Aston Villa (1) vs. Sheffield United (0) – Off in the Right Direction

There was a strange sense of déjà vu when these two teams opened the 2020/2021 season at Villa Park with the same fixture that had resumed the 2019/2020 coronavirus interrupted season. That dismal game finished 0-0 but was infamous for the goal that wasn’t counted!

That Villa team, still very shaky after a string of defeats before the break (ending with a 4-0 spanking at Leicester), once more demonstrated their fragility by conceding an own goal of utter ineptitude. Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland caught a harmless cross on his line but collided with his own striker Keinan Davis and clearly (to television viewers) stepped back over the line with the ball. Somehow, none of the Hawk-Eye system’s seven cameras had a clear view and referee Michael Oliver pointed at his phone to indicate that he had no message from the Goal Decision System (GDS) – verdict therefore, “no goal”!

This piece of trivia (the only known error by the system in 9,000 games) would have been a meaningless anecdote, if not for that embarrassing “no goal” being the difference between Villa losing 1-0 and getting a 0-0 tie, thus collecting a point. Bournemouth were most aggrieved because without that point the Villans would have been demoted and the Cherries would have stayed in the Premier League with a superior goal difference.

In that context, it was no coincidence that the two most significant signings of Villa’s off-season were Emi Martinez and Ollie Watkins. A world class goalkeeper who had most recently proved himself as a more-than-able replacement for Burnd Leno at Arsenal, sharing in the honors with an F.A. Cup Winners medal by beating Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley, Martinez was the antithesis of Nyland. Talented, experienced, brave, unflappable, and consistent between the sticks, and an excellent distributor of the ball. In other words, not a flashy flake!

As for Watkins, the comparison with Davis is similarly stark. While Davis is a fan favorite for his grit and effort, his greatest contribution to the team comes as a disruptor, certainly not as a goal threat. Watkins, in contrast, arrives with a reputation from his time with Brentford in the Championship League as a young, fast, skillful player with a scent for goals. The 25 he scored in 46 league fixtures last year was almost enough to lift them into the Premier League and certainly met the need that Villa had, enough to lay out over $30 million for him.

It did not take long for Dean Smith and his management team to see a return on investment. In the first minute Watkins sprayed out a lovely pass to Matty Cash, another Villa signing, who was charging from his fullback position down the right wing. His excellent cross to just wide of the far post was tantalizingly close enough for John McGinn to reach, almost directing into a shot on goal.

Just about ten minutes later, Watkins was equally sharp, turning on the burners to round Brentford’s center-back and captain, John Egan, in anticipation of a delightful pass down the line from Tyrone Mings, fully 50 yards from just outside his own penalty area. From defense to offense in a flash, with the fleet of foot striker able to bring down the pass and shield the ball from a very solid defender. Egan, knowing he was exposed, with no support close by, tried to hold onto Watkins’ shirt, arm, whatever he could grab. The referee’s assistant who had a clear view immediately flagged, and the referee blew his whistle. While Egan pled his case that it was fifty-fifty (Watkins had pushed back), the ref waited for a reply from the VAR official to get a ruling on whether it was a foul and whether it prevented a scoring opportunity. Guilty on both counts, and Egan was on his way for an early shower.

Instead of increasing Villa’s grip on the game, the immediate effect was the opposite. Since the Blades’ only realistic hope was to hold on for a draw, they brought on Ampadu for their best scoring threat, McGoldrick, and organized themselves into two lines of defenders from touchline to touchline. Possession without space was yielding no real opportunities and lots of frustration for Villa, and soon, a seeming disaster. After 30 minutes or so, Sheffield gained possession just outside their own penalty area and broke for a counterattack. Oliver Burke burst down the left, cut inside at the penalty area and played an excellent pass to defender Chris Basham cutting in from the right. Targett was caught unaware of the threat coming from behind him and a clumsy attempt of a tackle left Basham spreadeagled and the ref pointing at the spot.

I suspect that most goalies would prefer that their first opportunity to shine with a new team would be something other than a penalty kick. Martinez’s demeanor gave no suggestion of any such concern. As for his response to a solidly struck shut shot three feet off the ground to the corner by Lundstram, it was perfect. With feet firmly on the line, he leant to his left and propelled himself to his right, comfortably turning the shot around the post. The team’s response was joy combined with relief – they had the keeper they needed!

The team proceeded with the confidence of having the man advantage without the pressure of playing catch-up and, so importantly, faith in the man between the sticks. Still, the gritty Yorkshiremen did not make it easy. Eventually, boss Dean Smith realized he needed to do something to change things up with no good chances created in sixty minutes. His decision to bring on Keinan Davis made sense in that he might be able create more space for Watkins. That necessitated sacrificing a midfield player and though he had done nothing specific to justify getting the yank, Connor Hourihane was the man chosen.

It was obvious that he was not pleased. That his replacement occurred at the point that the Villa had just won a corner was, likely, particularly galling, taking corner-kicks being one of his specialties. Evidence to support this assertion was soon captured on video. With Hourihane leaving the field from that corner, he walked, head down, behind the goal. What he failed to see was Targett’s placement of the corner being met by Mings, moving to the near post, making just the right amount of contact for the ball to arc over the crowd behind him and down at the far post where Konsa had found space and rose to meet the ball. The placement of the header was perfect, down and back across the face of the net where goalie Ramsdale was scurrying from. His dive backwards had no chance as the ball bounced up into the corner of the net. 1-0 to the Villa!

Meanwhile, Hourihane continued his walk while his teammates celebrated a few yards away from him. Of course, his manager was likely pleased that the change brought the goal he wanted and, as a bonus, saved him from being second-guessed about removing his team’s best dead-ball threat.

Villa continued to press for a second, insurance, goal, but for all their possession and 18 shots, only two were on target, while Sheffield were not able to achieve even a second shot on goal after their penalty miss. In the process, Villa were well represented by the industrious Douglas Luiz in midfield, lots of hustle and invention by John McGinn, fine running by Watkins, and an almost mistake-less defense. The final whistle arrived as a relief for Villa, and maybe even for the Blades.

What saved the game, from an entertainment perspective, were the spells of Jack-magic, as Grealish zigged and zagged until he fashioned enough space to shoot that resulted in at least two close calls, both just the wrong side of each post. Similarly impressive was his ability to gain possession from an opponent’s attack and to slither out of trouble leading to dangerous breaks or over-anxious foes being sucked into getting yellow cards. I think it is safe to say that, in this respect, he is in a class of his own.

On reflection, this victory in the first game of the season was pivotal for the Villa looking to avoid a repeat their stumble out of the gate of last year. It was also a great boost for those who made the commitment to improving the squad. It was not pretty, as ten-men games are never destined to be, but hugely significant. Sheffield United, on the other hand, could take some satisfaction for making a game of it.

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Conor Hourihane, Douglas Luiz, John McGinn; Trezeguet, Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish (captain).

SUBS: Jed Steer, Neil Taylor, Kortney Hause, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba, Anwar El Ghazi, Keinan Davis

SHEFFIELD UNITED (3-5-2): Aaron Ramsdale; Chris Basham, John Egan (captain), Jack O’Connell; George Baldock, John Lundstram, Sander Berge, John Fleck, Enda Stevens; David McGoldrick, Oliver Burke.

SUBS: Wes Foderingham, Ethan Ampadu, Jack Robinson, Oliver Norwood, Ben Osborn, Oli McBurnie, Billy Sharp.

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