of a back four or he will be targeted.
To me, the obvious answer now is a return to the 4-3-3, allowing us to field Sinclair and N'Zogbia in the front line with Benteke/Abgonlahor as the central forward, while Delph heads up a midfield trio. Carles Gil would add more threat if he were included in that midfield trio.