Aston Villa - the 4-3-2-1 with extra Cleverley
Tim Sherwood stuck with the 4-3-2-1 that beat Everton the week before. An unchanged defence of Kieran Richardson, Ron Vlaar, Jores Okore and Leandro Bacuna, with Ashley Westwood sitting in front. Alongside him, Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley break forward and cover the wings, while Charles N'Zogbia and Jack Grealish float in front of those two. Christian Benteke remains the focal point, drifting left.
The only real difference was in the behaviour of Tom Cleverley. With Grealish and N'Zogbia both clustering around Benteke, Villa might have lacked an attacking presence on the right side. But Cleverley was clearly full of confidence after two goals in two games and consistently made runs into the box and down the wing, which proved decisive.
West Ham - 4-2-3-1 and crossing
Sam Allardyce went with the same formation he's played for most of a pretty poor 2015. At the back, Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Cresswell were the full-backs, on either side of former Villa man James Collins and the 18 year old Reece Burke. Mark Noble and Chaikhou Kouyaté were the sitting midfielders.
Signs of Allardyce's plans were clear in his attack. Kevin Nolan was the central player behind Enner Valencia, but Steward Downing and Morgan Amalfitano were played on the wings. Downing being played on the wing, instead of the central role he was effective in early in the season, suggested that Allardyce was aiming to put a lot of crosses into the box and win the aerial battle.
First-half - Villa dominate the ball again
Villa's 4-3-2-1 remained as effective as in previous matches, delivering the ball quickly to Benteke and getting men around him. Early diagonal crosses from deep midfield and the full-backs produced several chances and Villa kept rotating the ball well. Without the ball they pressured high up the pitch, forcing several errors from the Hammers' midfield.
West Ham's midfield on the other hand wasn't working in defene or attack. Noble and Kouyaté were repeatedly caught out going forwards and failing to track Grealish and N'Zogbia in front of their defence. The attacking midfielders were receiving very little of the ball. Their only real attacking outlet was via their full-backs, who found space due to Villa´s narrow midfield and put in several crosses, but Valencia was losing the aerial battle to Vlaar nd receiving very little support from Nolan.
The difference was made by Cleverley who looked dangerous throughout the half. With N'Zogbia going left, he had a lot of space to cover but did so with confidence, forming a good link with Bacuna. The two of them played 30 passes between them in the whole game, and Cleverley-Bacuna and vice versa was the joint top pass combination. Warning was given in the 11th minute when he was present in the box to volley Delph's ball from the left. Then in the 30th minute, N´Zogbia and Grealish combined down the left and the teenager cut it back, and it was the on-loan Manchester United midfielder who had gambled on a run and was there to put it in for his third goal in three matches.
Villa fully deserved their lead at half-time, having won the ball well and got it forward to Benteke with men in support quickly, but it was a slender lead. West Ham's use of crosses to a single striker was failing and their defensive midfield was struggling badly.
Second-half - Allardyce blunts Villa with a diamond
Following Liverpool and Everton's lead, Allardyce changed formation to deal with Villa's attack. Amalfitano and Nolan went off. The Hammers switched to a diamond, with Alex Song at the base of midfield, Noble and Kouyaté ahead of him and Downing going into the centre. Nené came on to join Valencia up front.
Allardyce's switch to a diamond effectively smothered the Villa midfield. Alex Song did more to stifle Grealish and N'Zogbia than Noble and Kouyate had done between them in the first-half. He stuck very tight to Grealish, who couldn't turn to run. He did win a few fouls and a yellow card, but he ultimately began to become much less influential. This could have left N'Zogbia free, but the West Ham centre-backs stepped up and began to strangle the space. Meanwhile Noble and Kouyate moved up and got in the faces of Delph and Cleverley, cutting off the attacking drive from further back.
However it didn't solve West Ham´s attacking issues. With their diamond focused on defensive efforts, the attack came from the full-backs crossing, especially when Carlton Cole came on to add height in the attack. But crosses are a low percentage method of trying to get a goal and James Collins´ headed effort and Valencia's header ruled offside were the closest they came.
Allardyce's change fixed the principal defensive problems, but relying on crossing to a single striker for the majority of the game was a strange choice. Villa didn't adapt particularly well during the second-half, unable to really exploit the narrowness of West Ham's diamond, but they remained organised in defence.
Gabriel Abgonlahor on for Charles N'Zogbia (70mins) - Getting Gabby back into the side and hoping to hit the West Ham centre-backs behind as they stepped up on the Villa midfield. Almost paid off in the last few minutes, but ultimately he looked a bit off the pace - but Sherwood will want the the option of two strikers and a different system.
Alan Hutton on for Leandro Bacuna (76mins) - A defensive change to see out the game. Hutton played reasonably well but Bacuna might have been able to do more down the wings, and it was a shame to break the Cleverley-Bacuna connection.
Carlos Sánchez on for Jack Grealish (91mins) - A substitution that's mainly interesting because it didn't happen earlier. Up until now Sherwood has brought Sánchez on for the last half an hour of games that Villa are trying to hold on for the win. This time he was used purely as a time-waster, perhaps a sign of increased confidence in Ashley Westwood as a defensive midfielder- or decreased confidence in Sánchez.
Conclusions - A huge win and a new challenge
With this win Villa took a huge step towards safety from relegation, after some very worrying results in the morning. The 4-3-2-1 dominated again and the emergence of Tom Cleverley as a goalscorer ranks amongst the biggest surprises of the season and another credit to Tim Sherwood.
However West Ham´s ability to stifle the Villans in the second-half may be concerning in view of the FA Cup Final, where Arsenal will surely now be expecting this formation. Abgonlahor´s return to the side and the potential for a different shape such as a diamond may be crucial.