First-half: Lescott, Gabby are decent, everyone else lost
After two weeks of preparation and Rémi Garde saying he would find "11 players ready to fight for the shirt" within barely 15 minutes it was clear there was still no spine to Aston Villa, beyond Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joleon Lescott.
Stoke's trident of Xherdan Shaqiri, Giannelli Imbula and Marko Arnautovic repeatedly stormed through the midfield in the opening period. There was no pressure from the initial line of Gabby, Carles Gil and Jordan Veretout and no effective challenges from the deeper midfield line either so that Stoke got a constant supply of crosses in and were easily entering the Villa penalty area.
Stoke played heavily down the wings in the first-half via Shaqiri and Arnautovic and managed to repeatedly enter the Villa box with little resistance but Lescott managed to cut out several balls. Image from FourFourTwo.com's StatsZone.
Villa were lucky that Stoke's delivery was generally poor and that John Walters and Ibrahim Afellay were both a step behind their counterparts but even so Mark Bunn had to scramble away a ball that Jores Okore almost looped into his own goal.
Joleon Lescott defied those calling for his permanent imprisonment in a hanging cage to be pecked to death by carrion birds by repeatedly cutting out balls out at vital moments. Aly Cissokho was doing a reasonable job on Shaqiri but Alan Hutton was being tortured by Arnautovic and Imbula with very little protection from Leandro Bacuna.
Going the other way Villa seemed equally lost.
Gabby at least was making the best of his skillset, peeling out to the left and hoping to run at Phil Bardsley but that required someone to surge into the middle. Anyone who's watched Dele Alli and Tottenham in recent weeks can see how effective a central midfielder running into those spaces can be.
Carles Gil was playing behind Agbonlahor but never managed to get into the box to attack a ball, instead either playing sideways balls in Stoke's half or making unsuccessful crosses into the box. He was rightly substituted for Scott Sinclair in the second-half, whose direct running set up Villa's goal. Image from FourFourTwo.com StatZone.
Veretout and Gil were the men tasked with doing so but they were dismal. Garde must be going mad - these are the two players who he might expect to add a flash of skill, awareness, precision, the elements needed to turn a half-chance into a goal. Instead they repeatedly gave the ball away and failed to get into the box. Both took one shot each which they sent well wide.
Similarly to Gil, Jordan Veretout never drove towards the Stoke box, instead playing short passes around the wings and just two poor passes and one shot around the box. Image from FourFourTwo.com StatsZone.
The fear that gripped Villa was summed up neatly when Alan Hutton received a yellow for time wasting for a throw-in at the edge of the Villa half just before half-time. The entire team looked lost and paralyzed.
Second half: Shaqiri takes charge, Villa collapse feebly
Stoke simply couldn't continue to be so bad against a Villa side putting up so little resistance and they promptly killed the match.
Shaqiri was the key man as he began to drift inside and to both flanks, perhaps under instructions from Mark Hughes. When he clipped a ball from deep midfield to Bardsley coming down the Villa left, Ashley Westwood was caught a step behind and hung a foot into his midriff for a clear penalty which Arnautovic put away.
Xherdan Shaqiri changed his style of play between the first and second half. In the first-half he stayed down the right, where Cissokho mostly managed to control him. In the second-half he began to swap sides with Arnautovic and provided the pass which led to the penalty and the assist for the second goal. Image from FourFouTwo.com StatsZone.
Just a few minutes later Shaqiri was at it again as he buzzed out left. Hutton made a lame excuse at a challenge which the Swiss floated away from with barely a wave of his boot before hanging a cross to Arnautovic, with the two having cleverly switched sides. Bunn misjudged the ball and ended up tangled in his own net while Lescott and Cissokho bounced off the tall Austrian who managed to chest the ball into the goal on his second attempt.
At this point Scott Sinclair came on for Gil and offered one surging run with a cross that just eluded Gabby, providing more mobility in a few seconds than Villa's attack had managed in the entire first-half.
But after that Villa collapsed just as they did against Liverpool, letting Stoke run through huge gaps for a twenty minute spell in which the Potters should have racked up a much bigger lead.
Hutton and Idrissa Gana were particular culprits, the former for repeatedly going so far upfield that he left Okore no safe option to pass to, the latter for a series of weak challenges that let runners straight at the defence but the entire team looked lost and ready to be thrashed.
So it was a shock even to the Villa players when Sinclair launched a Villa attack in the 78th minute which led to a goal. Again collecting from deep he laid the ball off to Cissokho whose cross bounced into sub Rudy Gestede who controlled the ball with the help of his hand. The ball bounced out to Bacuna who showed that even after a terrible performance if you're in the right place you can score, as he drove it low beyond Jack Butland.
The last ten minutes were very open as Villa essentially pushed into a 4-1-4-1 with only Gana holding in midfield. Stoke couldn't take advantage of the space although Bunn was forced to push Okore's header wide. But Villa were equally poor and managed nothing more than one weak Gestede header.
Analysis - Garde fails to change things
This match after two weeks preparation does not reflect well on Rémi Garde and the coaching staff, who clearly believe they don't have enough talent in the squad to even try and reverse this spiral of doom.
Villa were lucky not to be thrashed in the same manner as by Liverpool. They went out with basically the same formation which was utterly broken in defence and attack. The midfield went missing for the entire game, leaving Gabby and the defence with no support or protection.
Hutton and Okore were both poor, while Lescott and Cissokho were reasonable apart from the second goal - a fairly crucial exception.
But the most frustrating thing was to see how Scott Sinclair´s direct running and clear eagerness to play changed things while Jordan Lyden and André Green both sat on the bench. Perhaps Garde doesn't want to throw them straight into a toxic environment but Stoke were poor and had there been a positive core on the pitch from the beginning this could have ended differently.
The side now has to see serious changes for the upcoming matches. Sinclair deserves another shot if only because no-one else has taken theirs, Gestede and Jordan Ayew are desperately needed and Jordan Lyden should be on from the beginning. If not, Villa will be in for a series of big losses.