Preview: Blades v Villa
After a very good win and even better performance last week at Bolton, tomorrow marks a different test. Aston Villa are a giant in this division without doubt but despite reaching the playoff final last season and having a good start so far, there is a feeling that the fanbase are divided on manager Steve Bruce.
Despite this Villa have a top 6 squad, and this was United’s Achilles heel last season. When playing games against the top 9 teams in the Championship last season the Blades won 4, lost 3 (including Villa) and drew 2. Not a poor record by any stretch but the games against Bristol City and especially Villa were the most frustrating of them all as we dominated the game but somehow lost. In the end a lack of quality on our end and the extra quality of Villa told, and we were sucker punched into a 0-1 loss.
The opposition: Aston Villa
Villa find themselves 4th in the table after 5 games and are still unbeaten. However, all has not been plain sailing as they have struggled to dominate opposition. A last minute winner against Wigan, a draw against a 10 man Ipswich side and two more draws against Brentford and Reading have left the feeling that this squad - while excellent on paper - has some deficiencies.
In terms of their underlying numbers Villa are in a slightly false position, albeit nowhere near to the extent that we saw with Bolton last week. Using Expected Goals for and against, the expected points return for Villa would be 5 and would see them 16th in the expected table. In the 5 games that Villa have played to date they have both scored and conceded in each game, the only team in the Championship to done so. To sum up their performance, Bruce’s side are one that create lots of chances but also give up good chances too. The graphics below show the results of Villa’s underlying numbers vs their actual results in the 5 games played.
Key Danger Men
This is a hard one to call as four of Villa’s most vital players are a potential doubt for the game on Saturday. Jonathan Kodjia, Albert Adomah, John McGinn and most importantly of all Jack Grealish are all doubtful for the game although Bruce is steadfast in his insistence they will all be fit. Let's assume that they're all fit, in which case these are the ones to watch for.
Jack Grealish is an obvious candidate. At United we just love a player who goes down like he is an extra in Platoon at the mere brush of a challenge, and this is why Grealish is fans favourite at BDTBL. However, let’s face facts. Grealish is an absolutely superb player at this level with the ability to dominate games with his passing, incisive dribbling and general class.
Villa also bolstered their creativity this summer with the signing of John McGinn. One of the best prospects to come out of Scotland since John Fleck, McGinn is an outstanding passer and set piece taker. Here are some stats to outline their key players:
- J.Kodjia - xG: 1.6 – 14th highest in league
- J.McGinn - xA: 2.6 – 6th highest in league; Key Passes: 2.8 per game – 6th highest in league
- J.Grealish - Key Passes: 2.6 per game – 9th highest in league.
As you can see they are an exceptionally creative team, with a large threat from set pieces. This is highlighted by their standing as having the 2nd highest xG from set pieces in the league, having created 15 chances. This is a key area of the game that United must be particularly switched on and solid from.
The Blades: performance so far
Without going too in-depth, I want to highlight a couple of interesting areas that show how United have progressed so far this season. In terms of the expected league table, the Blades sit in 5th compared to actual table where we sit 7th. However, it is our open play xG created which is very good. After 5 games the Blades sit 2nd overall for xG from open play. This is credit to our style and, as shown last week, when our passing game clicks we can create chances at will.
Saturday will be a more tactical battle and a closer game: we will need to show different qualities, but knowing we have this ability to create from open play is certainly an advantage. Additionally we also sit 3rd overall in xG created from set pieces, thanks mainly to the delivery of Oliver Norwood and the aerial abilities of John Egan. The addition of Conor Washington adds pace and movement to a forward line that, despite some fans perceptions, has been as threatening as ever with both Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke in the division’s top 15 for highest xG after 5 games.
Oliver Norwood currently leads the league in key passes per game (most of which are his corners) and last week we saw the resurgence of John Fleck and Enda Stevens, both of whom looked threatening, sharp and revitalised. I think we are side that has improved steadily in this window and we look full of confidence with an identity and style the players know inside out.
Expected Line ups
As Villa have injuries and new signings such as Bolasie potentially ready, it is hard to guess which side they may put out. I’ve shown the below which was the lineup against Reading last week however if fit I fully expect Bolasie to be in the starting 11.
As for the Blades our only fitness doubt is Leon Clarke who ay miss out with a hamstring tweak. That opens up a space next to Sharp in the starting 11 and I believe McGoldrick will take that spot, with Washington having only just joined. McGoldrick will add a different option to Clarke with him being more of a link player. This could well suit the gameplan against Villa, where I feel we will flood the midfield to try and negate the threat from Villa’s ball-playing midfielders.
That time again Blades! 3 points for a correct score, 1 for a correct result. I was dominating this in a strong 5-2 lead prior to Bolton last weekend, however my lack of faith and Ben’s solid prediction of a Blades win brings us back to 5-3 and it’s game on!
Ben’s prediction: “This is game is a good time to properly measure where we are against a team that will likely make the playoffs. Villa are unbeaten without being overly impressive so far, but have some fantastic players in Adomah, McGinn, Grealish etc... not to mention Bolasie if he's fit to play. I'll go with a strong performance from the Blades but, as with last season's game with these opponents, their extra quality will ultimately tell - 2-1 to Villa."
Jay’s prediction: “Should we be favourites? Absolutely not. Villa have more quality and more importantly more difference makers in the final 3rd. However, I just feel this is a good time to play Villa. I’m not convinced on them at all and not convinced Bruce is stable. With some fitness worries and a fully confident, high tempo Blades team I feel as though this is the perfect time to play them. I think there’s goals here, both sides create and give away chances and I’m going for a Blades 2-1 win with Oliver Norwood to score his first Blades goal from a direct free kick!”
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.