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Observations from Villa’s 3-3 thriller with Sheffield United

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There’s a lot to go through after Villa drew with Sheffield United - so let’s take it on

Aston Villa v Sheffield United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Aston Villa drew a game with Sheffield United 3-3 and there’s a lot to talk about. Goals, goals and more goals, decisions, substitutions and Glenn Whelan. God, there’s a lot to go over. Let’s get into it.

For 80 minutes Aston Villa were bad

You can’t shy away from this. The question for me is this - were Sheffield United simply that much better than Aston Villa were bad? Who was to blame for that result going into the 80th minute? I’m leaning towards Sheffield United just being that much better.

They had the complete control of the game and nothing went Villa’s way at all. Villa had no momentum at any point in that game and they cannot play football without momentum. It’s this odd feeling of just being completely impotent in a footballing sense. You see Kodjia running into space, kick the ball over to him, but it hits the ground and bounces wildly out? This was the case for Villa all game. Everything they tried did not work. When you’re performing footballing actions - like passing and tackling, and they aren’t working - it can probably feel like there’s another force working against you. Every tackle made seemed to just put the ball into the path of a surging United player. Every pass lacked a bit of fizz, every shot was taken off-balance. Every run was miscalculated. It did seem like The Blades were on a higher level than Villa and took that and ran with it.

Momentum is a key factor in the gameplan of teams like Sheffield United. Momentum can be forced and won by cutting out passing lanes and springing instant counters. Sheffield United took advantage of Villa’s weak passing display in midfield and succeeded. They did not get lucky, but they did make their own chances and by that it’s easier to say they made their own luck and ripped the game from Villa’s hands.

And when that happens, honestly no matter what you want to think, there is no coming back from it. When you are 3-0 down and constantly running into traps set by the other team, you’ve got a problem that can’t be fixed. Villa chased the game and were invited to press and leave the back exposed. It’s just a hell world when that happens, a nightmare.

For 10 minutes Sheffield United were worse

At 3-0 up, with ten minutes or so remaining in the game, there is no way at all that you should be losing. 2-0 is a game state that can be overturned, but 3-0 is an impenetrable barrier. It’s hard enough to score one goal? But three? Come on. You’ve got this if you’ve scored 3-0 and the match is winding down.

It’s very easy to say Villa were bad, because they were - but god - Sheffield United collapsed when they let in a single goal while running away with a three nil lead. They still had a two goal buffer. That is something special. There are no words to describe simply how bad of a collapse that was.

And here’s the thing - Villa didn’t play that much differently, they just raised the tempo. Glenn Whelan still hit a few long balls when he came on for Mile Jedinak, and Andre Green still misplaced crosses when he came on for Kodjia. There were a lot of grumbles made about Dean Smith’s changes, but tactically, they were the right thing to do and likely happened at just the right time. Sheffield United had to adjust to keep up with Whelan after preying on the midfield all game. Andre Green was more mobile than Jonathan Kodjia and demanded more of Sheffield United’s defence. Combining that little bit more of freedom whilst asking more out of Chris Wilder’s United side is the type of move that probably wouldn’t have happened under Steve Bruce. Under Dean Smith, Villa have been able to spring back into games, and just like that, they did. If Sheffield United collapsed, it’s because Aston Villa helped them to do so. They fell into a lull and became complacent and Glenn Whelan played his part to perfection. I’d like to think that wasn’t accidental.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Six goals shared evenly between two teams. Billy Sharp bagged three for Sheffield and Tammy Abraham, Tyrone Mings and Andre Green split the tally for Villa.

Sheffield United’s goals came as result of momentum and them placing Villa on the back foot. It’s hard to defend when you’re chasing the ball, especially so when you are unable to pick up your man because coverage of the ball takes precedence. Villa didn’t deal with Billy Sharp on three separate occasions - with Tammy Abraham trying to clear the ball off the line while standing behind the line on one of them. The second goal came as a result of United getting the best of a tangle in midfield - and running past it. Sharp scored after kicking through the hands of Kalinic. A foul, but not flagged. That will happen in this league. Again, Villa didn’t step up at all for their own luck. If they want to stop the first goal, it needs to be defended on the line, not from inside the goal. If they want to stop the second, they need to complete a foul in midfield and take the booking instead of dropping off.

Sheffield United’s most complete goal was the third - and excellent prepared effort and one that takes advantage of a truly beaten Villa team.

But Villa weren’t beaten. Villa continued chasing the game after the introduction of Glenn Whelan and came close through a Hourihane free-kick. His corner though? It’d be buried by a heroic Tyrone Mings (quite the change) who took advantage of weak goalkeeping and defending to head past Dean Henderson in the Sheffield United goal. Still, it’s 3-1 with ten or so minutes left to go. That’s a lot to turn around.

Villa’s second goal came about off the back of a set-piece routine where Hourihane, Elphick and Whelan linked up to give Elphick a shot - which was eventually buried by Tammy Abraham taking advantage of Dean Henderson’s weak parry.

The equaliser was headed home by a surging Andre Green after John McGinn devoured the ball and crossed following a Sheffield United mis-kick by Jack O’Connell in the box.

The link? Villa forced mistakes and took advantage of them - mirroring Sheffield United’s general game. Both teams asked questions that the other simply could not answer. Villa just left it well too late - but sometimes you can only open up the game when the other team allows you to do so.

Anyway, have you seen Andre Green’s post match interview? His wry smile as he tries to remain professional when speaking about his last-minute equaliser? That’s what it’s all about folks.

