Aston Villa prepare to host Sheffield United as the much-anticipated restart of the Premier League season gets underway at Villa Park this evening.
On their return to top-flight football, the two promoted sides’ fortunes have been in stark contrast so far this campaign, with Chris Wilder’s men flying high in seventh place while the Villans are languishing in the relegation zone.
But the Blades are going to have to be at their very best if they’re to claim the three points, as Dean Smith’s side have already proven themselves to be a tricky opposition for a number of the league’s best outfits – with their impressive run to the Carabao Cup final the highlight of their season so far.
Although Villa were unfortunate to suffer a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Manchester City in that encounter, performances such as that will give them the confidence that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone on their day.
By no means will they be underestimating the stern task that lies ahead of them this evening, though, as they are set to come up against a defence that has conceded just 25 goals this season – the second-best defensive record in the Premier League behind leaders Liverpool.
After Sheffield United eased to a 2-0 victory when the pair last met at Brammall Lane in Decemeber, Smith may well look to change his approach and try and take the game to the visitors.
Here, we analyse how Villa can get the better of the Blades.
Villa must be up for the fight
Since Wilder joined United back in 2016, he has revolutionised the Yorkshire club and brought a fresh, dynamic brand of football to the Premier League – built around tactical coordination and a strong, balanced unit that he placed an awful lot of faith in.
The 52-year-old is incredibly demanding of his players and expects nothing less than constant, 100% effort – meaning they will almost certainly be ready for the return to action at Villa Park.
With that in mind, the emphasis will be on Villa to match those energy levels and prove they are up for the fight in order to claim a vital three points that would lift them out of the drop zone.
Finding the back of the net has not been one of the home sides problems so far this season, having registered 34 goals in their 28 games – four more than the Blades have managed.
But they do possess the leakiest defence in the league, after already letting in 56 goals, which included a 4-0 hammering against Leicester City in their last fixture before the campaign was halted three months ago.
Win the tactical battle
Unlike United, who set up in a fluid 3-5-2 formation week in week out, Smith has struggled to find a formation that can get the best of his squad.
The Villa boss has experimented with a 3-4-3, a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 setup, but none of those shapes have lasted more than a few matches at a time.
In order to get a result out of this game, the home side should be looking to limit the Blades’ time on the ball and prevent them from taking charge of the game.
Keep Grealish up the field
With United employing two wing-backs that love to get forward and whip balls into the box, Villa should be looking to starve the away side of width and look to break quickly on the counter.
In order to ahchieve that, keeping Jack Grealish as high up the pitch as possible could be a good tactic to implement.
The creative midfielder, who operates in a free role off the left wing, is by far the Villans’ biggest threat and, knowing the damage he is capable of causing, the Blades will surely be looking to limit his time on the ball in their half.
So, if Grealish holds his position while the opposition are on the offensive, the Blades’ right wing-back George Baldock and mirauding right centre-half Chris Basham may think twice about leaving Villa’s captain all alone in a dangerous position on the counter.
With the number 10 averaging just one tackle a game so far this season, this tactic would mean his side would be missing very little from him in the defensive transition.
In the previous game at Brammal Lane, Grealish put in what has probably been his worst display of the season, after having just 47 touches of the ball and missing a penalty.
As the midfielder’s heatmap from that game shows below, while he did spend large portions of the match in the Blades’ half, he was forced back into his own half far too often.
The playmaker didn’t make a single tackle to help out his defenders, completed just one successful dribble and made one pass in the opposition’s area, according to WhoScored.
Compare that to the heatmaps of Baldock (first) and Basham (second) in that same fixture, which clearly show they were allowed to reign free down Villa’s left-hand side knowing Grealish was likely to follow them.
The defenders had a whopping 80 and 66 touches of the ball, proving they were given far too much license to play in their natural, free-flowing style.
If Smith’s side are to claim a result from the game, this can’t afford to happen and this tactic may just make Sheffield United think about how many men they are willing to commit forward.
That being said, if they do continue to attack at will in their usual style, a formation with three central midfielders would be the best way to go for the Villans – leaving the left-sided player and the full-back behind him to combat United’s threat down the right flank.
This is without doubt going to be a tricky fixture for both teams, especially with the added factor of their behind no crowd in the stadium to build-up the atmosphere.
With European football within reach for the Blades and Premier League survival at stake for Villa, it’s certainly a game neither side can afford to lose.
On the day, the manager that has prepared his team well enough mentally, physically and tactically over the past few weeks to impose themselves on the game and limit the opposition’s threats will likely come out on top.
But, for Villa, it’s imperative they get Grealish on the ball as much as possible in United’s half and limit the amount of time he spends defending his own goal.
Most importantly, though – here’s to the world’s best league finally being back on the nation’s screens.
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