Aston Villa returning to winning ways and emphatically underlined their Champions League credentials by savaging Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
Unai Emery’s side, who had been humbled 3-1 by Newcastle United and drawn 0-0 with Everton in their previous two Premier League outings, scored four times between the 12th and 30th minutes through John McGinn, Ollie Watkins, Leon Bailey and Youri Tielemans before Alex Moreno wrapped up the scoring early in the second half.
Villa are back up to fourth, ending the day level on points with both Arsenal and Manchester City, who play at home to Liverpool on Sunday and away against Brentford on Monday respectively.
Jacob Tanswell breaks down the big talking points from Villa’s biggest domestic away win of the season.
Watkins ties Sheffield United in knots
Aston Villa needed a quick start today after a relative period of drift in their season. Before arriving at Bramall Lane, they had won just once in five league games, while conceding nine times. Scoring early, therefore, would provide much-needed momentum and, more importantly, against a team who stifled them in a 1-1 draw just last month by sitting in a low block, change the game state.
With Sheffield United deploying a bizarre “Not pressing but not sitting back either” system, they were able to find their feet almost immediately. Villa’s centre-backs and deep midfielders set the tone, regularly finding the feet of McGinn and Watkins with incisive passes through United’s midfield. When Watkins then started to look to go to feet before spinning in behind, Villa’s threat grew and the home side couldn’t deal with him.
Passes received by Ollie Watkins (in blue) and passes made by Watkins (in red) during the first 45 minutes
McGinn and Watkins combined for the opener when the latter drifted off the shoulder of debutant Mason Holgate in the inside-left channel — Everton loanee Holgate only underwent his medical 48 hours earlier — and dinked the ball over Wes Foderingham; that effort hit the post but the rebound fell for McGinn to have the easiest finish of his career.
Watkins then made the same run from the opposite channel four minutes later as Douglas Luiz produced an exquisite, perfectly weighted pass with the outside of his right boot. Watkins took a touch, shifting the ball out of his feet, and fired into the far corner. Watkins then turned provider for Bailey’s whipped third, and then crossed for Moreno to volley in two minutes after the break.
It’s full steam ahead for Emery’s men
Villa’s opening half an hour was a rebuttal to those who assumed they were running out of steam in the Champions League hunt.
After lacking fluidity and precision at the start of this year, Villa were back to their best at Bramall Lane, with each of the four goals inside the first 30 minutes enriched with quality.
Watkins’ runs drove a one-man hole through Sheffield United’s defence while Douglas Luiz reminded why he is technically among the best Premier League midfielders with his pass for Villa’s second. Bailey’s, Villa’s third, showed Villa were back to their clinical best, though, the Jamaican into the box, slowing down before then sharply cutting onto his favoured left foot and nestling an inch-perfect shot past Foderingham.
The manner of Youri Tielemans’ goal then displayed Villa’s ruthlessness once more, with his effort from just inside the box bouncing in off the underside of the crossbar, adding a little more aesthetic shine to the finish.
In doing so, Villa became the first team to score four-plus goals in the opening 30 minutes of a Premier League away game since Chelsea did so against Bolton in October 2011, with several noticeable pockets of home fans at Bramall Lane leaving into the night early. In short, it was a demolition job.
Opportunity knocks for Villa’s squad
Emery’s substitutes erred on the side of his man-management acumen, as opposed to any tactical change. This was understandable given Villa were 5-0 up a minute after half-time and the mood around Bramall Lane had transformed into one of irony, rather than anger.
Jacob Ramsey was introduced after the break for Douglas Luiz, with Emery recognising the need to build up the 22-year-old’s minutes following a stop-start season. Last week, Emery told The Athletic that Ramsey will be a “very important player” for the end-of-season run-in and he immediately moved into the left-sided No 10 position, his favoured role.
Ramsey benefitted from the space Sheffield United strangely seemed to leave and used his ball-carrying skills to good effect. On another day, he could have registered an assist after playing through Tielemans but nonetheless gained valuable minutes.
Moussa Diaby, meanwhile, had scored just one Premier League goal in three months and was dropped for the trip to South Yorkshire. Diaby’s form has fallen sharply since the early weeks of the campaign and was short of confidence. Yet his introduction on the hour mark was earlier than anticipated, replacing the in-form Bailey, and the Frenchman showed flashes of his old self, cutting inside and forcing Foderingham into a diving save 10 minutes later.
Academy talent Tim Iroegbunam then came on for his second Premier League appearance of the season before Morgan Rogers, signed from Middlesbrough on deadline day, was the final sub and also could have scored late on. Emery’s changes showed the importance of a squad game and guiding players into form.
What did Emery say?
We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.
What next for Villa?
Wednesday, February 7: Chelsea (H), FA Cup, 8pm GMT, 3pm ET
After a goalless draw in the original fourth-round tie, these two try again. Villa are now unbeaten in three meetings with Chelsea, winning twice and keeping a clean sheet in all three. The winners here are home against a Championship side, either Plymouth Argyle or Leeds United (whose replay is on Tuesday), at the end of the month to decide who goes through to the quarter-finals.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)