Gabriel Agbonlahor below par as Aston Villa slide to 3-1 defeat vs. Everton
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there was more than a hint of panic about Remi Garde's team selection for Villa's 3-1 defeat to Everton on Tuesday. The rarely seen 3-5-2 was deployed, surely designed to contain opposition in decent form. But within the shift in formation there were also surprising individual decisions.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was recalled, while Jores Okore was not one of the three central defenders chosen to start. Garde kept faith with Leandro Bacuna and Gabby Abgonlahor, with fit again centre-forward Rudy Gestede remaining on the bench. With no Carles Gil, Jordan Veretout or Scott Sinclair -- who looked sharp against Stoke on Saturday -- in the starting XI, the team was bereft of creativity and width in midfield.
Predictably, the 3-5-2 soon evolved into a 5-3-2 with the wing-backs often pinned back. The tactical change was virtually rendered redundant after just five minutes anyway when Ramiro Funes Mori headed Everton in front from a corner. It doesn't really matter how many centre-backs you have on the field if they're incapable of defending a simple set-piece. When Aaron Lennon tapped in on 30 minutes, the game was lost -- another league fixture out of Villa's reach by half-time.
The second half, and its closing stages, struck a sombre note. With a planned protest urging supporters to walk out of the stadium on 74 minutes, seats were emptying as Villa sought a consolation goal. In actual fact, with their team three goals down after an hour, many fans had already departed by then and the attendance was already under 30,000 in any case. The Villa Park atmosphere was duly subdued when Rudy Gestede pulled a goal back late on.
It was a glimpse at the club's future, or immediate future at least: a resigned and reduced fan base watching a doomed team scrape around to salvage vestiges of pride.
Mathematics mean Villa won't be officially relegated for a few weeks yet and the inconsistent form of the clubs above them might keep Garde's team limping along into April. But it doesn't look pretty: Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea are three of Villa's next four opponents.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Brad Guzan, 6 -- Recalled to the side. Perhaps could have done better with the third goal when he didn't get enough distance on his clearing punch. Made two sharp saves in the second half, one in injury time.
DF Alan Hutton, 5 -- Effort can never be faulted but predictably, he didn't offer enough quality going forward. The switch from right-back to wing-back was never likely to suit him.
DF Micah Richards, 4 -- Outjumped by Funes Mori for the first goal, outpaced by Kevin Mirallas when he set up Lennon for the second. Finished with a bloody nose.
DF Joleon Lescott, 5 -- Okay, but nothing more. Didn't get close enough to Lennon to prevent him scoring the crucial second goal.
DF Ciaran Clark, 5 -- Booked after just 13 minutes and discipline remains a weakness of his game.
DF Aly Cissokho, 6 -- Was able to provide some decent service with crosses. Completely missing from the left-back area when Funes Mori had space on the right to cross for Lukaku to score.
MF Leandro Bacuna, 5 -- It's not clear why the Dutchman remains a fixture in the Villa midfield following another ineffective display. Surely would have been better used as the right wing-back.
MF Idrissa Gana, 7 -- Villa's best player on the night. Won more tackles than anyone else and while he's not exactly subtle, he at least displays a drive and desire to win.
MF Ashley Westwood, 6 -- Tested Joel Robles in the first half and managed two off-target strikes in the second. Substituted late on after taking a knock.
FW Gabriel Agbonlahor, 4 -- Did very little to put the Everton defence under pressure. Substituted just after the hour.
FW Jordan Ayew, 5 -- Back in the line-up after a three-match ban. Showed flashes of attacking menace in the closing stages but no goal threat.
FW Rudy Gestede, 7 (on for Agbonlahor, 66") -- Really should have started instead of the player he replaced. Took his chance well, heading beyond Robles and high into the net.
MF Jordan Veretout, 6 (on for Westwood, 70") -- Didn't have long to impress but set up Gestede's consolation with a first-time cross from the right wing. It was a perfect delivery.
Kevin Hughes covered Premier League football at Match magazine and was later deputy editor of Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @KevHughesie.