Aston Villa: The Villans set up in what was essentially a deep 4-5-1, with the ability to move into a 4-3-3 on the attack. Tim Sherwood clearly wanted to play on the counter, starting with three defensive midfielders with Jack Grealish and Scott Sinclair prepared to move centrally on the attack to support Rudy Gestede but responsible for covering the wings in defence. In defence Alan Hutton was chosen ahead of Leandro Bacuna at right-back while Joleon Lescott held on to his spot over Ciaran Clark.
Liverpool: The home side set up in a 3-5-2, with Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno providing the width in support of Danny Ings and Daniel Sturridge. A lot of responsibility rested on Lucas Leiva as the lone defensive midfielder to stifle counter-attacks.
First-half: Disaster for Sherwood as early goal ruins plan
Villa's defence collapses in one minute: Sherwood had set his side up to frustrate Liverpool, a defensible choice against a side that has struggled for goals and was under pressure from the home crowd to attack. Unfortunately this plan fell apart instantly when three defensive midfielders were unable to cut out a ball played in to James Milner in front of the defence, Lescott was unable to challenge quickly enough and the ball was in the net after barely a minute, and the Claret and Blue plan was in tatters.
Villa were very lucky not to concede any more as Moreno went rampaging down the left, often eluding Sinclair and the Liverpool midfield kept playing through-balls to Ings and Sturridge down that side. Eventually things stabilized as Carlos Sanchez began to cover that side, making four tackles around the edge of the box in the first-half but the damage had been done with Villa's counter-attacking plan ruined.
Lucas dominates as Grealish and Sinclair disappear: It's a terrible situation for any manager when a defensive plan falls apart in the first minute and they have to decide to change the formation and risk a complete collapse or hope the original plan can still work. Sherwood decided to stick with the initial plan but it failed woefully.
Above all, Grealish and Sinclair were so deep that they were strangled by an excellent Liverpool pressing game. Both were terrible in their dribbling, with just one successful take-on between them in the whole 90 minutes. Sherwood's choice to place Grealish, who has been excellent as a central No.10, on the left, and Sinclair, a natural left winger, on the right looked like a serious error. The full-backs were muffled behind them with only a single counter of note when Sinclair combined with Hutton who swung in a dangerous cross which resulted in Ashley Westwood getting a shot away.
Lucas was the key figure for the Reds, with 6 successful tackles in the first-half (11 in the whole game), 5 in Villa's half as they tried to launch counters. With the wide danger men effectively out of the game, there was no connection to Gestede, as the central midfielders were clumsy with the ball, especially Idrissa Gana.
Second-half: The fightback starts far too late
Sherwood's inactivity proves costly: Villa had been lucky that in an absolutely dreadful first-half Liverpool hadn't been more clinical but the need for a change while the match was still in the balance was obvious. The central midfielders had no composure and the wide attackers were doing nothing. Instead Sherwood decided to make no changes at half-time.
The game immediately fell into the same pattern and this time there was punishment. After Sanchez switched off and almost allowed Milner to score a replica of his first-half goal, he then failed in a challenge that let Sturridge in behind him, combining with Milner to embarrass Micah Richards and volley it home.
At this point Sherwood and Villa had basically handed Liverpool the easiest win they were likely to get all season with not a single change in a dreadfully predictable and broken counter-attacking plan which hadn't been relevant since the first minute. Sanchez was pulled off for Jordan Veretout, a change which at least removed a potential source of errors but did nothing in terms of composure in possession or the lack of effective width, which the introductions of any of Carles Gil, Jordan Ayew or Adama Traoré might have addressed.
Villa's full-backs give undeserved gloss to defeat: At this point it could easily have become a thrashing, but then Alan Hutton showed what might have been had Sherwood been willing to adopt a braver approach after the failure of the defensive plan. As Villa finally advanced up the field on the right, behind Moreno, he managed to wriggle past the covering Lucas and get a lovely ball across the box which Gestede was on hand to turn in. Had Villa been ready to exploit the space behind the Liverpool wing-backs from the beginning instead of the mismatching of Grealish on the wing and Sinclair on the right, there were weaknesses to be exploited.
Instead Villa self-destructed as Gana and Veretout conspired to give the ball away to Sturridge who combined with Philippe Coutinho and slotted the ball away past a static Richards and Lescott. The lack of fitness displayed by Gana was a huge problem despite his undoubted ability and raises issues about the choice to start him.
At this point, Sherwood finally decided it was worth trying to actually exploit the flanks via real width, taking off Grealish and putting Adama out on the right, while Sinclair shifted over to his natural left side. A few minutes later there was again evidence of how this approach could have paid off much earlier when Gana broke away, played an early ball to Jordan Amavi who swung in a fantastic cross where Gestede met it with a thunderous header for his second goal.
The game stretched out for the last 20 minutes, with Liverpool having a whole series of one-on-one chances as the tired Gana and clumsy Veretout left their central defenders exposed while the full-backs went forwards. Villa meanwhile were looking for the pace of Adama on the right, who showed both his potential and limitations by trying 8 take-ons in just over 20 minutes. Four of those were successful (again, Grealish and Sinclair managed just one between them in the whole match) but he couldn't quite fashion a chance and Sherwood refused to take a chance on another attacking substitution, leading to Liverpool being able to play out the last 10 minutes under little pressure.
Conclusions - Sherwood drags side down again
Setting up for the counter and seeing your side concede in just over a minute is one of the greatest challenges a football manager can face, but even so this was a complete tactical failure by Tim Sherwood.
Even his initial line-up, while the intent may have been understandable, was utterly broken by playing Jack Grealish on the left where he was easily corralled (instead of the centre where he has excelled) and Scott Sinclair on the right where he did nothing and deserves to be dropped. With no threat on the wings and three central midfielders who offered nothing in terms of attacking connection, either for reasons of fitness in Gana's case or simple aptitude in that of Sanchez and Westwood, for 60 minutes he let Villa sleepwalk into defeat.
Sherwood deserves no credit for the two goals in the final half an hour, both assisted by the full-backs who had been muffled behind a stupidly deep 4-5-1 for most of the match. All it revealed was that had Sherwood been willing to adapt his plan earlier in order to try and attack the space left by Liverpool's wingback system, Villa could have won this game rather than limping to another loss.
There can simply be no excuses against Stoke on Saturday at Villa Park, with a nearly fully fit squad to choose from. Lescott, Sinclair and Sanchez all deserve to be dropped after their poor performances. Gestede has shown that if Villa can get the ball into the right areas he can score, but does Sherwood have the ability to exploit that?
Right now, Sherwood is dragging a side that has the ability to be midtable into the relegation zone.
What do you guys think? Is this on Sherwood or the players for letting in such soft goals? Who deserves to be in the side and who needs to be dropped? And are any of you already calling for Sherwood Out? Let us know in the comments.