Premier League – 21th September 2020.

After what feels like a long wait due to a postponed opening fixture against Manchester City, Aston Villa started their 2020/21 Premier League season at home to Sheffield United. With pre-season success against some of the top Prem teams, a win in the Carabao Cup last week, and some exciting new signings, fans seemed generally optimistic going into the game. At the same time, Sheffield United were surely looking to bounce back following their recent defeats in both the league and the cup, so the game was destined to be an exciting one. 

Team News :

Villa’s starting XI was as I had hoped – starts for the new boys, Cash, Watkins, and Martinez. With Traore being registered too late to play, Smith played Grealish on the left-wing. Hopefully, we will get to see Jack back in his favoured position in the near future, with more players likely to come through the door.

From the first whistle Villa put on the pressure, with the earliest chance coming in the second minute – Cash crossed a great ball in from the right that McGinn couldn’t quite put away. We continued to press, to the frustration of Sheffield’s Lundstram who fouled Grealish twice within the opening ten minutes, and was consequently booked. 

The most notable controversy of this match came not from a technical mistake, but when John Egan desperately pulled the shirt of Ollie Watkins in minute twelve, who would’ve otherwise reached a long ball from Mings to go one on one with Sheffield keeper, Ramsdale. Referee Graham Scott immediately reached for the red card as Egan had denied Villa a goal-scoring opportunity, which was confirmed by VAR.

Now against a ten-man team, Villa continued to dominate possession. The eighteenth minute saw a famous Hourihane free-kick narrowly cleared by O’Connell, followed by successive corners.

Chris Wilder decides in the thirty-first minute how to rearrange his team to account for the red card, replacing McGoldrick for Apedu and opting for a more defensive formation. Just moments after this change, a Sheffield counter-attack leads to a penalty conceded by Matt Target. The VAR check was lengthy, indicating that it was not a ‘clear and obvious error’ and would therefore not be overturned. Sure enough, the penalty was given and Villa’s new signing Emi Martinez was given the biggest possible test on his debut. Heroically, Martinez makes a fantastic save, diving correctly to the left. If it wasn’t already clear, Cash and Mings’ reaction to the save showed the level of respect our Villa side have for the experienced keeper, but also the immediate chemistry he has formed with the team. 

After this near miss, Villa push on against a very defensive Sheffield United. Four minutes of injury time is seen out with McGinn winning a foul on the edge of the box, taken by Hourihane and crossing the face of the goal. 

It was before the second half even began that Villa faced their next worry; Ezri Konsa looked like he felt a twinge in his hamstring, reminiscent of Mings’ injury that led to a goal last season. Konsa chooses to push on, which ends up being a match-defining decision. 

Further chances are created, mostly by Grealish and Cash from either wing. Watkins continued to be in the right places at the right times and was unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet, but looks promising for the future and definitely fills a gap in the team that was costly for us last season. Dean Smith took advantage of a reduced Sheffield side and switched out Hourihane for Davis, moving to playing two up front.

Immediately following this substitution, Villa win a corner. Taken by Grealish, glanced on by Mings, and headed in by Konsa, Villa go one up in the sixty-second minute. It is only a few minutes later that Konsa clears with his head at the other end of the pitch, proving his versatility. 

The last half an hour is full of opportunities for Villa, which are unfortunately not quite put away. With the haunting late-game stats of last season looming over us, there is no doubt that every fan at home was hoping for a second goal to put the game to bed. Big chances included multiple shots from Grealish that went just wide of the post and a shot from distance from Watkins that narrowly misses the top right corner, showing he’s after more than just the tap ins and headers we’ve seen so far. 

In the last ten minutes, Cash and McGinn both pick up yellow cards for time-wasting and a trip up respectively. Towards the final whistle, the game became much more end to end, with our opponents fighting to scrape a point. A late corner allowed Berge to get a shot away that narrowly goes wide. Three minutes of injury time are added, with Villa still relentless on the attack. The final moments include a deflected shot from Grealish going over the bar and a shot from Douglas Luiz which is also too high. 

Some will argue that we should’ve scored more goals against a ten-man side, but an extremely defensive Sheffield did not make it easy for us. Personally, I am more than happy with the performance and I’m excited for the rest of the season. Stand out performances have to go to Emi Martinez, of course, for his consistently collected presence between the posts as well as his huge penalty save; Ezri Konsa for both his goal and his defensive work; and Matty Cash for his brilliant runs and crosses into the box. After our lucky draw in this very same game last season, Villa proved to be the worthy winners this time around, deservedly taking all three points.