Key moments go against Blades: The story of Sheffield United's unfortunate defeat to Aston Villa

“Keep your shape,” Chris Wilder barked midway through the first-half, as his players scrambled across the pitch to deny Aston Villa’s attackers time and space. “Work. Work. Work. Stick right there with him.”
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It was always going to be one of those evenings , right from the moment John Egan was sent-off barely a quarter-of-an-hour into the contest, leaving Sheffield United trying to navigate safe passage through their second Premier League fixture of the new season at a numerical disadvantage.

The fact they very nearly did could be attributed to a combination of perspiration on the pitch and some clever thinking off it - with Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill moving players around like chess pieces to prevent the opposition from gathering momentum. Villa, by contrast, looked utterly one dimensional at times. Not that Dean Smith will give a damn after seeing Ezri Konsa find the back of the net midway through the second period to leave United still searching for their first point of the campaign.

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“I thought the attitude and the character was brilliant,” Wilder said. “The boys, against really talented opposition, gave it everything out there. But we didn’t get anything from the game, and I think there’s reasons for that. Some of them were, yes. But not all of them were to do with us.”

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21: John Lundstram of Sheffield United and Sander Berge of Sheffield United react after   the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park on September 21, 2020 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21: John Lundstram of Sheffield United and Sander Berge of Sheffield United react after   the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park on September 21, 2020 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21: John Lundstram of Sheffield United and Sander Berge of Sheffield United react after the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park on September 21, 2020 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

ONE, TWO AND THEN THREE KEY MOMENTS

The two pivotal moments of this contest - Konsa pounced in the 62nd minute - bookended a first-half which saw United impress with their tactical discipline and Villa, despite embarking upon a lavish spending spree during the summer transfer window, display precious little creativity. Indeed, despite having talents such as Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins and Douglas Luiz at their disposal, Dean Smith’s men appeared devoid of ideas about how to prise United’s defence apart following Egan’s red card for bringing down Ollie Watkins.

Both referee Graham Scott and Mike Dean, tasked with reviewing the action in the VAR suite, decided Villa’s record signing had been denied a clear goalscoring opportunity by his former Brentford team mate.

“I didn’t understand it at the time, and I still don’t understand it now, how they can be certain that was a red,” Wilder said. “For me, it was two players grappling. Yes, John put himself in a poor position but the linesman was 10 yards away and he didn’t give it.”

Sheffield United's Sander Berge and Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz (right) battle for the ball during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Clive Rose/NMC Pool/PA Wire.Sheffield United's Sander Berge and Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz (right) battle for the ball during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Clive Rose/NMC Pool/PA Wire.
Sheffield United's Sander Berge and Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz (right) battle for the ball during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Clive Rose/NMC Pool/PA Wire.
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Remarkably - but then again, perhaps not given that Villa’s tactics appeared to consist of pumping aimless crosses into United’s area or waiting for Grealish to produce a moment of magic - the visitors were presented with a chance to take the lead 10 minutes from the interval when Chris Basham was upended in the penalty area by Matt Targett. Unfortunately for John Lundstram, whose spot kick was saved by Emiliano Martinez, the Argentine was the only one of Smith’s recent signings to actually impress having surprisingly been allowed to leave Arsenal.

“I thought Emiliano was calm, assured and showed real character,” Smith said. “He knows how to play for a big club and we believe we are a big club. I thought Emiliano showed out there why we brought him here.”

“Since ‘Project Restart’, we’ve only conceded something like three shots a game and that was the same here,” Smith continued, choosing to ignore the fact United were at a numerical disadvantage for most of the contest. “So we know we’re playing well and I think there’s more to come from us. To restrict Sheffield United was really pleasing.”

SPIRIT WORTHY OF SOME REWARD

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder on the touchline during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Julian Finney/NMC Pool/PA Wire.Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder on the touchline during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Julian Finney/NMC Pool/PA Wire.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder on the touchline during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Julian Finney/NMC Pool/PA Wire.

