By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Sheffield United
After exactly 100 days since Villa last kicked a ball in the Premier League, and on what should be the fifth day of Euro 2020, they are back to continue the fight for survival. The home clash with Sheffield United will be the first match to be played; all eyes will be on this one.
Can Villa rescue their season?
Aston Villa – W L L L L
Sheffield United – L W W D W
Dean Smith on Group Cohesion
“Even during the lockdown we had group meetings and it’s given the opportunity to players who wouldn’t normally speak up in meetings to air their opinions. You’ve got to build up relationships within that team to have a tight team spirit.
“Getting John back is one of the benefits we’ve had during this pandemic and the pause in the season. He’s a top player but on top of being a top player, he’s a top character in that dressing room and gives everyone a boost by being the person he is.”
Chris Grayling on the Break
“Did I want the season to pause in the way it did? No, we were on a great run and we did have momentum and had just come off a really difficult game against Norwich.
“Some teams had their own situations with injuries or not being in great form and the break comes and sometimes the break comes at the right time for teams.
“That will be a question for Dean as well as me. I am sure Dean would say a great time because he had a load of injuries and a great time to possibly have a deeper look at their team.”
Chris Wilder’s Sheffield has stuck resolutely to their effective 3-5-2 formation, with Oliver McBurnie partnering Lys Mousset in attack, Oliver Norwood controlling the middle and a defensive trio of Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell.
They are a team that are happy to sit back and let their opponents play, with 44.9% average possession across the season. Their 74.2% passing accuracy suggests they do not excel at a possession based game themselves – 18% of all passes they play are long, with an additional 6% across the season being crosses. This suggests that when they get the ball, they try to move it forward as fast as possible.
Sheffield United do not score much in the league. They have managed 30 goals from a total of 37.54 xG, so they struggle to make use of the chances they get. This is something they will look to work on, but it is not a major issue. They have conceded only 25 goals – second least after Liverpool’s 21 – from an xGA of 38.34. This consistent overperformance shows that they find themselves under a troubling amount of pressure, but they are more than prepared to handle it.
In fact, this tendency to be on the back foot for the majority of games could be considered their only notable flaw – that they identified and addressed the issue so quickly and effectively is commendable. Unfortunately for them, they have no notable strengths either. Only one member of the squad has managed a rating of seven according to Whoscored (Chris Basham), and it is exactly 7.00.
Their strength lies in working as a unit. The sum of their parts is greater than the individual, and they know how to play as a team. Their formation is fluid with all members on the left side of the pitch able to play in any position on that side, and the same goes for the players on the right. They regularly rotate and with any player able to pop up virtually anywhere, they do not tire easily.
Sheffield are a dogged and tenacious team, who are hard to break down, but who can be countered with an equally resolute defense and quality in the midfield.
One to watch
In a team that scores so little, Lys Mousset has emerged as the player with the most goal contributions with nine (five goals, four assists). With just under a third of all goals going through him, he stands out as the team’s biggest danger.
Aston Villa 3-0 Sheffield United – 05-05-2007
Gabby Agbonlahor, Ashley Young and Patrik Berger put Sheffield to the sword back in 2007, the last time these two teams met in the Premier League at Villa Park.
Sheffield United 2-0 Aston Villa – 14-12-2019
It feels like forever ago now, but back in december John Fleck put two second half goals past Villa to secure the win. Grealish’s penalty miss more or less encapsulated the mood around the club at the time.
How it could play out
More so than any other team promoted at the start of this season, Sheffield United look like they belong. And more so than any newly promoted team in recent years, it is not because of grand investment and massive spending – it is simply because they are a team in every sense of the word.
Realistically, their setup represents the standard all teams should be looking at rather than the likes of the big six, who are usually considered the ideal. They have found a way to turn a little into a lot, and it gives them a strong base for growth as well as something to truly believe in. It is almost painful to write the words, but right now, Sheffield United is the example Villa should aim to follow.
Of course the situations that followed each club into the top flight are not comparable in the least, with Villa requiring a massive overhaul and Sheffield coming into the season already equipped. However it could be argued that with their superior resources, smarter recruiting in the Championship season could have set Villa up much better. We can only hope a lesson has been learned, however the season plays out.
So what are Villa’s chances in this match? As stated earlier, there have been exactly 100 days between the loss at Leicester and this match, which is more downtime than any professional football team ever gets under any other circumstances. The most obvious advantage of this for Villa is that it has given John McGinn more than ample time to recover and return to good health without having to put himself at any real risk.
Another advantage – as McGinn himself mentioned in a recent interview with the Daily Record – is that the new players, particularly Douglas Luiz, have taken the time to get a better grip on the English language. It goes without saying how that will be a boon in terms of communication in matches.
All told, however, it is simply impossible to judge how such a long break will affect anyone. Any benefit Villa sees will most likely be felt by all teams in the league, as well as anything detrimental. This match will be at Villa Park, only without the baying crowd backing up the team and harrying the opposition.
What effect will that have? Will it allow them to just concentrate without the usual distractions, or will it have a negative effect on performance?
Only time will tell.
Aston Villa 1-1 Sheffield United
The gulf in the current quality of both teams cannot be ignored, but neither can the unknown effects of lockdown. A score draw is a safe prediction, but it is probably the only fair one.