Conclusions from Blades 4-1 Villa
I’ve been looking forward to writing this one. Off the back of beating Bolton 3-0, United were arguably even better against much stronger opposition and left Villa reeling with a 4-1 thrashing that – if anything – was quite flattering for the visitors.
Here’s 9 conclusions from our fourth consecutive win. Where to even start?
1) The best since...when?
I’m having to work hard here to think of when we last played this well, certainly in that first 45. From our commanding defending to a dominant midfield and a lively, dangerous attack, Villa simply couldn’t live with our quality, our movement and our aggression. It was an utter pleasure to watch.
So, the last time we played that well (and got the rewards to go with it)? I think you have to look beyond anything from the League One promotion season (when we racked up 100 points), and it’s difficult to remember a game from the last time we were in the Championship that can compete. We’ve had some gutsy performances in the cups this century – beating Liverpool at home in 2003, drawing 2-2 with Spurs in 2015 – plus you could also point to that dramatic 1-0 win over Arsenal in the Premier League in 2006. But those were largely battling performances – not a consistent dismantling of a more-fancied team.
2) The key events
For the record: United took the lead when O’Connell met Norwood’s freekick from the right for his first goal in over a year. The Blades went close to doubling the advantage when superb one-touch football down the left saw Norwood smash the inside of the post from a long-range effort, and more great play down the right led to Sharp having a close-range effort blocked.
The second wasn’t far away though, as Duffy won a physical duel with Villa’s McGinn on halfway, dribbled forward and powered a low shot into the bottom corner. Just before half-time, United won another freekick wide right; this time, Norwood opted to shoot and caught the keeper flat-footed as the ball ended up in the net.
Any signs of a Villa fightback in the second half were quickly dispelled as Norwood made a superb tackle on halfway, laid it forward to Freeman who in turn found Sharp, and the Blades’ striker span onto his left foot to make it 4-0.
McGoldrick then had a shot from the edge of the box well saved by Nyland, before Villa got themselves a barely-deserved consolation when Whelan slipped El Ghazi in. The Blades almost made it five when substitute Lundstram crossed for McGoldrick, but his close-range effort was brilliantly saved. After that, United closed out the game with minimal fuss as Villa were reduced to passing from side to side and our defence mopped up any subsequent crosses.
3) The stats behind the match
Don’t be fooled by the most-commonly used stats in match reports, possession and shots – which suggest Villa had far more of this game (60% possession to Villa; 9 shots each team). In reality, United took their foot off the gas for the last 30 minutes or so, which is where the stats became somewhat padded in Villa's favour.
After 50 minutes – by which point United were 4-0 up – Villa had taken three shots, all of which were from outside the box and none of which were on target. Even by full-time, only two of their shots came from inside the box and five more were blocked on the edge of the area (grey arrows).
Overall we defended our penalty area superbly (more on this later), with Villa only completing three – three! – passes inside our box in the whole game. Similarly, although Villa had the bulk of the possession, United edged the territory 53-47.
The xG for the game shows that United were largely clinical in their finishing, and also scored from two very low-xG opportunities (Duffy and Norwood). It also shows just how little Villa were able to create, apart from one great chance which did indeed end up in the net.
4) Gradual progression
It’s probably a reductive reading of the situation, but this game felt like an illustration of the benefits of our approach to improving the squad – gradual talent progression – over a team like Villa, who have spent big over the last few years and have some extremely talented players.
Villa will almost certainly finish in the top six, maybe even top two: in Jack Grealish, Jon McGinn, Albert Adomah, and the newly-loaned Tammy Abraham and Yannick Bolasie, they have a group of attackers that are arguably Premier League class. But on this evidence they lack the cohesion and onfield-relationships that United possess. That’s why I’d expect them to finish in the top six, but why I would also have absolutely zero fear of playing them in a playoff if it came to it.
How have United achieved this? It goes without saying at this point that Wilder is an outstanding manager, but it’s his approach to squad building that I really want to focus on here. While there’s some frustration that other teams have been able to comfortably outspend us this summer, Wilder seems to have worked this to his advantage by picking up players who are both undervalued and perfectly fit our system and ethos.
The core of the side has evolved in the last few months rather than been entirely rebuilt. Egan slots in alongside the established duo of Basham and O’Connell. Norwood has been superb but he is playing a role that Duffy and Fleck are already familiar with, so their own performances have been enhanced rather than inhibited. Freeman’s return has given us an extra dimension down the right and McGoldrick is several steps above any back-up striker we had last season, to the extent where he may now be first-choice ahead of Clarke.
The fact that we’ve gradually upgraded key positions, rather than had a complete overhaul, has played to our advantage and is a big reason why we were able to make the step-up from League One (Baldock, Stevens, Stearman, Blackman) and why we’ve looked better with every game so far this year.
We’ve made a big deal about not wanting to break our wage structure for a player like Martyn Waghorn or Scott Hogan; there are team benefits to doing so, as well as financial ones.
5) Aggression with quality
Something I’ve really noticed in the last few games is our aggression in winning the ball back. Again, this isn’t reckless play, although it’s part of the reason we’ve committed more fouls than the opposition in recent games (18-12 yesterday, 14-6 against Bolton): we’re working harder than ever to win the ball back high up the pitch, and occasionally that’s going to lead to a few soft fouls.
