Sheffield United (0) vs Aston Villa (5) – Our Villans bounce back and trounce the Blades

Saturday, February 3rd, 17:30 – Bramall Lane

Referee: Paul Tierney

As suggested in my pre-game assessment, this was exactly the kind of opposition that our Villans needed to get their goal machine working like it had for most of the first half of the season.  Ironically, it was the reverse fixture, when Sheffield United visited Villa Park on December 22nd, that started the rot.  With an almost year-long Premier League winning streak lifting us into the vaunted top-four, the Blades were very transparent about their strategy, play for a tie.

They lined up ten players behind the ball and left only Cameron Archer, the Villa youth player to chase shadows and keep a few Villa defenders occupied.  With Tielemans and Torres injured, Kamara suspended, Diaby starting his poor-patch, Jacob Ramsey still working his way back to full fitness, and Bailey feeling the effects of a congested schedule, our Villans lacked the energy and creativity to break down the opposition’s defensive wall. The Blades, meanwhile, were motivated by the potential to take a point home, something that no other team had done in a long while, not even Manchester City.

On Saturday at Bramall Lane, the circumstances surrounding the game were quite different.  The Blades found themselves adrift at the very bottom of the table and desperate to gain three points with their fans behind them.  A Villa squad that had momentarily found it difficult to score and looked woeful at home to Newcastle in their previous game, seemed ready for another upset.

The Blades lined-up with three at the back, with two wingbacks, and William Osula selected over Cameron Archer upfront.  From the kickoff they were pressing our defenders up the field and created an immediate opportunity when Moreno failed to control a pass.  Fortunately, Martinez was quick off his line to gather.

Emery had chosen Diego Carlos over Matty Cash, and Bailey to start over the unconvincing Diaby.  Right away, our Villans showed that they would give Ollie Watkins lots of long balls to chase.  They achieved some success from their very first throw of the dice.  While the Blades’ backline was able to prevent Watkins from gaining possession of a long pass, their attempt to counter by passing down the left resulted in our Villans winning a freekick. Brereton Diaz, the recipient of the pass, failed to control and Ollie pounced on the 50/50 ball, receiving a kick in the shins for his trouble.

At 4 mins and 4 secs of the game, our Villans had a freekick in shooting distance in the inside-right channel.  After due consideration by Luiz, McGinn, Bailey, and Tielemans, a strategy was decided upon.  Tielemans and Bailey pealed off, and Luiz came up to take the kick, a soft roller to find a crack in the defensive wall for McGinn to aim through.  The strategy worked – the wall opened up – and our captain hit a shot with enough venom, but not enough top-spin and it cleared the crossbar by a couple of feet.  Encouraging.

In the 10th minute, Diaz broke through our offside trap and advanced on Martinez from the left and tried to find room between the goalies’ legs.  Emi almost let it through before turning and grabbing the ball before it crossed the line.  An awkward moment, that could have made the fixture start off very badly.

In the 11th minute, Luiz affirmed the offensive strategy when he was fed the ball at the halfway line and immediately looked up to check that Watkins was breaking into the penalty area in the inside right channel.  Ollie had to come back for the pass and Ahmedhodzic was all over him.  Probably nervous that he was in the penalty area, he allowed Ollie to gather and pass back to Tielemans, and on, to Leon Bailey.  With a little Jamaican magic, Leon found space to wrap his left foot around the ball and curved a shot that the Sheffield keeper, Foderingham, dove to his right to cover.  The shot went just wide of the post, but it was a harbinger of things to come.

The hammer fell almost immediately.  Konsa met the goal kick, and he cushioned a header to Bailey who did the same to Kamara’s feet.  Boubacar found Luiz moving into space ahead of him, and Douglas saw that Watkins had found another open seam in the Blades’ backline and he zipped him the ball.  Foderingham raced to the edge of his penalty area, but Ollie was faster and chipped over the sprawling goalie towards the vacant net.

