It was a decent time to face Aston Villa. Or at least so went the theory. Since they were prevented from reaching the summit of the division late last year – by, of all teams, Sheffield United – Unai Emery’s side have stuttered slightly.
A run of one victory in five league games had, for the first time since Emery’s appointment, posed more questions than it has offered answers. This then, was an emphatic statement, albeit with the asterisk that the Blades’ defensive generosity was seemingly boundless.
It was a separation in class, an exercise in Villa incision and in shadow chasing for their hapless hosts. Were these two clubs’ offerings sandwiches, say, consumer tongues would be met with markedly different taste experiences.
Emery has built himself a Villa extravaganza, as plentiful in substance as it is style. Hearty slices of John McGinn, Youri Tielemans and Douglas Luiz give structure, with flavour added by high-end, organic Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey-based fillings.
Of that quintet, all bar Douglas Luiz had netted pre-break, while Àlex Moreno completed the scoring soon after it. Douglas Luiz, who started despite reporting unwell in the morning, was even afforded 45 minutes off.
“I’m happy because before the match we were very focused to react,” said Emery, in reference to the midweek defeat to Newcastle. “We were clinical. We got confidence quickly and were feeling comfortable on the pitch.”
To begin, Douglas Luiz split a trio of centre-backs to send Watkins racing clear. His attempted finish, via a deflection off Wes Foderingham, struck the post. Anel Ahmedhodzic had slid valiantly to clear but that simply left United’s captain a floored spectator as McGinn tapped in. As a picture, it captured the Blades’ season-long helplessness.
From a United foray forward, Villa doubled their lead. A typo? No. Jayden Bogle’s cut-back was misplaced straight to Douglas Luiz and, a one-two with Boubacar Kamara later, the outside of the Brazilian’s right boot was sumptuously stroking an incisive ball for Watkins. This time, the striker added to his personal tally.
Bailey’s classy addition came next. It was as beautifully simple as it was simply beautiful. Rhys Norrington-Davies did no wrong in showing Bailey the touchline, but the next move was always going to be a shoulder drop and jig inside. Seeing it is not the same as stopping it. The net fizzed; Emery celebrated wildly; and Chris Wilder stared that little bit further into the abyss.
Having shipped three in eight minutes, the 10-minute pause before Villa’s fourth helping felt like a United victory of sorts. Tielemans had just seen an effort cleared off the line when, from the subsequent corner, the ball fell kindly to him. One touch. Steady. Bang, in off the underside. Club account opened in some style.
If Wilder had words during the interval, they were not heeded. Auston Trusty’s twice hashed clearance led to Watkins crossing for Moreno to volley in Villa’s fifth.
United have been serving up something altogether very different to their opponents. Attending Bramall Lane has rapidly become a labour of loathing, and yet still they turn up to feast on the footballing equivalent of a service station toastie.
Both price and packaging suggest a premium top-flight product, but a bite brings only bland disappointment. “Effin’ rubbish United” is about the most printable of the cries from the few still present by the close.
When demotion is inevitably confirmed – presumably at some point in early spring – it will be difficult to point to any single fatal factor. Defensive frailty though, certainly ranks at the top.
At times, there was some faux anger from the locals, but really apathy has set in already. At the end of each half, the fourth official was roundly jeered. His crime? Drawing out the pain.
Those who stuck it out to the end almost got some reward. Alas, Vini Souza’s would-be stoppage-time consolation was ruled out following a lengthy VAR check.
“No excuses,” said Wilder. “We were architects of our own downfall. Well and truly beaten.”