Aston Villa: Sherwood brings out 4-3-2-1 again
I’m not saying Tim Sherwood gets all his ideas from this column, but his changes for the week reflected my post-match analysis for the Man City loss. Carlos Sánchez was dropped after being involved in conceding two of City´s goals last week, and Charles N'Zogbia returned as another attacking midfielder alongside Jack Grealish.
This set up exactly the same formation with which Sherwood claimed to have "bamboozled" Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final, even to point of Shay Given coming in to the first team after Brad Guzan’s nightmare. The back four remained the same, but now Ashley Westwood was the midfield anchor in front of him, with Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley alongside him, but ready to go down the flanks in attack. N'Zogbia and Grealish were a pair of attacking midfielders behind Christian Benteke.
Roberto Martinez stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 with Romelu Lukaku as his own Belgian lone striker. The changes from their win over Manchester United came just behind him, where Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith returned to the team to join Aaron Lennon as the attacking midfield ‘3’, ahead of former Villa legend Gareth Barry and James McCarthy as the sitting ‘2’.
Everton’s recent run of good form has been built on their defence which stayed the same, Jagielka and the young Stones as the centre-back pair, Baines and Coleman as two of the most attacking full-backs in the league.
The tactical set up with individual movements. Villa´s 4-3-2-1 aiming towards the left, with two attacking midfielders in Grealish and N'Zogbia. On the other side, Everton's attacking trio look to support Lukaku.
First-half: Delph runs the show
From the beginning, Villa looked like they knew what they were doing and how to work the ball forward, principally down the left, while Everton looked clumsy and disconnected.
The first goal was simply an organizing shambles from Everton. A quick throw-in on the left saw Naismith surrounded by three Villa players , with none of his fellow teammates anywhere near. Caught between players, he left Delph time to sail a ball into Benteke who devours central defenders in those situations and nodded it home. Delph’s quality to both play out on the wing and drive forward through the middle was invaluable in the dual role he was given. He was the base of the attacking drive through the left with Grealish and Benteke in front of him, but also spread the play to the other flank.
Delph's range of passing was impressive, linking short passes down the left but also crossing into the box and spreading the ball long. Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre
Meanwhile Everton’s passing game never got going. Lukaku was dropping deep but his first touch is poor for a lone striker asked to be a hold-up player. Naismith was also slow for a central playmaker and attacking moves broke down quickly. At the end of the second-half Everton still looked dazed and conceded easily from a corner when Vlaar’s flick-on found Benteke free at the far post, with two Toffee players blocking one another. But the corner had been forced when N’Zogbia drifted across to the left of the pitch and overloaded on that side. The two attacking midfielders behind Benteke were having their effect.
Second-half: Everton gamble with men forward
Neither manager made any change at half-time, Sherwood clearly happy and Martinez seemingly betting on his team talk having an effect. He was right because his attacking midfielders had clearly got the message they needed to be more aggressive and make runs ahead of Lukaku.
Their 57th minute goal was a breakthrough as Lukaku dropped deep and made a run with Mirallas, Naismith and Lennon all running ahead of him. The defenders panicked and clustered in front of Lukaku, so that when the ball was slipped in to Naismith, three Villa players were on the wrong side of him. They couldn’t clear and Vlaar was tempted into a second clumsy challenge on the ground and gave away the penalty. It’s not the first time the Dutchman has impulsively challenged at only a glimpse of the ball and it stops him from being a truly top-level defender. In the next 5 minutes, the ball twice found its way into the feet of overlapping Everton players in the Villa box and their movement from deep was threatening.
However attacking in numbers carries the danger of being exposed at the back. In the 63rd minute, Lukaku lost a header far too easily to Vlaar from a goal kick. The attacking midfielders had run ahead in anticipation of a flick-on, so when the ball came to Bacuna, he had no-one pressuring him. Bringing the ball forward, he had time to pick out a through-ball to Cleverley, making a run from deep behind Barry, and he finished it wonderfully. Everton’s slow start had forced them to gamble in throwing midfielders forwards, and they paid the price.
Conceding the goal affected Everton’s confidence, McCarthy especially limiting his runs forward to help out Barry. To compensate, Martinez made a double change, bringing on Leon Osman and Ross Barkley for Mirallas and Naismith. The two substitutes began making dangerous runs and in the last ten minutes Everton threw numbers forward again. Coleman and McCarthy both made dangerous runs down the right, drawing clumsy tackles from N’Zogbia and Vlaar. Finally they got the corner and the goal from Jagielka but it was too little, too late.
Carlos Sánchez on for Ashley Westwood – Sherwood has made a habit of bringing Sánchez on to see out a game, but the evidence that he’s a big help is lacking; he always looks liable to give away a free-kick. His choice to try and karate kick the ball away instead of heading it for Jagielka’s goal looks stranger every time you see the replay. Westwood is surely staking a stronger claim to being the first choice defensive midfielder.
Alan Hutton on for Leandro Bacuna (80mins) – Another of Sherwood’s standard "kill the game" subs and one that makes a lot more sense. Hutton may not have Bacuna’s attacking flair but he calms down the defence.
Joe Cole on for Charles N’Zogbia (90mins) – Another sub to kill the game. Questionable that Cole is more valuable than saving it for the possibility of an injury, but it was basically a time waster.
I don’t want to get too excited off the examples of two matches, but the way Tim Sherwood has the team playing in this formation looks more balanced than any we have seen in the last five years. I have written before about how Villa has been almost purely a counter-attacking side since Martin O’Neill. This side looks comfortable in possession of the ball as well.
The 4-3-2-1 maximises the talents of a number of our best players. Delph-Grealish-Benteke is a frightening combination on the left, and the space on the right can be well exploited by Bacuna and N’Zogbia. Cleverley and Delph both benefit from the space to move forward and the assurance given by Westwood’s distribution behind them.
A lot of this may depend on the immense goalscoring form of Christian Benteke and arguably we have a striker good enough to be in the top teams in the Premier League saving us in a relegation dogfight. But that unfairly disregards the great work throughout the team, which has been reflected in the improved variety of our goalscorers and the passing movements we’re seeing on the pitch.
I would like to see this little series of wins over Merseyside teams made into a trilogy, with a Grealish goal to win the FA Cup. Anyone else fancy the idea?