Express & Star

Matt Maher analysis: Villa respond in style as they silence the doubters

You know it’s been a good day when the sole complaint is you only scored five.


Unai Emery’s Villa have already broken a few records this season.

When they netted four times inside the opening half-hour at Sheffield United on Saturday evening, you wondered whether the club’s biggest-ever league win – a 12-2 triumph over Accrington back in 1892 – might be under threat, such was the gulf in class between the teams.

In the end, Emery’s men had to settle for just one more goal, the club’s biggest top-flight away victory since 2008 and a performance which thrust fresh momentum into a campaign some feared might have hit a wall following a run of just one win in five.

Let’s get the obvious mitigation out of the way first: Sheffield United are not very good. On this evidence, they are almost certainly destined for a swift return to the Championship come the end of the season.

When your attack is struggling to fire, as Villa’s was heading into the match having scored just twice in the previous four games, facing the division’s worst defence was always likely to be the perfect antidote. The Blades have now conceded more goals than any other team at this point in a Premier League season.

Yet while their hosts could hardly have been more hospitable, the manner in which Villa accepted their invitation to the feast was still seriously impressive.

Some of their play during an eight-minute first-half spell, in which they scored three goals and effectively put the match to bed, ranked among the best by them or any other team this season.

Its undoubted peak was a pass from Douglas Luiz to Ollie Watkins for Villa’s second of the game. Collecting possession just inside his own penalty area and exchanging passes with Boubacar Kamara, Luiz advanced to within 10 yards of the halfway line before striking the ball with the outside of his right boot to send it on a route which took it first toward the opposition goal then arching round the back of furiously twisting Blades defender Anel Ahmedhodzic and perfectly into the path of Watkins.

So perfect was the pass, it made the striker’s nerveless finish into the bottom corner, beyond a motionless Wes Foderingham, look somewhat ordinary.

Luiz had been suffering from sickness on Saturday morning but more than shrugging off acute illness, this felt like the midfielder and his team-mates hauling himself themselves out of a slightly deeper malaise.

It is not that his performances over the past month had been particularly poor. But neither had they been at the consistently high level which had Villa threatening to go top of the table when these two sides first met just before Christmas.

With Luiz back on song, Villa once again resembled the ruthless machine which so frequently made light work of lower table opposition over the first half of the campaign.

Watkins had almost benefited from some Brazilian magic four minutes before his goal. This time his lobbed finish flicked off Foderingham’s back and spun, at the last moment, on to the post, John McGinn following in to tap home as a helpless Ahmedhodzic slid into the goalmouth and three of his team-mates stood and watched.

Once he had his own name on the scoresheet, Watkins then turned provider, laying on the pass from which Leon Bailey curled home his seventh Premier League goal of the campaign.

When Watkins then crossed for Alex Moreno to volley home Villa’s fifth early in the second half, it took his assists tally for the season to 10, making him the first player in Europe’s top five leagues to reach double figures in both that and the goals scored column. Just for good measure, he even helped preserve Villa’s clean sheet, clearing Jack Robinson’s late header off the line.

There were many other fine performances too. Bailey, fully recovered from the back problem which limited his involvement in last Tuesday’s defeat to Newcastle, was unplayable to the point it sometimes felt cruel on his opponents.

Youri Tielemans, meanwhile, served up his best showing since the calf injury which forced him to miss a month. He had a first league goal for Villa to go with it, crashing in a shot off the underside of the bar to make it 4-0.

It came just seconds after he’d seen a volley cleared off the line and in many ways the sequence summed up the lack of quit in Emery’s team.

Watkins was right, afterwards, when pointing out the fickle nature of football attitudes and judgments which only get harsher the higher you climb.

It works both ways, of course. Saturday does not mean all Villa’s problems are fixed, just as the rush from some quarters to write them off following the loss to Newcastle now looks foolhardy.

The mood could quickly change again should they stumble in Wednesday’s FA Cup replay against Chelsea, or in next Sunday’s clash with Manchester United now shaping up to be a six-pointer in the battle for a top-four finish.

Saturday, if nothing else, should serve warning of the risk in snap conclusions during a race where rewards are won over 38 matches.

The bigger picture, where Villa are concerned, is of a team which has responded to every league defeat by winning the next match. Strong evidence, indeed, to suggest they are in this for the long haul.