Possibly the most important win of the season so far - it certainly felt like it. So how did 'Tactics Tim' Sherwood go about the task?
The formation was almost a parody of Villa fans worst fears. Not only did we get to see the black hole inducing density of a Westwood/Cleverley/Delph midfield but it was topped off with the return of Charles N'Zogbia at the tip of the diamond. Gabby Abgonlahor then came back into the line up, meaning that Scott Sinclair and Carles Gil, two of our brightest recent performers were sat on the bench. Lowton playing on the left, in the other tactical move, made comparative sense with Delph dropping back being the only other option.
Villa's intensity impresses in the first-half
Surprisingly, the formation worked. It wasn't tactical genius but the men in Claret and Blue played in a good structure and with intensity. The midfield diamond for the first time this season resisted the temptation to collapse into a tattered line. Westwood put in an excellent performance at the base, tidy in possession and quick to slot a ball forward either to his midfield counterparts or the front duo.
In a welcome change, Villa players were actually showing for the ball and pushing forwards. The full-backs played their part, Hutton with a typically aggressive attacking performance, while Lowton played intelligently on the unfamiliar left side, by pushing up before coming inside and laying the ball off instead of trying to cross with his weaker foot - instantly making him more effective than Cissokho's "crosses".
Of course the key man in the second-half was Gabby Abgonlahor, who simply managed to get back to what he does at his best - chase down balls behind the defence with barely-controlled speed and shove the ball past the keeper before he expects it. Half the credit needs to go to Ben Foster who seemed to have lost all idea on how to deal with a one on one, but Gabby put in an excellent performance with a gameplan suited to his style of play. Benteke by contrast was basically poor but his flick-on and penalty highlighted why Villa still can't drop him - even a poor Benteke has something to offer.
From FourFourTwo.com's StatsZone, average player position and name size = game influence. A nice clear structure for Villa, with attacking full-backs and a tight diamond in the middle. A huge game from Delph, in attack and defence - but Westwood is up there as well.
Villa were initially lucky in their opponents - West Brom seemed to have no idea how to exploit the weaknesses of the Villa formation. Chris Brunt had a particularly poor day, unable to exploit the space left by Cleverley's tendency to drift infield (on the other side, Delph was outstanding in covering the flank and coming inside), with not one of Albion's midfielders or strikers able to expose Westwood's less than perfect defensive skills. But it was Villa's intensity to get to the ball and challenge that was throwing them off their game.
The second half was a more nerve-wracking affair as West Brom began probing the spaces on the flanks and between the lines. Dawson should have headed home from a free-kick where a shaky Okore was to blame for both the foul and losing his man on the header. Eventually that aerial weakness of Villa in the absence of Vlaar and Senderos was exposed, as an excellent deep ball dragged too many men to it and allowed Berahino an easy header when it came back from Lescott. Another breakaway from the lively Morrison took advantage of Lowton being up in the attack and no-one covering, and Okore redeemed himself with a lung-busting run to clear.
Frankly Villa's second half performance was poor, as West Brom got to grips with the plan and their intensity dropped. The penalty was enormously lucky, involving no less than three errors from Foster - but we haven't had a lot of luck so far this season and should have been well clear in the first-half.
Sherwood's subs were interesting - Grealish on for N'Zogbia at close to the hour mark was an acknowledgement that while N'Zogbia had one of his best days in a Villa shirt this season, he still wasn't creating enough. While fans will welcome the trust being put in Grealish, it didn't quite work out - there were flashes of potential as he drifted out to the flanks well, and had his volley been better placed he could've been an instant hero - he couldn't dictate the play and Villa desperately needed someone to grab hold of the second half. But it was the kind of performance that will help his development and he looked like a Premier League player.
Bacuna on for Cleverley made sense, to stretch the play and offer more attacking threat, and Weimann on for Gabby was a similar adjustment, to get fresh legs to look for the space, but the game was too scrappy by that point for them to change the dynamic - Carles Gil would have been a better bet to try and seize control of proceedings. Overall the substitutions were disappointing, in a second-half where we almost threw away the win.
Adam's Formation of the (next) Week - How to beat West Brom again
So now Villa have to go and do it all over again on Saturday, for a trip to Wembley and an FA Cup Semi-Final. They'll need to be better because there's no way Tony Pulis will let his side be as poor as they were in the first-half again. So here's my recommendation:
Some of the building blocks are already in place. The diamond formation itself gave us a good structure and should be retained. Gabby surely has won himself another chance, and we'll have to hope he's on one of his famous streaks. Ashley Westwood was up there as one of Villa's best performers as well and should be at the base of midfield again. Matthew Lowton's performance at left back was outstanding and there's no reason at all that he shouldn't stay there while Bacuna goes at right-back for the suspended Alan Hutton.
Others need to improve quickly. Jores Okore was shaky and exposed badly in the air, which Pulis will have noted - I hope the coaching team have had him heading the ball all week in training. And as tired as I am of saying it, Christian Benteke is so far off his best it's laughable. If he were even at 75% we could blow West Brom off the field.
Finally, while it may be harsh after relatively good performances, Charles N'Zogbia still doesn't offer enough to this team to justify being in the starting line-up and neither does Jack Grealish. That tip of the diamond position was crying out for 90 minutes for someone with real control, creativity and movement. Carles Gil should be back in the side and I desperately hope that Sherwood rates him as a player, because he was just what we needed.
Let me know what you think below!