Aston Villa and QPR gained a point a piece in a wild 3-3 draw. This was a spectacularly entertaining contest between two sides that showed the commitment and fight needed to stay in the Premier League but whose inability to establish some control when in a winning position showed why they're in a relegation battle in the first place. In many ways it was the stereotypical Premier League match- fast-paced, open, passionate, chaotic and at times comically sloppy.
Tim Sherwood went with a diamond 4-4-2. Jack Grealish was given his first Premier League start at the top of the diamond just behind the front pairing of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke. Carlos Sanchez played at the bottom of the diamond in front of the back four, Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley played the shuttling roles.
Chris Ramsey opted for a flat 4-4-2 but was forced to make two changes from the side that beat West Brom 4-1 at the weekend. Yun Suk-Young was out with a concussion and was replaced at left back by Clint Hill. Eduardo Vargas picked up a knee injury and was replaced at left midfield by Niko Kranjcar.
First half: Villa midfield diamond dominant
Tactically this was similar to Villa's 2-1 win over West Brom in the league in early March. Just as QPR started today, West Brom used a flat 4-4-2 and Villa were able to take advantage of the narrow positioning of all four of their midfielders to overload the two opposition center midfielders. It was a similar story in the first half today. Joey Barton and Sandro were outnumbered 2 v. 4 in the central midfield zone and as a result Villa were able to stretch them and create gaps to play quick passing combinations. In the 6th minute Delph, Cleverley and Grealish combined excellently in a move that nearly put Benteke through on goal but the Belgian was narrowly offside.
The positioning of Grealish caused QPR real problems. Sandro and Barton picked up Delph and Cleverley, leaving Sanchez without a direct marker deeper in midfield. Because Villa were playing with two up front, both QPR center backs were responsible for a Villa forward. Therefore neither center back could step forward from the back line to get tight to Grealish. With Barton and Sandro with direct opponents in midfield and Onuoha and Caulker marking forwards, Grealish was free to find space between the center midfielders and center backs. The 19 year-old youth product was bright in his first league start. He showed impressive feet in tight areas to maintain possession, was both tidy and expansive with his passing and moved intelligently into dangerous pockets of space to link play forward. By the time he was substituted on 70 minutes he had completed 25 of 27 passes, 10 12 attacking third passes and 4 of 4 successful take ons.
Another important impact of Villa's dominance in the middle of the pitch is that it sucked QPR's wide men into central areas to help defend, opening up space in the channels for their fullbacks, particularly Leandro Bacuna down the right. With QPR being overwhelmed in the middle, Kranjcar continued to tuck inside from his left midfield position to offer support on Cleverley. Bacuna took advantage of the space, rampaging down that channel to receive crossfield passes and providing some good crosses into the box for Benteke and Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor put one of these crosses inches wide of Rob Green's far post.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Villa's first half performance was the partnership of Agbonlahor and Benteke up front. As formations that use three central midfielders have become the norm we see fewer two-man striker partnerships in the Premier League than the days when everyone utilized a 4-4-2. It's therefore something of a rare treat to see a front two connecting as well as Agbonlahor and Benteke did in the first half. At times, Agbonlahor dropped off into deeper positions to get on the ball and found Benteke running in behind the back four. He provided the assist on the counter to Benteke for Villa's second. Prior to that he had played Benteke in behind Isla on the left channel, resulting in a Benteke ball across the face of goal that forced Green into a last ditch save from Grealish.
The combination also gave Villa the option to skip the midfield entirely and play longer balls in to Benteke. Villa attempted a fairly staggering 71 long balls. Benteke was able to use his strength to bring these balls down and lay off for Agbonlahor or provide flicks in behind for Agbonlahor to use his pace to run onto. The strike partnership also meant that Villa always had two bodies in the box when the ball went wide to aim crosses into. One issue that can arise with one striker systems is that a side will get into good positions in wide areas but won't have anyone to aim at in the box.
Second Half: QPR switch to 3-5-2
Five minutes into the second half Chris Ramsey switched to a 3-5-2, a change that enabled his side to tighten the gaps Villa were finding it so easy to get into in the opening half. Karl Henry replaced Kranjcar and moved into center midfield alongside Sandro and Barton. Armand Traore was introduced for Isla and played left wing back, allowing Hill to tuck inside as part of a back three with Onuoha and Caulker. Phillips made the subtle change from right midfielder to right wing back. The change paid dividends almost immediately. Because Villa were playing a narrow diamond in midfield, it meant their fullbacks had little cover in front of them in wide areas. Throughout the second half left back Kieran Richardson found himself isolated against Phillips down QPR's right and twice that match up result in QPR goals. For their equalizer Phillips was able to get into the channel and earn a corner that Hill headed home. For QPR's go-ahead goal he outmuscled Richardson off the ball and got to the end line before cutting back for Austin to score.
It was remarkable how dependent QPR were on crosses and long balls into Zamora and Austin in getting the ball into the attacking third. Phillips summed up this approach. He played a role in all three of QPR's goals but his stats suggest a shockingly poor performance. He attempted as many crosses (10) as he completed passes. He had a pass success rate of just 42%. As a team Villa completed just 37 out of 83 passes into the attacking third and just 64% of their passes overall.
Defensively, the change in shape meant QPR had an extra man in midfield to track the runs of Grealish in the hole. One of the midfielders could sit in front of the back four and deny those spaces the Villa #10 had taken up in the first half. However, Grealish and later his replacement Joe Cole continued to cause problems when they drifted into wide areas to create overloads on the QPR wing backs.
Wild contest. Villa had the better of play but QPR took advantage of set plays and the lack of cover Richardson had at left back. In the end Sherwood was rescued by a brilliant Benteke free kick to cap a fantastic performance from the Belgian. Sherwood showed during his time at Spurs he's not afraid to take risks, fielding quite attacking lineups. He's not rested on his laurels now that he's in a relegation scrap with Villa. The side have played some much more free flowing attacking football than under Paul Lambert- not an especially difficult feat of course given Villa's abysmal record 12 goals from 25 games under Lambert, the second lowest after 25 games in top flight history. Still, Villa's 10 goals from 7 games under Sherwood shows startling improvement on in that aspect of the game and has given supporters some joy in watching their side. But you do still wonder at times if perhaps he throws caution to the wind a bit too much. His sides are very open defensively and there are times when he's in a winning position you wonder if maybe he shouldn't become a bit more pragmatic, especially given the precarious position Villa are in the league. At 2-1 ahead at halftime he could have pushed Grealish and Agbonlahor out to the wings in a 4-3-3 which would have offered more protection for the Villa fullbacks. Instead he continued with the open, swashbuckling approach and it nearly resulted in his side coming away with nothing.