After the disappointment of being beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers seven days earlier, the sight of Lundstram’s attempt being parried away to safety could have punctured United’s resolve. Instead, it only seemed to strengthen it with Villa again appearing one dimensional and almost mind numbingly predictable until Konsa, whose soft header towards Aaron Ramsdale had previously been the one clear cut chance they had forged, nodded home from a 63rd minute set-piece which was helped on by Tyrone Mings.

It was telling that Smith highlighted the “desire” of Villa’s defensive players during his own post-match briefing, which United should take as a backhanded compliment.

“I thought Konsa was on a heading bonus, he got so many away,” Smith said. “He was brilliant out there for me, and it’s always difficult when teams come here and try to keep it tight.”

SHOULD TARGETT HAVE SEEN RED TOO?

Sheffield United's John Egan gesturers after receiving a red card during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at the Villa Park stadium in Birmingham, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Tim Goode/Pool via AP)Sheffield United's John Egan gesturers after receiving a red card during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at the Villa Park stadium in Birmingham, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Tim Goode/Pool via AP)
Sheffield United's John Egan gesturers after receiving a red card during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at the Villa Park stadium in Birmingham, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Tim Goode/Pool via AP)

United did not create a flurry of chances either, as they focused on keeping Villa at arms-length. But they did appear far more fluent than their opponents. And more ingenious too, with Burke producing a wonderful passage of play - drifting across the box, showing power and pace, before slipping a perfectly weighted pass into Basham’s path - to set in motion the chain of events which ended with Scott awarding a penalty and Wilder wondering why Targett, whose corner led to Konsa’s goal, had not joined Egan in the dressing room.

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“I was under the impression that if Targett makes an attempt to play the ball, then that’s not a sending off,” Wilder said. “But if he doesn’t, which he can’t have been able to do because Bash was between him and the ball, then double jeopardy doesn’t come into it. So I don’t know how that wasn’t a red as well.”

TACTICALLY ASTUTE

United were accused in some quarters of being too wedded to their 3-5-2 system, which proved so effective en route to a ninth placed finish last term, following the loss to Wolves. But they demonstrated, both before and after Egan’s exit, that nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the thinking on the away bench appeared far more inventive and effective than the decisions being taken just across the technical area; although Smith remains a hugely talented coach in his own right.

While Villa’s tactics until Konsa’s intervention could be summed up as ‘cross, cross again and repeat’, United adopted a much more nuanced approach, with the decision to nudge John Fleck out towards the flank very nearly proving inspired. It certainly prevented Matty Cash, who appeared destined to join them until Villa hijacked his signature earlier this month, from surging forward down the wing.

The introduction of Ben Osborn and Oli McBurnie, following another change of formation, ensured United carried a threat at the other end of the field too, with Sander Berge hooking over on the turn with minutes remaining.

BOLD SELECTIONS NEARLY PAY OFF

After spending nearly eight months trying to shoehorn both Berge and Oliver Norwood into the same starting eleven, Wilder decided to go with only one here - granting the Norwegian a chance to perform at the base of midfield, where he excelled in Belgium with Genk.

Berge, United’s record transfer signing, appeared more comfortable and was certainly more effective in this role, using his physical presence to good effect following Egan’s exit. But it was the contribution of Burke, who impressed with his industry and application, which was the most intriguing aspect of United’s display. After representing the likes of RB Leipzig and Celtic during what until now has been a nomadic career, the Scot’s ability is not in question - and he provided glimpses of the quality which persuaded the Germans to pay £15m for his services.

“I just don’t think we’re getting any consistency in decisions,” Wilder said. “Not from a Sheffield United perspective. Okay, I get that a few have gone for us. But I’m confused now, about how the game is and the decisions that are getting made. Really, I am.”

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Aston Villa: Martinez, Cash, Ngoyo, Mings, Douglas Luiz, McGinn, Grealish, Watkins, Hourihane (Davis 62), Trezeguet, Targett. Not used: Steer, Taylor, Nakamba, El Ghazi, El Mohamady, Hause.

Sheffield United: Ramsdale, Baldock, Stevens, Basham (McBurnie 68), Egan, O’Connell, Berge, Fleck (Osborn 64), Lundstram, McGoldrick (Ampadu 32), Burke. Not used: Foderingham, Sharp, Norwood, Robinson.

Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).