Sheffield United 2-0 Aston Villa: High-flying Blades continue to do things differently

There was a point in this game, moments after another Sheffield United attack had been repelled, when it appeared as if industry rather than invention was destined to win the day.

Monday, 16th December 2019, 10:23 am
Sheffield United midfielder John Fleck powers the ball past Aston Villa goalkeeper Tom Heaton during Saturday's match at Bramall Lane

But then suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a piece of individual brilliance broke the arm-wrestle. The fact it came from Chris Basham, who despite being a centre-half had positioned himself on the edge of Aston Villa’s box, betrayed both the home side’s qualities and the story of this game. It also served as a reminder that, despite football’s fascination with systems, tactics and strategies, sometimes it pays to simply make things up as you go along.

“I just tried something and hoped it came off,” Basham said, describing the backheel which led to John Fleck’s opener after wrong-footing the visitors’ defence. “Fortunately it did and it looks like a world-beater. I think there’s times when you’ve just got to try stuff like that in the Premier League.”

Basham’s flash of inspiration proved to be the pivotal moment of a fixture which, until Fleck scored the first of two expertly crafted goals, seemed to be drifting Villa’s way. Not because Dean Smith’s side had dominated possession or threatened to overwhelm United’s defence. They did neither. Rather, after arriving intent on smothering United, Villa were edging ever closer towards the draw you suspect was their target. Which, with players like Jack Grealish and John McGinn at Smith’s disposal, was a huge compliment to the hosts in itself.

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“Villa came up with us,” Basham, a veteran of both United’s 2017 League One title winning campaign and last term’s Championship promotion squad, said. “So it was nice to put ourselves up against them. They’re no mug side. They’re a great team with really talented players and they’ll come again, no doubt about it.”

“It’s something we’re going to have to get used to,” Basham added. “People coming here and doing that; sitting in and waiting for that one chance. They do it because they know, at our place, what they’re going to be in for. When we’ve got the ball, everyone is comfortable and has got that good ego about themselves.”

Remarkably, after initially being touted as favourites for relegation, United finished this contest in fifth. Fleck, who will miss Saturday’s trip to Brighton and Hove Albion through suspension, claimed his first of the afternoon when Basham’s inspired touch created the space for John Lundstram to cross. The Scot’s fourth of the season and second of the match later arrived when, having combined with Oliver Norwood, he profited from another wonderful assist. On this occasion, David McGoldrick was responsible; hooking the ball over the head of a defender after anticipating Fleck would continue his run.

Grealish had an opportunity to reduce the deficit when the VAR officials ruled John Egan had handled the ball inside the penalty area. But Villa’s captain saw his free-kick rebound back off the woodwork.

“I don’t think we could have dreamed of being where we are,” Basham said. “But if you ask the gaffer (Chris Wilder), he always believed in us. I think, if you’d have asked him at the start (of the season) he always thought we could go well.”

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 (Trezeguet 80), Engels, Guilbert, Hause. Not used: Taylor, Konsa, Nyland, Elmohamady.

Referee: Peter Bankes.

Attendance: 30,396.