Aston Villa: After a limp attacking display against Manchester United, Tim Sherwood brought in Jack Grealish and Carlos Sánchez to be the creative and destructive presences of a 4-3-3. It had the potential to switch into a diamond shape when Grealish drifted centrally and Gabby Abgonlahor, staying in the side at the expense of Jordan Ayew, moved up to support Rudy Gestede.
Crystal Palace: What seemed to be an orthodox 4-2-3-1 from Alan Pardew with new boy Bakary Sako and Wilfried Zaha on the flanks in the absence of Yannick Bolassie, actually turned into a lopsided 4-3-3 with all the focus down the left wing, as Sako, Zaha and even Jason Puncheon all floated left to support Glenn Murray.
First-half: Stalemate as Villa's finishing fails
Gana and Sánchez muffle Palace's lopsided attack: Carlos "La Roca" Sánchez got his first start this season and it was well-deserved as he helped break up the Palace attack and distributed the ball well, helping to trigger counter-attacks. However his companion in the defensive midfield, Gana, also deserved plaudits with a third all-action display in a row where he made 4 successful tackles . They did well to cover Leandro Bacuna who was being kept busy by constant overloads down his side.
Woeful crossing doesn't help Gestede: Rudy Gestede suffered another disappointing day where he couldn't impose himself on the opposition defence, winning only 5 out of his 11 aerial duels in the first-half (11 out of 21 in the whole match). However the terrible set-pieces and crosses he was being given to work with were probably more at fault, with a dismal 3 out of 14 crosses successful in the first half.
Image and stats from FourFourTwo.com's StatsZone.
Gabby wastes Grealish's good work: Grealish returned from injury and showed all that Villa had been lacking in the previous two weeks, stroking the ball around down the left where Joel Ward was being left exposed, especially putting balls down the channel for Gabby to chase. Villa's senior striker unfortunately gave yet another example of his ongoing decline as he wasted a great one-on-one chance and then accidentally kicked the ball with the wrong foot when a great Grealish through-ball put him behind the Palace defence.
Second-half: Pardew makes changes and Villa self-destruct
Sherwood fails to counter Pardew's switch: At half-time, Alan Pardew pulled off Zaha and Murray, replacing them with Jordon Mutch who went right and Dwight Gayle who took up the central position while Sako stayed left. This rebalancing of the Eagles attack almost clicked instantly with practically their first attack down the right leading to a shot blocked at the far post. Then a goal was disallowed from Gayle's shot deflecting off Mutch. The warning signs were clear, the Villans were being stretched, but there were no substitutions made to reassert control.
Traoré substitution opens up the pitch for Palace: Then Sherwood decided to take off Sánchez for Adama Traoré, opening up the middle of the pitch. It was a strange decision, right when the Colombian was playing an important role and other attackers weren't clicking. Traoré's attacking intention was welcome, but a 4-2-3-1 with Gabby coming off would have achieved the same effect without being so exposed to a dangerous counter-attacking side.
Just a minute after the sub, a poor giveaway from a throw-in saw Palace win a corner through the middle and score. Despite Traoré's run forcing the own-goal, Villa were dominated throughout the half without sufficient defensive cover. While the final goal was the product of some clanging errors from Bacuna, Guzan and Amavi, the pressure had been invited.
Adama Traoré on for Carlos Sánchez (69 mins): The best and worst of Sherwood. The readiness to bring on a new 19 year-old signing was great to see and Traoré repaid that faith well. But the choice to take off Sánchez and go to an open 4-4-2, instead off taking off Abgonlahor and settling in to deny Palace space was a disastrous one.
What was just as worrying was the failure to make any further changes. Scott Sinclair and Ayew stayed on the bench while Gabby, Gestede and even Grealish eventually flagged in the sun.
What we learned:
- Tim Sherwood is still wildly uneven in his tactical and personnel choices. Bringing Sánchez in to muffle the Palace attack and Grealish to link up the front play were smart decisions. Putting Gabby in over Ayew or Sinclair was frustrating, but not nearly so much as leaving him on for 90 minutes and taking Sánchez off, or not making any other subs.
- Gabby Abgonlahor needs to be finally dropped from the first-team. It's not just his misses, but his all-around inability to contribute in other ways, with no aerial threat, no hold-up play, very little pressing...the list goes on.
- As disappointing as this loss feels, the performances of Grealish and Traoré suggest that Villa are genuinely in a much better place than they were for the majority of last year. There is an attacking edge and creativity in this side, we just need to find how to incorporate it, along with players such as Gil, Veretout, Sinclair, Ayew and Kozak.
Let me know what you think below. Did Sherwood mess this up or did Traoré's goal justify his decision? Does Gabby have any role in the team in the future? And are we in a better position now than last year?