Perspective is important. It wasn’t so long ago that relegation seemed a forgone conclusion at Villa Park. Indeed, our hosts at Bramall Lane would be the first to remind us of a certain infamous Hawk-Eye incident too.
However, that’s ancient in modern football and fast forward to March 2021 and a revamped Villa side strode out against the divisions bottom side having despatched Leeds comfortably. It was a win that left Dean Smith just 6 points off the top four.
Smith persevered with Nakamba and Ramsay in the midfield, El Ghazi kept his shirt having scored at Elland Road (plus, Grealish remaining injured), whilst Elmohamady deputised with Cash still unavailable.
It wasn’t a pretty encounter, but there were moments that inevitably we would come to rue.
Most notably was perhaps that of Bertrand Traore, who after sublime control and skill, ghosted amongst a scrum of United defenders. Having done all of the hard work, the former Lyon striker stroked his effort wide.Embed from Getty Images
We’ve been spoiled rotten in the earlier part of the campaign with displays, if only in phases, of dangerous attacking prowess. This has ebbed of late and this showing demonstrated the importance of Grealish’s influence, but also the compouding effect of Barkley’s loss of form.
Ironically it was arguably one of the least prolific out and out strikers in the division who scored what would be the hosts winner. David McGoldrick surely won’t have come under less pressure for a goal, with Elmohamady guilty of statuesque defending at the far post. The former Ireland striker scuffed his effort over Martinez, via the underside of the bar.
This is also now becoming the go-to fixture for contentious decisions as well.
Arguably Ollie Watkins could have had a penalty when crowded out having run on goal. Depending upon your affiliations he’s been jockeyed or blocked off with no intent to play the ball. The most perplexing part was the lack of a VAR review.
Jagielka was next to feel the wrath of VAR and with it becoming the second oldest player to be sent off in Premier League history. This came after El Ghazi looked to burst beyond and bringing the winger down in the process. The referee was called to review the incident on the pitchside screen and upgraded the initial yellow to a red. It was one that could have gone either way.
Villa had 30 minutes to work and equaliser and even a winner, but what played out epitomised our ability to deploy tactical changes quickly.
The appearance of Barkley and Sanson took over ten minutes after the sending off. Such was Villa’s lack of innovation from midfield that the subs could have justifiably come before the sending off. The 80th minute introduction of goal-shy Keinan Davis once more put the microscope over the club’s decision not to recruit despite the continued absence of Wesley.
Villa huffed and puffed, but aside from a flicked Watkins headed and a half chance for Traore mustered little meaningful threat. It was speculative lofted crosses, repetitive hoofing into the area and increasingly long-ball as the minutes ticked away.
Despite United being camped in their final third, it was frustrating to watch the same hapless attempts being delivered into the penalty area (rarely beating the first man). The hosts mopped it up time and time again. It begged the question, especially given the quality on the field, what exactly were the instructions or game-plan?
This marks an important juncture for a side much improved on last season. It’s another missed opportunity to push upwards in the table. The improvements are undeniable and cannot be disregarded on the basis of one defeat, but it would be deluded not to chalk this down as poor.
There’s little escaping that this was a turgid display that reminded us firmly that much work is yet to be done not just on squad development but also our tactical nouse.
Europe is and should be the next ambition of the football club and that’s still attainable, but we will not get there by only turning up 50% of the time. Smith must also face the reality that he’ll need to beat far better sides than (likely already doomed) Sheffield United if there’s any realistic prospect of doing so.Embed from Getty Images
Sheffield United 1-0 Aston Villa
Villa fell to defeat at Bramall Lane, despite the hosts being down to 10 men for a third of the match.