Aston Villa: Tim Sherwood set up with a modified 4-2-3-1 but with some interesting choices in the absence of the injured Jack Grealish and Adama Traoré, along with the absence of Gabriel Abgonlahor. He chose to give Leandro Bacuna another chance in an advanced position on the right, from which he often floated inside, while Scott Sinclair remained wide out left. Ashley Westwood was given the freedom to move forward by the hustling presence of Carlos Sánchez and Idrissa Gana. Finally, Alan Hutton returned at right-back.
Sunderland: Dick Advocaat played a type of defensively orientated 4-3-3 with Jermaine Defoe and Jeremain Lens supporting Danny Graham, backed up by a trio of more defensive midfielders and very conservative full-backs, with the wide men having responsibility for tracking back.
First-half: Villa dominate via flanks but open to counter
High full-backs provide threat but also vulnerability: Perhaps reassured by the presence of two defensive midfielders in Sánchez and Gana, Villa's full-backs played incredibly high up the pitch, especially Jordan Amavi on the left. It was an effective threat as seen by the second Villa goal where Amavi combined with Sinclair cutting in, but also a vulnerability - the free-kick for Sunderland was given away by Amavi as he clumsily came in from behind as he came back from the attack.
Struggles in the final third: Though Villa were dominating in possession and passing, they found it very difficult to play through the centre, where Sunderland's central midfielders remained compact and channeled the play out wide. Rudy Gestede again seemed unable to get the upper hand over the central defenders. Meanwhile Villa's attacking midfielders struggled to really connect higher up the pitch - Sinclair came inside to receive balls but played very few, Westwood was tidy but didn't attempt a single ball into the box in the first-half and Bacuna drifted erratically. The lack of Grealish, who links the play into the box so well, was dearly felt.
Second-half: Sherwood fails to find key
Sunderland changes provide instant impact: At half-time Advocaat switched Graham for Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole for Ola Toivonen who instantly added a far more attacking edge to Sunderland. In only the 52nd minute Toivonen found Lens, who had got in behind Amavi going high up the field again, Clark sold himself far too easily and the ball was in the net. Again, a second-half change had an instant impact against a Villa side that was too careless, especially in the full-back area. The priority should've been to blunt the Sunderland attack after the break but there was a lack of maturity on the pitch.
Fitness issues and lack of subs: As the second-half went on, Villa began to dominate again but many players seemed too tired to take advantage. Amavi and Gana both seemed dead on their feet and often chose to float a ball into Gestede who had another bad game. Carles Gil was introduced and provided spark in the middle of the field, but he was playing balls that were too quick for his tired colleagues. Libor Kozak, Jordan Ayew and Jordan Veretout were all sitting on the bench and could've been introduced to try and break the deadlock and it seems astonishing that Sherwood didn't believe any of them were worth a go.
Hutton grows into the game: A small note, but while everyone else looked dead on their feet, Alan Hutton made a number of fantastic runs into the box in the second-half and had anyone picked him out, could easily have scored the winner.
Carles Gil for Leandro Bacuna (76 min) - A sensible change, bringing on the assured Gil for the largely ineffective Bacuna, though it did raise the question of why he wasn't playing from the start. Almost paid off instantly as he darted into the box, though Gil let the ball run too far and got a silly yellow when trying to get the penalty. Overall the Spaniard did well but he needed someone else who was fresh to pick up on his passes.
That raises the bigger issue, which is why was there only one substitution for the second week in a row. Gestede was playing badly, Gana was clearly exhausted, Sánchez began to drift off the pace, but Sherwood refused to pull any of them off to gamble on one of Kozak, Ayew or Veretout.
What we learned:
- For all of the focus on the attack and the need for another centre-forward, it's defensively where Villa are throwing games away. Two goals at home should be enough to win a match. Amavi is still learning but needs to be told when to go forward and when to stay back for a while, and Richards and Clark both throw themselves rashly into challenges. Another centre-back option would be great, and Hutton deserves to stay in the side and provide an older head.
- Sherwood has a serious substitution problem. Charitably this could be interpreted as faith in his players on the pitch. Uncharitably, it could be interpreted as lack of ideas. The worst possibility is that Sherwood does not believe in the signings that he didn't personally select, and prefers to persist with Gestede or Gabby when they're not working out.
- If this side ends up in a relegation battle, it will be due to shooting themselves in the foot. They were clearly higher quality than Sunderland, and with Grealish and Traoré in the side this probably would have been an easy victory. But the Premier League is brutally competitive and mistakes do get punished. Amavi is learning that, Sánchez and Clark should already have learned it already. But most of all Sherwood should know it, and it´s his task to coach the kind of stupid mistakes we saw against Crystal Palace and Sunderland out of them.