It's also intelligent pressing with respect the quality of the opposition, and not a case of simply "getting into 'em" at every opportunity. Hat-tip to Jay for this one, but our PPDA (passes per defensive action) was much higher in this game than in previous ones: in layman's terms, we allowed Villa more passes before putting in a tackle/block/clearance/interception than we had done in some of our previous games. We pressed McGinn and their wide players high up the pitch, but would drop off and hold shape if they managed to turn, and try and block their passing lanes. But when the opportunity was there to take the ball, we did so.
That's not to say we’ve kicked our last two opponents off the pitch. Our football has been borderline ridiculous in these last two games. You already know about the Fleck goal at Bolton that was the longest passing move to result in a goal in the Championship this season, but what about the intricate passing and movement that led to Norwood hitting the post?
Just watch the Villa players getting pulled in different directions, bodies flying all over the place. In the end you could actually say they defended this pretty well, but yikes didn’t they have to work hard for it. Tuanzebe (number 4) changes direction about six times in this clip.
When it comes to our blend of aggression and quality though, I don’t think anything shows this better than the fourth goal. Nyland attempts to start a quick attack, and Freeman hurls himself to almost intercept. He doesn’t make it, but instead Norwood steams in from central midfield, makes a brilliant challenge, and suddenly we’re in again.
6) McGoldrick shows his class
From what I’ve seen of McGoldrick so far this season (and in preseason), it’s hard to believe he cost nothing. At the very least, he looks a huge upgrade on Clayton Donaldson, James Wilson or Caolan Lavery. Here, he was given a start due to Leon Clarke’s injury, and turned in a simply fantastic performance.
Here’s his stats courtesy of Jay, which shows just how effective an attacker he was in this game.
His ability on the ball looks outstanding so far, and he almost scored a brilliant goal having dribbled from halfway. Numerous times he just danced away from challenges. He also timed his runs superbly to allow us to get up the pitch, turning clearances into throw-ins deep in Villa territory.
This is a bold claim, but his technique makes me think of Duffy – he’s a hard man to dispossess. He could easily have had two goals here but for excellent saves. I mean... just watch this move.
7) Sharp does it again (again again again)
This was probably Sharp’s best game of the season, and his fourth goal in his last five games in all competitions. In some respects it was another typical Sharp performance – one shot, one goal – but his overall contribution, particularly in his hold-up play, was excellent.
There was a moment shortly after Villa got one back where Lundstram cleared and Sharp not only muscled in front of his man but controlled the ball on his chest, forcing the defender to steam through the back of him for a pressure-relieving freekick. It might not sound like much, but given that neither he nor McGoldrick are particularly physical – or fast – it’s an important contribution.
His goal was just classic Sharp: receiving the ball close to goal, and spinning to finish with his left foot before the goalkeeper could get set.
8) How to close out a game
Coming back to those possession stats: United clearly decided to sit back from about 65 minutes onwards, clogging up the midfield and forcing Villa to go side-to-side before crossing aimlessly into the box. And… we did it superbly.
Of their 24 crosses, only 2 found a Villa player, and they won just a single corner – which the Villa fans cheered like a goal. Lafferty made a rare appearance to give us another defensive body in midfield, with McGoldrick also dropping deeper in the later stages of the game to occupy this space. The three central defenders were close to perfect, with only two lost aerial duels between them.
While it would have been nice to keep attacking and get more goals, it also made sense to save legs (and not leave ourselves open) after that high-intensity opening hour. You could see Norwood gesturing at times to his teammates to not push too high up the field but to sit in.
I also just want to quickly compare this game with our 3-0 defeat to Boro. In both games, the team with the lead sat off in the second half. However, United went on to create a ton of very good chances in the latter part of that game – Villa, for all their creative talent, had barely a shot to speak of outside of El Ghazi's goal.
9) Grealish, meet grass
As Jay noted in his preview, Grealish is the kind of player we love to hate at Bramall Lane – although that shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is objectively a very good player. Nonetheless, this was an afternoon to forget for the Villa no.10, as he spent a large proportion of the game acquainting himself with the Bramall Lane Desso.
The thing with Grealish is: like Neymar, he does get fouled a lot. Unfortunately, also like Neymar, he acts like every single challenge on him has the potential to break his leg, whether it was a fair tackle or no.
This probably sounds stupid in a game where we won 4-1 and so utterly humiliated a promotion contender that their own fans were scrapping amongst themselves before half-time, but my moment of the game didn’t involve any of our attacking. In fact, it didn’t even involve a player who started the game. It involved John Lundstram. You probably know what I’m talking about by now, don’t you?
Crunch. The thing I enjoyed most about this – apart from that it’s a perfectly clean tackle – is that Grealish spent the next 60 seconds laid on the floor while the game went on around him. His team were 4-1 down at the time.
Please note: no Grealishes were harmed in the making of this video.
We now head into the international break on the back of four consecutive wins, and a mere two points off the top of the table. If you've read some of my previous pieces, or listened to BladesPod, I wasn't hugely worried about losing the first two games, especially as they were against two clearly good teams (Boro are joint-1st, Swansea are joint-5th). All the same, the progress we've made in the last few games has been remarkable.
You could easily point to our previous three wins being against relatively weak opposition (teams currently in 22nd, 17th and... well, 8th, but I can't see Bolton hanging around there for much longer), but this was a huge marker. Villa are a very talented team and will likely finish above us... and we made them look like a League One team. It's shaping up to be a fun season.