Sheffield U (1) vs Aston Villa (0) – Villa lose their way at Bramall Lane

Manager Dean Smith could not have welcomed a second trip to Yorkshire a few days apart.  With his reworked squad and little time to prepare, he knew that Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United team was better than their record and the difference between success and failure in any Premier League game was razor thin. 

Still, his Villa’s confidence must have been up on the back of an excellent team performance at Leeds on the weekend and, no doubt, he must have felt compelled to reward the lads who started at Elland Road with a chance to make it six points from the two games.  In fact, he could hardly justify demoting any one of that eleven.

The squad had a lively start, with most of the action coming down the left wing where El Ghazi looked imperious.  The only surprise was that when the first real opportunity arrived, it came from the right.    A well-worked attack was started by Ramsey who picked out Elmohamady already making himself available.  The fullback pushed the ball further out to Traoré on the wing and, then, created some indecision for the defense by running an outside route as the winger cut inside.

With nobody interested in engaging the talented dribbler he had time to set and hit a low blast from just outside the area.  That was blocked but, since it came off a defender’s foot, the ball ricocheted almost straight up.  The irrepressible Watkins rose highest, and he directed his header to a spot that McGinn was able to reach faster than anyone, just to the right side of goal.  The Scot, true to form, held off the closest defender who was forced to back-off lest he draw a penalty.  Ramsdale did well to rush off his line but John had enough time and space to find the corner of the net, volleying with his right foot.  Ah, undoubtedly not John’s best foot and he pulled the shot wide!  There was 10 minutes and 6 seconds on the clock and that should have been the lead.  McGinn threw his hands in the air in frustration.

That looked even worse when, soon after, the mostly brilliant Martinez decided to venture away from his goal area to punch clear a high hanging cross only to get almost nothing on it.  McGoldrick was perfectly located, twelve yards out to lace a shot on the volley that appeared goal-bound only for Elmohamady to put himself in the way, much to his discomfort. 

The next few minutes featured the many faces of Ollie Watkins.  First, he timed a break down the inside left channel to run onto an El Ghazi pass and directed a shot at the far corner of the net that Ramsdale did well to go down and smother at the second attempt.  He next popped up when McGinn lofted a probing ball down the inside right channel for Villa’s excellent off-season acquisition to compete for.  No problem, he rose effortlessly above the fray to flick on to the head of Traoré standing just outside 6-yard box with only Ramsdale between him and a goal.  With all four corners of the net available, the winger headed over the bar.

Instead of showing frustration at being at the wrong end of these great chances, Watkins ran defenders ragged and when a teammate was caught up field, he did a great job of covering.  Also, for someone with a slight frame, he gives and takes hits as well as anyone.  Do not be surprised to find that Gareth Southgate was looking at Ollie when he watched two consecutive Villa games (Leicester and Leeds), especially with Harry Kane an injury concern.

The failure to take advantage of these early opportunities was a reminder of how important that first goal has been to the Villa this season.  It may have contributed to the Villans trying too hard to score.  It was one thing to see McGinn challenging for a loose ball up field and then scooting back, it was another to see Nakamba rushing to press McGoldrick near the halfway line.  A quick turn by the very experienced Irish forward left Nakamba slithering on his butt and the ball sprayed out to Baldock open on the right wing.  By the time Nakamba regained his feet, and raced over, Baldock had cut inside to shoot, and Villa’s back line was now focused on the shooter.  Nobody thought to watch McGoldrick who had headed directly towards the goal.  When Baldock’s shot went horribly wide of Martinez’s right post Villa’s back line relaxed.  Not so McGoldrick who was behind Elmohamady and in position to bounce a shot over the diving keeper.  At 30 minutes, it was Sheffield United 1 Aston Villa 0.  As Smith was all too well aware, Villa had yet to turn a deficit into a win all season.  Even against the Premier League’s cellar occupant, it was not going to be easy. Without Grealish and Cash, it could be impossible. 

That said, Traoré almost did the unthinkable.  He came within a whisker of tying the game within a couple of minutes.  Elmohamady joined in an attack on the right and zinged over a low cross that Traoré masterfully controlled just outside the box.  There were plenty of Blades in red and white shirts waiting.  No problem, the Burkinabe boy (his boyish grin justifies the moniker) put on a dribbling show that paralyzed his foes and slid the ball past the transfixed Ramsdale.  It was the West Brom game all over, except that instead of rolling just inside the post, the ball inexplicably went the wrong side.  

The balance of the half featured mostly one way traffic towards the Blades’ goal, with the red and whites being very resolute and disciplined.  There were no line-up changes at halftime and the second half started in a similar vein.  Within a couple of minutes, Villa had another excellent opportunity to score.  A probing cross by Targett bounced on the edge of the area and Watkins, who was closer, left it to Traoré who had a better angle, and he lashed a low drive that Jagielka did excellently to slide across and block.

