So after a frankly ridiculous game, here's what we learned:
- Christian Benteke is still a wonderful centre-forward
- Jack Grealish is ready to be a regular at this level
- Tim Sherwood is as stubborn as the stubbornest mule that ever lived
- Kieran Richardson is not good enough for the Championship, never mind the Premier League
After being mauled by Manchester United when playing a 4-4-2 with wide wingers, Tim Sherwood reacted by setting up a narrow diamond with Jack Grealish at the tip, while Leandro Bacuna and Kieran Richardson had responsibility for attacking width as the full-backs. Gabby Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke up top remain an unbreakable combination in Sherwood's mind.
Meanwhile QPR set up in a pretty standard 4-4-2, with Bobby Zamora partnering Charlie Austin up top and Matt Phillips and Niko Kranjcar as wide men.
First-half: Rough diamond shines
Villa's diamond was set up to win the ball back and get it as quickly as possible to the front two, looking for a quick breakaway. In particular they were looking to work the left channel (the space between the full-back and the centre-back), with Fabian Delph repeatedly looking for Benteke and Abgonlahor drifting into that space.
For the vast majority of the first-half this worked very well, with Grealish particularly impressive at the tip of the diamond, with a collection of clever touches and passes, while Sánchez, Delph and Cleverley won back possession against QPR's struggling central midfielders. Both Villa's goals came from winning possession and setting the counter-attack up quickly. Bacuna was also roaming down the right flank impressively in attack.
The only small mar in the plan was that it left the full-backs exposed defensively - especially Kieran Richardson who it soon became apparent was neither able to challenge successfully nor hold his position in time for cover to arrive. QPR's goal in the first ten minutes noticeably involved Richardson letting a cross come in and Bacuna's poor clearing header - though Delph should not be excused for losing his man completely.
Overall though, Villa dominated the first-half and were unlucky not to go in more than one goal ahead and have killed off the game. QPR's 4-4-2 had been largely ineffective, unable to utilise the space down the flanks and outnumbered in central areas.
Second-half: Sherwood's stubbornness proves costly
Early in the second-half, Chris Ramsay recognised he needed to change the QPR set-up after Villa dominated the first five minutes. He made a double-substitution, switching to a 3-5-2 by taking off the right-back Isla, using Traore and Phillips as wing-backs, and Karl Henry as an extra man in midfield.
The change had an instant impact, as QPR's three man defence proved much better at handling the runs of the Villa strikers. Nedum Onuoha in particular looked much more confident on the right side of the QPR defence than Isla had been in the first half. Meanwhile the extra man in midfield allowed them to retain the ball better against Villa's pressure, and began to find the time to get the ball out to the wing-backs in space to run against the Claret and Blue full-backs.
Hindsight is 20/20 but Tim Sherwood's failure to react to this change defined the rest of the crazy pace of the second half. To grind out the win, the obvious move was to switch to a 4-5-1, flooding the midfield with bodies and using Benteke as a target man to counter-attack. The candidate to come off would have been Abgonlahor - not because he had a bad game, but just to allow wingers to protect the full-backs while retaining three in the centre. Instead he persisted with the diamond, apparently betting on the front duo to get another goal.
Instead, QPR exploited the space down the flanks twice, as Phillips won the corner against Richardson for the second goal and then made fools out of Richardson and Sánchez to set up the third. In the meantime Sherwood tinkered meaninglessly with the midfield by putting Cole on for Grealish. The Villa attack was still creating problems and managed to strike back for Benteke's third but it should never have got to that point.
Joe Cole on for Jack Grealish (70min)- A very odd substitution in that it did nothing to react to QPR's double substitution. Cole was quite good - but so was Grealish before he came off and it did nothing to provide cover in the wide areas and was essentially wasted as a substitution. A major blunder from Sherwood.
Matthew Lowton on for Leandro Bacuna (75 min) - Could have been an injury substitution, and did at least shore up that defensive flank.
Charles N'Zogbia on for Tom Cleverley (81 min) - Trying to inject a little more trickery and width in search of an equalizer. Has to be seen as successful as N'Zogbia drew the free-kick for the third goal - but why was he only brought on so late in the day?
Conclusions - Stubborn Sherwood costs Villa three vital points
Tim Sherwood failed tactically by not securing the win for Villa.
There was an argument for not changing anything up at half-time. If Villa had gone on to score another goal early in the second half that would have been the end of it. And there was no obvious way to replace or help out Richardson without changing the formation.
But not responding to Chris Ramsay's changes at 50 minutes?
The team whose tactics come out on top in the first instance has a huge advantage, in that the other side really only has one chance to switch things up tactically to get back into the game. After that, the team on top can make their own changes to stay one step ahead. Except Sherwood decided that he didn't need to respond at all and left Villa one step behind and ten minutes from dropping back into the relegation zone after 31 games. That's almost inexcusable.
Sherwood has undoubtedly motivated the side and got them scoring more goals but his tactical decisions show he's still a basically immature manager. He's talked about not having the players to grind out wins or ‘make the cake' but refuses to change his tactics to cover up the obvious weakness in the full-back area. His refusal to sacrifice one of the duo up front cripples the side's flexibility, leading to meaningless tinkering with personnel in midfield like the Grealish-Cole switch. And if Villa survive because of the failures of the teams around them, he should not get the credit.