Things we learned:
- Tim Sherwood is even stubborner than the stubbornest mule alive. Richardson still in the side!
- Christian Benteke is a colossus, worth infinite money* (*when fit and interested)
-Joe Cole has some absolutely filthy blackmail material on Sherwood
- Even Harry Kane can't score if he spends all game on the halfway line
Tim Sherwood continued with exactly the same 4-4-2, with the midfielders in a diamond, as he used at QPR - including Kieran Richardson and Leandro Bacuna as full-backs and Jack Grealish at the tip of the diamond. He's a stubborn man.
Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs lined up in a 4-2-3-1, the big surprise being that Christian Eriksen lined up wide on the left rather than immediately behind Harry Kane, with Nacer Chadli in that central role. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb were the ‘2' sitting in front of the defence.
First-half: Benteke dominates
Villa's initial attacking plan was clear - win the ball back via the pressing diamond and get it to Benteke as soon as possible, with Abgonlahor supporting. Both the strikers were pulling off to the left, looking for the channel between Fazio and Chiriches, with Bacuna in particular hitting diagonal balls towards that side, and Tom Cleverley also looking for the long ball behind. Fabian Delph and Carlos Sánchez were winning the ball well, but Grealish looked less dangerous than against QPR, as he got squeezed by Tottenham's sitting midfielders.
In possession Tottenham looked to bypass that diamond and switch the ball out via their full-backs and the wings where Andros Townsend quickly got the better of Richardson. On the left Christian Eriksen was drifting deep to pick up the ball and playing long passes across the pitch. This left space for left-back Danny Rose to charge up the field and he was Spurs´ most dangerous threat, getting a shot off in the penalty area in the 27th minute that Guzan did well to stop. However with Eriksen drifting deep and Chadli playing sideways passes, Kane was isolated against the Villa centre-backs and began dropping very deep to pick up the ball.
During the first-half Harry Kane received the ball in very deep positions, and very rarely in central areas. Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre.
The crucial moment came due to Benteke and Abgonlahor drifting out left and dragging the entire Spurs formation out that side. As they did so, space opened up on the right. 34 minutes in, Chiriches gave the ball away and Grealish found Cleverley in space, working hard to both pressure infield and provide width. He shifted the ball to Bacuna and then made a wonderful run round the outside to drag away Rose. With that space, Bacuna obeyed the ‘get it to the big man' imperative and curled a cross in to Benteke who rose majestically above Fazio to nod it in to the far corner. It was an excellent example of the counter-attacking potential of the diamond, pressing and winning the ball, using the full-back for width and the presence of two strikers in the box.
After the goal, the two teams returned to their rhythm, with Tottenham's wide men seeming dangerous as they cut across the Villa box but without a final product. And in the end it was the men in Claret and Blue who finished the half strongly, with a classic Benteke-to-Abgonlahor header which Gabby took on at speed and smacked against the post. Overall Sherwood's straightforward plan was working due to the pure aerial strength of Benteke, while Pochettino's wide men were failing to take advantage of Villa's exposed full-backs and their real dangermen in Eriksen and Kane were too deep.
Second-half: Villa limp home as Pochettino fails to take advantage
The first ten minutes of the second-half were tense for the Villans as Spurs exposed Villa in wide areas. Townsend charged past a failed tackle from Richardson, Danny Rose got another shot off and Kane finally got a proper shot on goal when Grealish lost him tracking back. But the lack of composure or quality in the final ball was obvious.
Around the 60th minute both managers looked to change things up. Andi Weimann came on for Grealish, looking to provide a more physical presence behind the strikers. But Spurs made the more dramatic shift, taking off Chadli for Roberto Soldado to switch to a 4-4-2. It was an interesting change but did little to alter the essential problem of getting the ball into dangerous areas as Ron Vlaar and Nathan Baker did an excellent job around the goal. Bentaleb and Mason did not attempt a single ball into the box in the whole 90 minutes.
Villa's own attack also lost its verve when Abgonlahor limped off in the 68th minute to be replaced by Joe Cole, as Weimann shifted up to partner Benteke. They avoided dropping deep but increasingly used the full-backs to take the ball out wide and use up time, with the central midfielders exhausted. Pochettino then made his big change, taking off Chiriches and Townsend on the right and subbing on Yedlin and Lamela, targeting the weak link of a tired Delph covering Richardson. The two had enough neat touches in the last 15 minutes to suggest that given more time they could have created something, but Villa finally switched back into a fully counter-attacking 4-5-1 with Weimann dropping into the midfield and made the game very scrappy with a lot of free-kicks.
The game ended with sparks, as Benteke released Delph who should have scored one-on-one with the keeper and Sánchez was sent off for a rash lunge on the dynamo Danny Rose. But a limping and bruised Villa did just enough to hold out, with Vlaar and Baker excelling in the physical battle. Pochettino made his move too late, with Soldado an ineffective substitution while the Tottenham midfield lacked creativity. Only the introduction of Lamela and Yedlin down the right hand side began to change the dynamic.
Nathan Baker on for Ciaran Clark (18mins) - An injury-forced substitution, but Baker more than justified Sherwood's choice, commanding in the air and quick to cover his full-back on the ground.
Andreas Weimann on for Jack Grealish (63 mins) - The only purely tactical change, looking to get a little more bustle and physical energy into the attacking midfield. Disappointing from Andi, who didn't really get in close to Benteke, though he did help out in midfield.
Joe Cole on for Gabriel Abgonlahor (70 mins) - An injury-forced substitution but Sherwood's continued love for Cole is looking odder every time. Perhaps there was some thought of him being a useful set-piece taker but he did very little on the pitch. Why not Charles N'Zogbia whose pace would have been a huge counter-attacking threat? And why risk an injury-prone and aging player for your final substitution?
Conclusions - Sherwood bets on his prize horse
It's becoming clearer with each week that Tim Sherwood has bet the house, the fight against relegation and his reputation on Christian Benteke. Today, that looks like a very good bet.
Playing two strikers up front might cripple our flexibility and risk leaving us outnumbered in midfield or exposed on the flanks, but it's the way that Benteke works best so he will be given a strike partner each week. And so long as he scores or provides for his partner, there's always a chance that the other side won't take advantage of the space that it leaves elsewhere on the pitch.
That was the case this week as Tottenham Hotspur just looked devoid of creative quality, even of the type that Matt Phillips brought to QPR during the week. Their central trio of Bentaleb-Mason-Chadli offered nothing in attack and with Eriksen dropping back to help them out in possession, Spurs had lost their creative link further up the pitch to Kane. Townsend couldn't take advantage of Richardson's defensive failings and Villa had enough to see out the game.
To that extent, Sherwood's plan worked and he deserves credit for sticking with his plan to get Benteke scoring. However there are still some concerning signs - sticking with the diamond via Weimann and Cole in the second-half did little to help see out the game, leaving Villa to rely on Tottenham's lack of creativity. Sherwood's stubbornness remains both a blessing and a curse.