Ahmedhodzic, heroically, reached the shot almost at the line and his attempt to steer it around the post, hit the upright and rebounded into the middle of the 6-yard box.  All the principals up to this point were indisposed.  Watkins’s momentum had taken him to the left of the goal, Foderingham was just getting to his feet at the edge of the box, and Ahmedhodzic was entangled in the back of the net.

So, who was left to finish the play?  John McGinn, of course.  Our Villa captain always finds a way to score the important goals.  When we needed an early goal against Arsenal, it was McGinn who scored in the 7th minute and when we needed a late goal against Zrinjski, he headed in the only goal of the game in injury time.  When we needed a goal to remind us of how clinical we can finish, John provided it:   Sheffield United 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 12th minute.

The manner of the goal, with our compact Scotsman outhustling every red and white shirt to the ball for a tap-in hit so firmly that it ricocheted off the base bars in the back of the net, then the underside of the crossbar and returned to where McGinn had found it a second before, was an exclamation point.

To their credit, the Blades were professional in their response.  They were composed and creative with McAtee carrying confidently and finding Bogle overlapping on the right wing with an opportunity to fire a cross to teammates in the 6-yard box. 

Perhaps the recognition that our Villans had maintained their shape and had four defenders lined up to mark only two forwards, made the young wingback return the pass to McAtee.  The even younger McAtee was not expecting and had stopped running and Luiz happily picked up the errant pass.  Facing the wrong way, our Brazilian wiz executed a give and go with Kamara and was heading, in space, towards the halfway line as he looked up.

Once again, Watkins was ready to break beyond Ahmedhodzic and the pass was, as usual, perfectly weighted and directed.  Ollie had a half a step on his marker, but Foderingham well-positioned as our striker reached the box in the inside-right channel.  Ahmedhodzic went into a slide and Ollie had to release his shot immediately.  There could be no wind-up for power and there was none, just a firmly struck shot that zipped into the corner of the net – easy as you like – Sheffield United 0, Aston Villa 2 in the 16th minute!  Our Villans were rolling, and Emery was doing a very good rendition of a Basque tribal dance – he was ecstatic.

The Blades next attack was easily rebuffed by the imposing Diego Carlos who even managed to gain a throw.  Moreno took the throw, deep in Villa’s half, to McGinn who returned the gesture, and Alex then lofted a clearance to nobody in particular.  Rather than allow a Blade to get unimpeded possession, Youri Tielemans challenged to good effect. 

The ball went directly to our Ollie Watkins, the last person an opponent would want to pass to, even in his own half.  Ollie carried the ball, at pace, across the halfway line before feeding Bailey ahead of him racing towards the Sheffield United penalty area.  Other than their inability to stop our Villans in their two previous attacks, there was no reason for the Blades to panic. 

In fact, the defense retreated in a good shape despite excellent tactical runs by Konsa, outside, and Kamara, inside.  As Leon crossed into the penalty area, he slowed, and slid the ball to the left and then swept his left foot around the outside of the orb and sent it on its way, arcing towards the inside of the far post and well beyond the desperate leap of Foderingham.  Sheffield United 0, Aston Villa 3 in the 20th minute!  It was already a rout with less than a quarter of the game gone.

It was evident that our Villans had not had their fill.  Carlos pinged a pass from his own half, on the right, to Moreno level with the Blades penalty area on the left touchline.  As Alex brought the ball down, Bogle got a foot in, only to cede a corner.  This called for another Austin MacPhee special.  Luiz placed the ball for Bailey who jogged over while Douglas wandered aside.  Bailey casually rolled the ball in Luiz’s direction who crossed from ten yards away from the goal line, a much better angle to find a claret and blue shirt running into the 6-yard box.

There were four Villans, including Watkins, as targets but seven red and white shirts defending.  Those four Villans were not the target. What the Blades missed was that an unmarked Tielemans had slid around the outside and was heading toward the right corner of the 6-yard box and arrived just before the cross.  Our Belgian international set himself and struck on the half-volley.  The shot hit ground and looped over the goalie only for Vini Souza, on the line, to jump and head it over.  Another corner!