Mile Jedinak and Glenn Whelan

I love Mile Jedinak and he has been a fantastic servant to Villa. He was likely the key player for AVFC in the first season down here in the Championship bar Jonathan Kodjia.

Yesterday was a little different - and there’s been a lot of criticism against him and Dean Smith for that.

However, I don’t think the decision to start Mile Jedinak was a bad idea. Villa probably wanted to sacrifice a bit of pace in midfield for a bit more steel. Jedinak can win the ball in the air, a lot, and he can cut out attacks. You do need something like that against a multi-skilled attack like Sheffield United, and especially against a team who are playing Gary Madine and Billy Sharp.

What is planned on the tactics board sometimes dissipates when the game starts. Jedinak did not complete a lot of his passes, and often-enough, this was the catalyst for a counter-attack. When Villa’s defensive midfielder has the ball, Villa start rushing forward - but if that player loses the ball, your midfield and full-backs are caught out. It’s not just the long ball, I feel it’s ok to lose a long ball because it’s a riskier pass. If you’re misplacing short passes, then you have a huge problem as you’ve allowed the other team to instantly capitalise on your immediate mistake. Villa have had this problem all season

Jedinak in the midfield held the right position, but Sheffield United are too slippery for that. I mentioned earlier about ‘traps’ - and the easiest one to pull in my opinion is to rob the defensive midfielder of the ball and win an attacking chance with the other team on the back foot. If you want a reason as to why Sheffield United looked so dominant - it’s because of that. The ball was far too easy to win in midfield.

That changed with Glenn Whelan’s introduction. Whelan was able to place passes faster and avoid danger with the ball. What’s more he was able to rush forwards to support the attack and create overloads. His introduction allowed John McGinn and Conor Hourihane a lot more space and freedom. The theory is that Jedinak should allow the same to happen, but when he falls deeper, there can be a larger gap between him and the others - which can be a huge problem.

Whelan’s first-time passing allowed him to control the tempo and give Villa a chance. Sheffield United could no longer spring onto the pass with success. When your strategy blows black in your face like that, and you’re not settling down and sitting back to seal the win - you’ve got to try and readjust very quickly, which is hard for any team to do. Thanks for that one Glenn.

Tyrone Mings

The reason I haven’t mentioned the terrible officiating in this match is because Villa have benefited from it. Whether Mings’ step on Nelson Oliviera last week was accidental or not, it was still a reckless piece of play. Maybe it wasn’t a game incident for the referee to control, but it was certainly that the Football Association should have taken a look at. They didn’t.

The step on Oliviera? I can now see why that situation came about. All Tyrone Mings wants is the ball. He’s an incredibly rough defender. There’s no getting past him and it’s very similar to the terrier-like attitude of John McGinn and to a lesser extent Jack Grealish. It’s true aggression, but unlike the midfield duo above, Mings is going to be defending in more hectic situations. It’s a force of nature that’s quite incredible to see.

A lot has to be said about the character of some of these players. There’s a large portion of them that didn’t give up, and a fair slice of them who led by example. Tyrone Mings falls into both catagories and he makes Aston Villa so much better. I don’t want him placed out on the left. He’s our centre-half now.

‘Toxicity’

I wrote a lengthy piece the other day about toxic behaviour at Villa Park and I’m starting to feel that it is misunderstood. I think moaning, demanding better and leaving early are all valid. I think when that turns nastier is when it becomes toxic. You get a lot of people coming at you saying is it ok to be ‘toxic’ now when Villa are losing? And I think that’s rooted in some odd, odd complex with the identity of being a Villa fan at the heart of it. I’m not here to define the parameters of your support - and there’s no way to be a better fan. I just think we need to think more, sometimes, about why we actually go to Villa games and follow the club.

Yesterday, there was a fight in the stands seemingly related to the in-game performance next to me. If Villa are winning at that point, the right point, I’m pretty sure people aren’t as frustrated to start screaming at each other. That’s toxic, right? Some people on my row at the stadium slammed their chairs when the tactical change to bring Glenn Whelan on at 3-0 down was announced. They left because of Whelan. That was breaking point.

Nobody wants to win the ‘better fan’ argument, and I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that something I explained at length is being so easily misunderstood. Nobody wants to mindlessly back a bad team - but come on - we’ve got to leave our nastiness out of it. The Neil Taylor birthday thing was pretty awful when you think about it, and that was my point - we can’t separate a bad match from anything. What are we owed by Villa? And why do we follow the club if it makes us feel that awful, and awful enough to pass those bad vibes on?

All I’m saying is that being positive and trying to find some light-heartedness when Villa are in the ‘void’ is a good thing, in general and for what it’s worth, you’re free to leave the stadium when you choose - but what are you going to do there during the time you spend watching the team? That’s the question for all of us.

It’s time to build the Villa we want to build

Dean Smith and Aston Villa are very clearly trying to build something, and it’s quite obviously not going to happen this year. A lot of players are out of contract, ageing and looking forward to a future that possibly won’t be at Aston Villa. There’s going to be mass upheaval in the Summer and I’d be honestly be surprised if Villa refused transfer offers when the time comes for any single player. It’s going to be rough. However, this team are still worth your support. 80 minutes of bad play can sometimes, sometimes be made up for with ten minutes of brilliance. I know how you feel, but this is a project, once more - and it’s one I’m starting to feel faith in.

Let’s build the Villa that we want to build and let’s do our best in making our voices heard. I’m pretty sure we all want Villa to succeed and we might just be on the first step of doing so. I’m hoping that this 3-3 draw is the catalyst for all of that.