Adventurous and inventive, Chris Basham’s back-heel was a moment to epitomise the ‘Chris Wilder Way’. With Christmas approaching, few in the self-styled best league in the world have found a method of beating it.
Those that have, have done so at Bramall Lane.
Wilder’s old Blades chief Steve Bruce succeeded by nicking an early goal, then smothering them with a blanket Newcastle defence.
Aston Villa’s Dean Smith who, like Norwich City’s Daniel Farke the previous week, had a couple of sighters in the Championship last season, also tried parking the bus at Bramall Lane but without an early goal to cling to, it did not come off. The Blades rarely make the same mistake twice.
At the best of times, Sheffield United do not need much encouragement to throw men forward and get players running from deep. At Norwich, it was the wing-backs who scored their match-winning goals.
This time, six minutes after a dull first half where they had pushed hard for little reward, the hosts were again high up the pitch on their right-hand side looking for a chink in Villa’s armour.
As usual, central defender Basham was one of them and with his back to the pale blue wall, he knocked the ball into space with his heel, knowing John Lundstrum would run onto it. The Merseysider delivered a curling cross begging to be finished and his fellow central midfielder, John Fleck, was happy to oblige. The deadlock had been broken.
“When things are going well for you, you try little things,” shrugged Basham. “If they come off it can work really well, if not they’re on the counter-attack and you are chasing back.
“It put Lunny right in behind the back four and he just had to find somebody. John arrived late in the box again to score.”
It was a goal that really did change the game. For the first time, Villa had to attack, and when Wesley and Jack Grealish hit the side-netting in quick succession, it made you wonder why they had not thought of it earlier. John Egan needed an excellent tackle to stop Anwar El Ghazi.
But the Blades kept playing the same way, Basham chipping a lovely ball over the top to find substitute Oli McBurnie, only for Frederic Guilbert to cut out the cross before it could find Enda Stevens.
They were more deadly when facing away from goal than towards it, and in the 73rd minute, David McGoldrick cleverly hooked the ball into Fleck’s pass for the second goal. Fleck had more than made up for the first-half booking when he caught Frederic Guilbert and which rules him out of Saturday’s trip to Brighton and Hove Albion, but it was McGoldrick’s name the fans chanted first.
Failing to get a clean contact when Oliver Norwood curled a ball into his path at the start of the second half, McGoldrick again missed out on his first Sheffield United goal since Easter, but the Bramall Lane faithful know not to judge their centre-forward on that, not with others making up the shortfall.
Fleck, who has gone from a run of four goals in 98 league games to four more in seven, was very gently criticised by Wilder after the game for not going for his hat-trick when played through in the 88th minute, but that perhaps only became the best option after he turned down the chance to play in McGoldrick. Instead, he played a disappointing pass to Lundstram, but the fact the midfielders were powering into the area even at that late stage impressed Wilder.
The game was won by then, thanks to Grealish smashing his penalty against the crossbar after the video assistant referee spotted Egan’s hand leaning into the ball as it bounced around the penalty area. A 78th-minute goal could have made life uncomfortable but the outcome was fair reward for a way of playing Wilder has honed in three-and-a-half years at his beloved club, resisting the widespread changes Villa have made since promotion.
“I had no choice, I didn’t have £120m to spend!” he said, doing his best to deflect the praise owed to him. “We were always going to do it.
“I always believed that these players deserved an opportunity in the division. Then they had to go out and prove they are good enough to play in this division. They have got a foothold but it is still key, and they know it, that they have to keep improving. We have set high standards and you have to play well to get in our team and you have to play well to stay in it.
“The players went away at the end of the season after about four weeks of celebrating getting promoted then sobering up, and decided individually that they wanted to be a Premier League player.
“We were never going to take a wrecking the ball to the way we played. The players that we had, we just had to fine tune. They don’t seem out of place in the Premier League.”
That others are starting to realise that will mean more attack-versus-defence games at Bramall Lane, but having buried the disappointment of Newcastle, the Blades have nothing to fear from that.