Christian Benteke's 94th minute penalty gave Aston Villa their first win in eight Premier League matches and lifted Tim Sherwood's side out of the bottom three. Villa played a diamond 4-4-2 and took advantage of a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield in the first half when they controlled the game and were the better side. West Brom did a better job of taking advantage of space in behind the Villa fullbacks in the second half and were marginally the better side after the break. Perhaps a draw would have been the more appropriate result but Villa were excellent in the first half and were rewarded for an adventurous attacking display.
Sherwood opted for an attacking diamond 4-4-2 shape with Charles N'Zogbia playing in the hole behind the front pairing of Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Tom Cleverley and Fabian Delph played the shuttling roles either side of Kieran Westwood at the base of midfield.
Tony Pulis used the same 11 he has in West Brom's last two league fixtures in his normal 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 set up. Saido Berahinho partnered Brown Ideye up front. Craig Gardner, typically a center midfielder, was again used wide on the left in midfield.
Villa exploit 4 v. 2 advantage in middle of midfield
The diamond 4-4-2 versus flat 4-4-2 formation meant Aston Villa had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. West Brom defended in two compact banks of four. Positionally, Claudio Yacob was matched up against Cleverley, Darren Fletcher was matched up against Fabian Delph. However, Yacob and Fletcher defended zones on the pitch in front of their two center backs and rarely stepped out to get tight to Cleverley and Delph.
With that 4 v. 2 advantage in central areas, Villa always had an open spare man to pass to and were therefore easily able to circulate the ball and maintain possession. N'Zogbia posed a concern for the West Brom defense playing in the #10 role. Because Villa were playing with two strikers in Agbonlahor and Benteke, both West Brom center backs had a direct opponent and therefore neither could step forward to help the holding midfielders track N'Zogbia. He was free to move about in the pockets of space between the center backs and central midfielders. He got into one of these areas behind Fletcher and combined with Delph at the tail end of the first half, leading to Delph striking the woodwork.
But the main advantage Villa gained from their numerical superiority in midfield was that it kept the ball in their own attacking half, allowing them to build in confidence and get the fans behind them while keeping West Brom pinned in their own half. A nervous start could have been trouble for a team that had lost its last seven- by controlling the game it allowed a team with shattered confidence to gather a bit of belief.
Villa press well in first half
Sherwood's side pressed high up the pitch when they lost possession in the first half. Cleverley and Delph would immediately get tight to Fletcher and Yacob while the front three pressed West Brom's back four. Villa's fullbacks Alan Hutton and Matthew Lowton remained high up the pitch on West Brom's wide midfielders. As a result, West Brom struggled to find an out ball that would allow them to transition into attack. With Villa's fullbacks high up the pitch, there was space behind them in the channels for West Brom to exploit but they simply couldn't create enough time on the ball to play those passes into the channels (they improved here in the second half, more on that later). As a result their only route forward was to knock long, hopeful passes into Ideye and Berahino who didn't have enough support to do anything with those passes. West Brom completed just 24 of 52 passes into the attacking third in the first half.
Combination of big striker, quick striker troubles West Brom center backs
For all of Villa's tidy passing and build up play in the opening half, their goal came from the most simple, direct football you could imagine. Okore played a pass back to Brad Guzan at the Villa eighteen, prompting the West Brom defense to step forward. Guzan thumped it long to Benteke who used his superior strength to comfortably hold off Chris Brunt and flick a header on behind West Brom's defensive line. The pacey Agbonlahor read the situation, ran onto the flick and comfortably ran past Lescott and McAuley before slotting home. Five minutes later a West Brom goal kick was headed around a couple times before falling for Westwood. West Brom's center backs were high up the pitch because the goal kick had just been taken. Westwood played a simply pass up over the top and Agbonlahor was clean through on goal once again having beaten Lescott for pace. Lescott was able to save off the line but two extremely simple moves from Villa and the pace of Agbonlahor had nearly resulted in a 2-0 Villa lead.
West Brom start to exploit space in channels
With Villa playing a diamond 4-4-2 they weren't getting any natural width from the midfield. It was therefore up to the fullbacks to bomb forward to provide that width in the attacking third. Hutton in particular was playing more like a wing back than a fullback. As I mentioned earlier, this advanced positioning meant there was space for West Brom to exploit in the channels if they could quickly transition from defense to attack. Villa's decent pressing in the first half prevented West Brom from finding an out ball to allow them to transition. It's difficult to keep up a high pressing game for 90 minutes however and in the second half Villa began to tire. As they did West Brom found more time to transition from defense to attack and exploit that space behind the Villa fullbacks.
The screen shot below shows the one example where West Brom were really able to take advantage of the Villa fullbacks' advanced positioning on the counter. Hutton is on the ball and Lowton, who for the most part kept a deeper position than Hutton, is at the edge of the 18 yard box. Hutton plays a diagonal ball into the box that West Brom end up with. In the next sequence Morrison runs into the right channel behind Lowton in acres of space. He's through on goal but his lack of pace allows Lowton and Clark to recover. Morrison played a ball to the back post that Okore does well to cut out but Villa left themselves exposed down the wings when they lost possession.
Because Villa were defending with just a midfield bank of three, West Brom's fullbacks didn't have a direct opponent when they were in possession and the Baggies therefore had a 2 v. 1 advantage in the channels. In the build up to West Brom's equalizer Dawson collected the ball in space on the right channel and played an overlapping Morrison. Morrison whipped in a dangerous low cross across the six yard box that Ciaran Clark did well to snuff out for a corner. West Brom would score from the subsequent corner. Their strategy was clear-funnel the ball wide into the channels and get crosses into the box.
Tony Pulis doesn't offer tactical surprises and today was no different. He makes the individual tasks for his players remarkably simple- they defend in banks of four, attack through the channels and look to exploit set piece opportunities. While he is often derided for it, it is that simplicity that allows his sides to be so well organized and difficult to break down. While it's not often easy on the eye, it's the reason he's never been relegated. Although they were awful in the first half and only marginally improved in the second, they showed that characteristically Pulis ability to get an ugly result. In the end they were let down by a poor decision by Foster to dive in on Lowton after mishandling a cross but I expect Pulis to continue to collect enough points to have West Brom comfortably enough outside the relegation zone by the final week of the season.
Aston Villa put in a much improved showing, particularly in the first half when I thought they were excellent, but for all their tidy play they still don't create enough genuine scoring opportunities. The result shouldn't mask the fact they scored from a route one move in which Benteke looked to be offside and from a penalty that resulted from a mistake by the opposition keeper. They won't get those breaks every week and need to improve their play in the final third. However, they should gain confidence from a good showing and a badly needed three points.