Five minutes later, the Villa got yet another chance with a play down the leftwing with El Ghazi sliding the ball for Targett to curve over a cross with lots of pace and whip.  Watkins rose between two defenders to deliver just enough cushion that it was redirected towards the top right corner.  Ramsdale stared over his left shoulder and could only watch as it came right back out off the bar.  An inch lower or an inch to the left and it would have rebounded into the goal.

That header was a thing of beauty and when it failed to tie the game, it appeared that it was not the Villans’ day.  Then, from nothing, the tide changed again.  After a brief attack by the Blades, the Villa broke out from their penalty area and Konsa saw that El Ghazi had a good head of steam going in the inside left channel.  The center back volleyed a bouncing ball that the Dutchman managed to cushion with his back and over his head to run onto.  With no defender behind him, Jagielka knew he had to stop El Ghazi and he slid towards the ball.  The problem was that El Ghazi was still motoring, and he neatly chipped the ball over the defender’s legs.  What he could not do was prevent being clattered as his legs were taken out from under him.

After much VAR review Jagielka was given his marching orders for fouling to prevent a clear opportunity to score.  Most fans would have preferred that El Ghazi had not been fouled and continue to make the most of the opportunity, but that was not an option.  As for the impact of the red card, it may, or may not, have been an advantage for the Villans.  It certainly increased the home team’s concentration on preventing the Villa from scoring as it had when they visited Villa Park, back on September 21, last year.  Coincidentally, it was the same call, just a different center back.  On that occasion it took the Villa 52 minutes to muster the goal they needed to win.  Now, they had only 35 minutes to perform the same task. 

When they did not conjure up another serious opportunity over the next ten minutes, Dean Smith let his subs know to get ready.  Barkley came on for Nakamba and Sanson for Ramsey.  Both changes were logical in that they replaced the incumbents with a greater scoring threat.  Of course, there are also the unintended consequences.  It certainly takes subs some time to adjust to the flow of the game and get into the groove.  It also tends to highlight why they were subs and not in the starting line-up.

While Nakamba’s superior defensive abilities were not going to be missed, Barkley’s lack of quickness diminished his potential to score or create a goal.  That his favorite pass was back to the person who just passed to him also suggested that he has lost confidence.

Sanson is an established goal-scorer at a high level but is still adjusting to the more rugged Premier League style.  He was bundled out of possession with no whistle a couple of times and lost control when having to rush.

Neither made any significant contribution during their close to 30 minutes of play.  There were two more excellent chances that came Villa’s way before the final whistle.  The first came in the 76th minute and started with the usual Mings to Targett to a ball down the leftwing combination. This yielded a throw-in that El Ghazi worked for a McGinn cross to the far post, curving away from the goalkeeper.  Watkins outjumped Enders but was only able to sky the ball a few yards closer to goal where Bryan was waiting.  No problem for Ollie as he had a couple of yards to bound even higher to beat this defender and slot the ball down to Traoré who was standing a yard away in the 6-yard box with a step on Ramsdale and Ampadu.  The winger’s pulse raced and his timing was off and he bounced the ball against the defender who scrambled it away.

The last chance came to, of all players, the scorer of Villa’s game-winning goal back in September, Ezri Konsa.  Like then, it came from a corner.  Only this time it was not a header, it was from his ability to cushion the cross with his left foot and, in one motion, use that same foot to volley a shot to the right of Ramsdale.  The keeper’s save was remarkable and his defender’s clearance of the loose ball just as important, with two Villans less than a yard away.  Konsa looked stunned as well he might have.

It was then obvious that nothing was going to change what fate had dictated.  Credit to Sheffield United for doing their very best to keep their Premier League survival hopes alive.

Sheffield U. (3-5-2): Aaron Ramsdale, Ethan Ampadu, Phil Jagielka, Kean Bryan, George Baldock, John Lundstram, Oliver Norwood, John Fleck, Enda Stevens, David McGoldrick, Rhian Brewster

SUBS: Oliver McBurnie (s 89′), Billy Sharp, Lys Mousset, Max Lowe, Oliver Burke (s 60′), Wes Foderingham, Ben Osborn (s 73′), Iliman-Cheikh Ndiaye, Frankie Maguire

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Ahmed Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings (captain), Matt Targett; Jacob Ramsey, Marvelous Nakamba, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ollie Watkins, Anwar El Ghazi

SUBS: Heaton, Taylor, Engels, Luiz, Sanson (s, 68’), Barkley (s 68’), Trezeguet, Davis (s 81′), Kaine Kesler.

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