Tactical Analysis: Aston Villa 0-1 Swansea

After a difficult afternoon, Bafetimbi Gomis turned hero as he turned in a brilliant Jefferson Montero low ball across the face of goal in the 87th minute to give the visiting Swansea a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in an entertaining game.

Gary Monk went with the same diamond 4-4-2 formation he's used in recent weeks and that was so impressive in the first half of their slightly unfortunate 1-0 defeat to Liverpool on Monday. The only change he made to that side was bringing in Frederico Fernandez, who returned to the club after flying back to Argentina for personal reasons, for Jordi Amat in the center of defense.

Tim Sherwood opted for a flat 4-4-2 with Gabriel Agbonlahor partnering Christian Benteke up front and Tom Cleverley playing alongside Fabian Delph in midfield. Cleverley went off with an injury and was replaced with Carlos Sanchez in the 25th minute and Villa kept the same shape.

With the diamond 4-4-2 versus flat 4-4-2 the teams had clear numerical advantages in different areas of the pitch. Swansea enjoyed a 4 versus 2 advantage in the middle of midfield, giving them the impetus to control possession and overload Aston Villa through the center of the pitch. Aston Villa enjoyed a 2 v. 1 advantage in the channels, meaning they had opportunities to overload the Swansea fullbacks with overlapping runs and get balls into the box from wide areas. This game had three distinct tactical phases: in the first phase Swansea's advantage in midfield won out and they overran Villa in that zone, creating several good chances that they failed to conver; in the second phase Villa disrupted Swansea's rhythm and looked the more dangerous side attacking through the channels where they had the numerical advantage; in the third phase Monk switched to a 4-2-3-1, nullifying Villa's dangerous overlapping fullback runs and creating a threat through Jefferson Montero down the left.

Phase 1: Swansea use 4 v. 2 advantage in midfield to control possession

Just as they did in their defeat to Liverpool, Swansea controlled possession and had the better of play in the first half. Villa looked to press the two deepest lying Swansea center midfielders, Jack Cork and either Ki or Jonjo Shelvey and played a high line to to mitigate the space between the midfield and back four where Gylfi Siggurdsson was playing. However, with the 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle, Swansea were able to comfortably play through the press, get players on the ball in behind Delph and Cleverley then look for passes in behind Villa's extremely high defensive line. Within the opening 10 minutes Swansea were fractionally offside twice but it looked like only a matter of time before they'd exploit Villa's loose midfield and risky high line.

With Delph and Cleverley overloaded in midfield, Charlez N'Zogbia and Scott Sinclair were forced to tuck inside from their wide midfield positions to offer defensive help in central zones. This created loads of space down the channels for Swansea's overlapping fullbacks Neil Taylor and Kyle naughton to get forward. In the sixth minute Shelvey and Taylor played an excellent 1-2 down the left channel that resulted in Taylor getting to the byline and cutting back for Gomis 8 yards from goal. Gomis put his shot straight at Brad Guzan but the buildup from Swansea was excellent. Unfortunately for Monk, good build first half build up play but wasteful finishing has become a theme the last two games. Gomis looked to be struggling for confidence. While he uses his strength well in the build up and works hard, the fluid 4-4-2 system has created a number of chances for him that he hasn't taken well enough. It's difficult not to speculate whether the Liverpool result may have been different if Wilfried Bony were still at the club. Hopefully Gomis' winner will provide him with a boost of confidence. He's shown in France he has the ability to be a prolific striker. Under this diamond 4-4-2 he'll likely continue to get plenty of chances.

Phase 2: Villa dangerous down the flanks

As good as Swansea have been in the first halves of their last two fixtures, there's been a worrying trend both that they haven't converted that dominance into goals and that they haven't maintained the dominance into the second half. Out of the gates from the second half Villa looked the more energetic side. They disrupted the rhythm Swansea had in the first half, breaking up play in midfield better and limiting Swansea's space. Monk's side defended with a narrow midfield three of Cork, Shelvey and Ki. Sigurdsson dropped in just in front of them to pick up Villa's deepest center midfielder or an advancing center back while Routledge and Gomis stayed higher up the pitch. This meant Swansea were defending quite narrow in midfield and that there was no one to track the Villa fullbacks when they advanced forward. The Swansea fullbacks were therefore overloaded 2 v. 1 in the channels- they were occupied by both the Villa wingers and fullbacks. Villa began to take advantage of these 2 v. 1's in the channels by getting the fullbacks forward and having them overlap the wingers. They were able to get towards the byline and hit dangerous balls in from wide areas. This was a real threat given they had a dominate physical presence in Benteke to aim at in the box.

In the 57th left back Alan Hutton overlapped Sinclair down the left and played a driven cross into Benteke. He was able to use his strength to hold off a defender and knock the ball down for Agbonlahor. His effort was blocked well by Taylor but the move illustrated where Villa were their most dangerous.

Swansea go 4-2-3-1

After about a 20 minute spell of Villa creating good chances down the channels, Monk made a substitution in the 64th minute introducing Montero for Sigurdsson. Montero played wide on the left, Routledge moved to a right attacking midfield position, Shelvey moved forward into a #10 role and Swansea played a 4-2-3-1. They defended in banks, Montero and Routledge tracked the runs of the Villa fullbacks and mitigated the danger Sherwood's side had posed in the channels. The game became tighter, neither side really created any great chances. Montero posed the biggest threat for Swansea, his quickness on the ball caused problems for Leandro Bacuna, a center back playing out of position at right back.

Monk made a substitution that proved the deciding factor in the 85th minute, bringing on Nathan Dyer for Shelvey. Dyer played wide right and Routledge moved back inside to the #10 role. Two minutes after the change Routledge collected the ball in the middle of midfield and played a clever outside of the right foot pass to Montero in space down the left in behind Bacuna. Montero played an incredible first time pass with the outside of his right foot across the face of goal for Gomis to slide home after using great strength to hold off Ciaran Clark. Monk's personnel and tactical changes had paid off. The change in shape to 4-2-3-1 had stifled Villa as they were on the ascendency and the introduction of Montero on the left proved a game changer.


Tim Sherwood was accused at times of being tactically naive last season at Spurs. Those accusations were often leveled when Sherwood played an open 4-4-2 that left his side too open and outnumbered in midfield. His decision to play a flat 4-4-2 against a side he knew would likely play a midfield diamond seemed a strange one given how Sherwood chose to have the team defend. Rather than operating in deeper banks of four, they pressed with Cleverley and Delph in midfield and played a high line. This left gaps of space for Swansea to to easily move into and collect possession, where they could play dangerous passes in behind the Villa high line. That the score remained level at halftime was a product of Swansea's inability to finish- Villa were fortunate not be trailing.

They improved in the second half and were more compact defensively. However, Sherwood maintained the same shape and tactics throughout, whether his side were being outplayed or on the ascendency.

Monk on the other hand reacted to changes in how the contest was taking shape. When his side lost their first half dominance and were being dominated in the channels, he changed to a shape with wide midfielders to give his fullbacks defensive cover in the channels.

This was a fluid and enjoyable contest between two sides playing decent football. Monk will be slightly concerned his side's dominance of late hasn't been translated into enough goals, Sherwood will feel Villa missed a chance to get vital home points in their battle for safety but both managers can take positives from today's match.

Tactical Analysis: Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom

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.