It’s almost time to step back on the Villa rollercoaster for another season. As always, there’s a dangerous amount of optimism in the air before the seasons opening fixture.
In this case, it only applies to Villa as our opponents have already had any pre- season positivity brutally checked by last weeks home defeat by Wolves.
Whether that proves a positive for our chances remains to be seen, with vigilance amongst United’s defence likely to be high in the first few minutes at least.
So, what team will Dean Smith go with? New goalkeeper Martínez will most likely play, and should be comfortable almost immediately given his previous experience at Arsenal.
Our League Cup tie against Burton featured a largely second string side, so it’s perhaps more useful to look at our last friendly against Man Utd for clues to the preferred first XI. Here, Matty Cash played on the right, with Konsa, Mings and Targett making up the rest of our back line. With Engels still injured, you’d get good odds on that being our back four v the Blades.
In the centre, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn will undoubtedly feature if fit. My guess is Connor Hourihane will take up the other spot, although Marvellous Nakamba could feature if Dean needs to tighten up the middle during the match.
Up front, new boy Bertrand Traore has barely had chance to meet the team, so it’s likely Super Jack and Olly Watkins, with Trezeguet on the left after his end of season heroics in July.
Much was made of Keinan Davis’ performance and goal against Burton, and he is likely to be on the bench, with El Ghazi, Elmo, Nakamba, Hause, Jed Steer and Samatta most likely to be also warming the dug out seats.
What of Sheffield United? Despite the financial boost received from their unexpectedly high finish last season, our opponents have chosen to stick with much of the same team who shocked the top flight in 2019-20.
Last seasons keeper Dean Henderson performed well enough for parent club Manchester United to offer him a new contract and return to Old Trafford.
Manager Chris Wilder moved to sign Aaron Ramsdale from relegated Bournemouth for around £18 million. Ramsdale featured in the defeat against Wolves but couldn’t be blamed for the dozy defending in the first few minutes.
Full backs Max Lowe and Jayden Bogle also arrived, both from Derby. This seems more of a future investment but either could feature against Villa if Wilder decides to punish his established defenders for their early capitulation in the opening game.
The poor start against Wolves was in sharp contrast to last season, where the Blades record of 39 conceded in 38 games was only bettered by the top three sides. A key figure at the back was ex-villain Enda Stevens, and most Villa fans would not begrudge him his success given the scarcity of opportunity available at Villa Park during his time with us.
United don’t score many (39 last season), but Villa need to be careful whoever plays up front. Last season United’s forwards shared the goals, with 6 each for Lousett and McBurnie, and 5 for Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick. Midfielders Fleck and Lundstram also managed 5 apiece.
United scored just 15 goals away from Bramall Lane last season, and their frugal approach suggests whoever takes the lead in this game could be crucial to the end result.
View Across the Dugout:
The following answers are from Sheffield United fan site, The Shoreham View: we’d like to thank them for their contribution to our ‘View Across the Dugout’.
After last seasons heroics, how optimistic are you going into the new campaign?
This is a really difficult question, because in our hearts we want to push on, we want to do the same if not even better! So after a very poor game it can kill a lot of that heartfelt optimism! But when using the brain over the heart, I’m optimistic that our club can achieve its aim, and that aim is staying in the top flight!
Following the financial boon of early survival, do you think the club could have invested more in players?
I think we have invested really well, bringing in positive young players to push the first team, particularly at the back. We do need to bring a forward in, and it’s a running joke with Blades fans that when it comes to players Aston Villa don’t scout, they just see who we are after and throw money at the player. Whether that is true or not, I think we’re sensible with our recruitment, Wilder wont spend over what he sees as fair value and he won’t pay extortionate wages. Frustrating at times yes, but far better for us in the long run financially and for the security of the club and I’m confident we can still bring in what we need.
Following defensive issues against Wolves, do you think new signings Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe could feature at Villa Park?
It’s a big possibility. Especially considering how well Lowe played against Burnley particularly. I think we need to avoid mass overhauls at this stage, we are in unprecedented times. The defence that was rock solid last season had an off day and we barely had a pre season so I don’t expect huge changes, but it is possible some players may have forced their way in.
Your fans must be amongst the most frustrated at not being able to attend matches. Do you think the empty stadiums have affected the teams performance post lockdown?
100%. I think that any team with a passionate fanbase will understand that stereotypical twelfth man will drag a lot of teams through difficult games, and I think it’s obvious with us having such a passionate fanbase home and away that we felt the loss of that support last season after the restart. And we continue to into the new season!
Do you see any new signings happening before the end of the transfer window? Who would you realistically like to see the Blades sign?
I think one maybe two players will be signed before the window slams shut. It’s looking likely that either the Blades or Villa will have Brewster in at some point. Personally I’m hoping to see him in red and white.
Ex-Villain Enda Stevens has enjoyed success during his time with United. How crucial has he been during your recent rise?
Signing Enda in our first season back in the Championship was seen as a gamble, but it’s paid off in a big way. The guy fights for everything, has a great left foot and is a perfect Wilder style player who gives his all! It’s nice to see him have competition for his place right now as getting the best out of him for a fourth season will be crucial to any success we have.
Heart of the Holte Prediction:
Both teams are likely to be operating around the same level this season, so a close game seems a certainty. The bookies agree, with odds around 17/10 for a win for either side, and around 11/5 for a draw.
With these odds, fine margins will decide the game. Much will depend on which side takes their chances. Villa will look to pummel the United defence with crosses to Olly Watkins, whereas United will look to dominate in midfield (where we can look lightweight), and put pressure on Targett and new boy Matty Cash early on.
It’s a tough opening fixture. Win and we go to struggling Fulham on a high, lose and our trip to Craven Cottage will feel like an early relegation six pointer.
In truth though, whatever happens on Monday there’ll be 37 games still to go.