Aston Villa v Sheffield United - It’s a thinking game for Chris Wilder
As sides that came up from the Championship together they have a close and friendly rivalry, and have even faced one another behind closed doors before, at Villa Park in June.
Villa outbid the Blades for Matty Cash this summer and spent heavily on Ollie Watkins to pose different problems this evening.
The Blades have recruited, too, but more frugally, signing Oliver Burke, Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe, Ethan Ampadu and goalkeepers Aaron Ramsdale and Wes Foderingham.
Their acquisitions are more about driving competition within the squad as they look to get more out of those who served them so well last season.
Centre-back John Egan laughs at talk of second-season syndrome, but posing different problems is an important part of any team’s development and in Thursday’s League Cup tie at Burnley, holding midfielder Oliver Norwood was used in the role normally occupied by John Lundstram.
“We’re not in a position to say, ‘That’s our XI, away you go’,” says Chris Wilder. “We can’t be blasé to think our best is going to be good enough to blast anyone away. It has to evolve. There’s no wrecking ball to it but we always have to think.
“Vila did a couple of things different to us in the second game (of last season) to the first, and there’s a couple of things we will do differently.
“Ollie (Norwood)’s got the ability to play in that position. He played a lot of his football there at Fulham as an eight (attacking central midfielder) and we felt it would be good to look at him there. He played one ball to Oli Burke which showed his range and vision. It’s something we can go to to exploit space down the sides and in behind.”
Wilder admits he is jealous of the £28m, potentially rising to £33m, Villa were able to spend on Watkins in a global pandemic.
“Sometimes, yeah, there are envious glances,” he says, “but we’ve got to find our way to establish ourselves in the Premier League.”
Even with smaller outlays, Sheffield United’s squad feels much better for its summer signings. Egan certainly feels that way.
“The quality of the squad has gone up a notch every window since I’ve been at the club,” he says.
“You’ve got players pushing each other for positions and that can only bode well for everyone.
“You want to keep players on an upward trajectory and improving. That’s something the manager is big on.”
The new men must not just have technical ability, but the mindset Wilder demands.
“Everyone we seem to sign all have a similar mentality – hard-working, want to get better with a lot of quality as well,” claims Egan.
While the talk about “second-season syndrome” – how much harder it is for teams and players to replicate breakthrough campaigns – bemuses Egan, it could be a positive, feeding in the mentality which saw the squad fuelled by the doubters who wrote them off as relegation certainties at the beginning of last season, and having hit the wall when it restarted after coronavirus.
“Maybe,” he says. “The only time I really hear about it is when I’m doing interviews. Apart from that, it hasn’t crossed my mind.
“It’s not like we’re sitting down at lunch talking about stuff like that. It’s just looking at the next game.
“Last year we came up and everyone was saying we were going to go straight back down. We ended up finishing ninth, which was brilliant.
“At the start of last season we never really said we want to finish here or there, it was always let’s go and try and win the next game and see where it takes us. If you try and set yourselves targets, it quickly comes back to bite you.”
For all the positive noises, the Blades have lost their last four games across two seasons and two competitions. They need to get back to winning ways.
Last six games: Aston Villa WDWDWL; Sheffield United LLLLWW.
Referee: G Scott (Oxfordshire).
Last time: Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0, June 17, 2020, Premier League.
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