This time, Luiz, with no hesitation, took the kick and aimed directly at the 6-yard box.  Notably, the Blades had not adjusted their defense and Tielemans was equally as uncovered as he was in the first iteration.  This time Diaz was able to prevent the cross entering the box but only by deflecting it as far as Tielemans.  This time, Youri had time to let the ball bounce, before he pushed it forward and wound-up for a powerful drive that hit the underside of the bar and rebounded into the back of the net. It appeared that it was only then that Foderingham actually saw it. Sheffield United 0, Aston Villa 4 in the 30th minute! 

The balance of the first half, not too surprisingly, was anti-climatic.  Our Villans did continue to press and attack, but the hunger was missing.  It was likely that Emery, at the break, insisted that the team press early in the second half and, if possible, add to the lead.  This would deflate any intermission bounce potential and facilitate playing a controlled game for the balance of play.

Within one minute, our Villans had regained their first half rhythm.  Konsa fed Bailey on the right touchline in the Blades half and Leon, one-touched the ball down the right wing for Watkins, already in motion, to run onto with Ahmedhodzic riding his back.  Ollie protected the ball and pushed it back to Tielemans who one-touched a chip for Bailey to run onto with Trusty.  The American defender held his ground and avoided tripping Leon; what he failed to do was prevent Leon feeding Watkins who immediately lofted a perfect pass over three defenders to an uncovered Moreno who blasted a volley past the goalie from less than ten yards.  Sheffield United 0, Aston Villa 5 in the 47th minute! 

As is not uncommon, the excellent Villa performance came at a price in the 56th minute.  Ezri Konsa, diving bravely to head Tielemans’s freekick that looped toward the Blades post rolled into that post and strained his knee.  Instead of a goal, he received time off to recover from his injury.

Finally, the Blades started to show signs of life thanks to their substitutes, specifically: Cameron Archer, Gustavo Hamer, and Jack Robinson.  Archer added the necessary energy and speed to create openings, Hamer took the corners that Archer earned, and Robinson headed the cross toward Emi’s open right side that Watkins jumped in to head clear.  Hamer gathered the clearance just outside the corner of the box and whipped in a dangerous cross into the box that Ahmedhodzic deflected goalward only for Emi to parry away.  That fell nicely for Robinson who lashed another shot goalward only for Martinez, lying on his back, to throw up his arms and big mitts to reject that effort.  Finally, Kamara reacted quicker than Holgate to clear out for a corner.  That all happened in the 77th minute.

In the 81st minute, Emery gave new signing, Morgan Rogers, a run for Tielemans.  The young acquisition from Middlesborough looked green but not out of place and, when Diaby found Cash open on the wing, Matty was able to set-up Rogers with a pullback. The new signing almost scored but got under the shot and it ended up in the stands.

Still, the action was not yet over.  When Kamara gave up a freekick in shootable range at the 90-minute mark, the Blades came up with a well disguised set-play in which the ball was played to the last person on the line on the left, Robinson, who relayed a header into the box for Souza to volley past Emi.  Unfortunately for the Blades, Robinson was offside by a minimal amount. 

The final whistle blew and the local fans who had remained in the stadium, booed. It was that kind of day for the Blades, nothing went right.

For our Villans, it was a great boost coming just before important games against Chelsea (F.A. Cup) and Manchester United (Premier League), both at Villa Park.

Sheffield Utd:
Foderingham, Bogle, Holgate, Ahmedhodzic, Trusty, Norrington-Davies (Robinson 50′), McAtee (Davies 72′), Vinicius Souza, Brooks (Osborn 50′), Brereton (Archer 65′), Osula (Hamer 45′)

Subs: Hamer, Archer, Norwood, Robinson, Davies, Osborn, Oné, Larouci, Amissah

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa (Cash 59′), Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Moreno, Kamara, Douglas Luiz (Ramsey 45′), Bailey (Diaby 60′), Tielemans (Rogers 81′), McGinn (Iroegbunam 71′), Watkins

Subs: Cash, Chambers, Diaby, Olsen, Rogers, Kesler Hayden, Ramsey, Iroegbunam, Wright

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