Football is silly
Before we begin, a disclaimer. Tactical analysis does not fully explain any football match. Some days, it can't even come close. This was one of those days.
That Manchester City's first goal was caused by their high pressing in a 4-2-3-1, is not wrong. But it leaves out the fact that Brad Guzan miskicked the ball like a four year old with particularly poor bodily co-ordination. Aguero's pressing was a necessary condition, but clearly not the main cause of the goal.
Similarly, the second-half goals were scored from set-pieces, largely due to individual errors. As gutting as it is for us today, those glorious, ridiculous moments are part of the joy of football. They don't make tactics irrelevant, but they ensure that it's not the whole story. So bearing that in mind, here's the analysis of the match in between the silliness.
Aston Villa: Benteke and Grealish, the odd couple
Tim Sherwood opted for a compromise between the 4-4-2 diamond we've seen in the league (see the first of my series of tactical guides, on the 4-4-2, here) and the five man midfield that won the semi-final against Liverpool (analysis here), with a 4-4-1-1.
The back four in front of Brad Guzan lined up as expected, Kieran Richardson and Leandro Bacuna as left and right full-backs either side of Ron Vlaar and Jores Okore. But the four man midfield of Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Carlos Sánchez and Tom Cleverley lined up with no wingers. Instead, Delph and Cleverley were on the sides but squeezing narrow, with the full-backs coming up to provide width - like a diamond, but with no designated advanced midfielder.
Jack Grealish has previously taken up that position at the tip of the diamond, but this time he was playing just behind Christian Benteke. He was the main link between the midfield and the striker, but also providing an attacking threat of his own. This was the big surprise and a huge challenge to the teenager to fill Gabby Agbonlahor's role.
Manuel Pellegini's men lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with Yaya Toure one of the two sitting midfielders with Fernando, while David Silva, Frank Lampard and Jesus Navas were the attacking three from left to right behind Sergio Aguero.
Aguero is not a big target man, but he always plays on the shoulder of the defence, looking for a quick run behind and the City plan was to get the ball behind the Villa defence, either on the wings for a cross and a tap-in or via a through-ball in the middle.
First-half: Guzan blunder overshadows Villa's good work
With three advanced midfielders, City looked to pressure early. In the 3rd minute, with Silva and Navas cutting off the passing lanes, both Okore and Vlaar opted to pass back to Guzan, whose terrible miskick let Aguero tap the ball in. While the kick was inexplicable, the intent of playing the ball out from the back led to the situation.
Energized, the Blues pressed the nervy Villa defence, especially down the flanks. Silva was a particular focus, with Aguero drifting out left and Kolarov overlapping, looking to get behind Bacuna and Okore. In the 9th minute they almost did so, Sánchez forced to make a last ditch tackle on Aguero. Bacuna also looked shaky in possession, almost playing a back pass right into Aguero's feet.
After that 20 minutes the Claret and Blue side found their feet, and began to find Benteke's head. The 4-4-1-1 was designed to get crosses in from the full-backs and use Benteke's flick ons for the midfielders . Bacuna played early diagonal balls into the box for the Belgian and Richardson was also finding space. While neither of them dribbled past their man, they were winning corners. The 24th minute saw a chance from a corner when Benteke found himself one on one with Hart after a deflected shot but couldn't finish.The narrow midfield was also winning the ball via weight of numbers. It almost came together through the middle in the 31st minute when Benteke flicked the ball on to Grealish against a retreating defence, but he couldn't find the final ball to Delph, and Cleverley blasted it wide.
Villa got plenty of balls into the box but crosses are a low-percentage way of attacking - especially if the ball comes in from wide. Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre.
The problem with an attacking plan largely based on crosses is that they generally have a low chance of ending in the net, especially when not delivered from the touchline. This was especially true because Grealish clearly wasn´t used to playing as a second striker, and didn't have the same instincts in the box which make Abgonlahor so deadly. With Benteke also frequently drifting offside, Villa finished the first-half on top, but with no really effective attacking plan.
Second-half: Everyone forgets how to defend
The first twenty minutes of the second half were dull. Yaya Toure went off at half time for Fernandinho, and City lost energy in the middle. Even David Silva going into the centre when Lampard went off for James Milner did little to change the dynamic. Villa also looked a little lost. Their only chance was a Delph volley after a nice touch from Grealish.
That all changed between 66 and 68 minutes. Man City weren't particularly incisive but they had the ball and Villa sabotaged themselves with a failure to clear the ball and a clumsy challenge by Sánchez whose decision-making really suffers under those pressure situations. Kolarov expertly found the gap left by Richardson, but then Villa and Cleverley struck back almost immediately when a corner wasn´t cleared.
The game opened up, and it was Villa who were making better use of the space. Their compact midfield was still doing well, but was given more edge by the substitution of Westwood for Charles N'Zogbia. The Frenchman immediately took up an advanced position on the right and in his direct running looked like a more natural attacking partner to Benteke than Grealish.
There was space to exploit down the right flank, and Bacuna and N´Zogbia began to use it, but Benteke's decision making was terrible. In the 73rd minute Sánchez won the ball and laid it off to Bacuna for a great counter-attack, but Benteke strayed offside and the right-back couldn´t release the ball, and then he failed to anticipate a lovely curved ball which would have been a tap-in. In the last ten minutes came the crazy rush of the Sánchez goal, the Benteke-N´Zogbia connection which was wrongly ruled offside and then Sánchez losing Fernandinho to bundle it home from a corner.
Charles N'Zogbia on for Ashley Westwood (66m) - A very positive change, N'Zogbia working well with Benteke. But two questions - why wasn't N'Zogbia playing from the beginning, and why did Sánchez stay on the field instead of Westwood? Both were on yellow cards but it was Sánchez who gave away the free-kick and who subsequently lost Fernandinho for the third goal. Sherwood must consider if he needs both of them on the field, and if Sánchez´s physical presence or Westwood's decision-making is more valuable.
Conclusions - Attack more!
Villa can be proud of a performance in which they were at least equal to Manchester City and which they wouldn't have lost but for some silly individual errors. They're still scoring goals, they're still playing the ball well and they should stay up.
However beyond the individual errors there were tactical issues. Sherwood chose to play Grealish as Benteke's partner up front, allowing two defensive midfielders in Sánchez and Westwood to play in the centre. Grealish played well but he's a teenager who is trained as a winger and had a couple of good performances as a central attacking midfielder. He's not a second striker. Meanwhile Sánchez and Westwood both picked up yellow cards and Sánchez was partly to blame for two of the City goals.
Had Charles N´Zogbia been on the pitch, either as a second striker or another attacking midfielder, instead of one of Sánchez or Westwood from the beginning, there might have been a few more attacking options than the constant stream of crosses and offsides of the first half. Benteke's decision making was poor and he perhaps needed someone who gave him the simple option of knocking it down.
The five man midfield worked very well against Liverpool, and the 4-4-2 diamond has worked well previously, but this experiment suggests that a compromise between them is worse than either.