Sheffield United 2-0 Aston Villa: Blades climb to fifth, yes fifth, in the Premier League
Two supporters turned managers in the technical area. But, as Chris Wilder reminded beforehand, two very different clubs under their respective commands.
That the one built on signings plucked from the Championship triumphed was not a surprise. Fifth in the Premier League at the final whistle, Sheffield United have made a wonderful start to life back in the top-flight. But it was confusing to watch Aston Villa, also promoted from the second tier last term but with a ready-made top-flight budget, arrive intent on smothering Wilder’s men. Despite the wealth of attacking options, Jack Grealish included, at Dean Smith’s disposal.
Grealish, much to the delight of the home supporters, endured a frustrating afternoon; missing from the penalty spot during the closing stages at his side trailed 2-0. Both of United’s efforts were scored by John Fleck, as Wilder’s team were rewarded for their probing, patience and a much-improved display after the interval. Indeed, had the otherwise excellent David McGoldrick exploited either of the two openings which came his way after Grealish’s miss, the margins would have been even greater.
Wilder had teased his opposite number about United’s potential for making changes. But, when the line-ups were unveiled an hour before kick-off, it became apparent the talk about Mo Besic being drafted in had all been a ruse. Around ninety minutes later, however, United could have been forgiven for wishing they had chosen to reshuffle the options at their disposal. Not because the match proved to be something of a slow-burn; only bursting into life when Fleck claimed his third goal since August in the 48th minute.
Rather, with referee Peter Bankes seemingly on a mission to use up every single page in his notebook, an early caution for Fleck ruled him out of next weekend’s trip to Brighton and Hove Albion. Besic, who had impressed during the victory over Norwich City six day earlier, might not have to wait too long for his first Premier League start in United colours after all. Oliver Norwood, who had been booked before the Scotsman, will enter that fixture on four.
The rest of the half was an arm-wrestle, as United probed and attempted to drag Villa out of position. Smith’s men, for the most part, simply refused to budge.
Just as organisation rather than invention appeared in danger of winning the day, a delightful piece of improvisation helped break the deadlock. Chris Basham, loitering on the edge of Villa’s box after roaming forward, received possession with his back to goal before, sensing John Lundstram’s presence, scooping the ball behind him and into the midfielder’s path. He, in turn, flashed a low centre across the area which Fleck, aware of the possibilities on offer, turned home from close range. The sense of relief inside the stadium was almost palpable. Likewise when, soon after, Grealish inexplicably headed wide after sneaking behind George Baldock.
United doubled their lead in the 73rd minute when Fleck pounced again. This time it was McGoldrick’s turn to produce a quite brilliant assist, scooping the ball through a crowd of Villa defenders and allowing his team mate to finish the move he had started.
Grealish had an opportunity to reduce the deficit when VAR deemed John Egan had handled the ball inside the penalty area. But the Villa captain hit the woodwork from the spot, before McGoldrick twice went close during the closing stages.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood (Besic 86), Fleck, Lundstram, McGoldrick (Osborn 90), Mousset (McBurnie 60). Not used: Moore, L Freeman, Sharp, Jagielka.
Aston Villa: Heaton, McGinn, Lansbury (Luiz 66), Wesley (Kodjia 69), Grealish, Nakamba, Targett, El Ghazi, Engels, Guilbert, Hause. Not used: Taylor, Konsa, Trezeguet, Nyland, Elmohamady.
Referee: Peter Bankes.