As the fourth Aston Villa goal crashed in off the underside of the crossbar, hurrying even more home supporters towards the exits, it was tempting to wonder whether a Premier League record was about to be broken.
Villa had been irresistible, the first away team to score four goals in the opening 30 minutes of a match at this level for over 12 years, and Sheffield United were impossibly bad.
Yet Villa would add only one more goal in the second half and, by the end, the record-breakers were Chris Wilder and Sheffield United.
United have now conceded 59 goals, which is the most shipped by any team after 23 matches in Premier League history, and there seems little hope of Wilder’s return ending in a ‘Great Escape’.
Wilder was irritated in midweek by an assistant referee munching on a sandwich as he sought an explanation from the officials, but has far more worrying matters on his plate.
United are heading inexorably for relegation and the first-half performance will be difficult for Wilder to digest.
While Wilder can excuse a lack of quality, the absence of desire, commitment and defensive organisation was desperately evident. Two thirds of Bramall Lane was empty by the final whistle.
“We’ve been well and truly pumped,” he said. “We’ve been outclassed and outfought in every department. In this league they put you to bed and take you to the cleaners.
“You have to take your medicine. We have to accept that and apologise to our supporters because they’ve been superb. We’ve let them down this evening.
“We have to accept it, roll our sleeves up and go again. We have a huge game at Luton next weekend and we have to show more than we did here.”
This result will certainly reignite Unai Emery’s season after a recent mini-wobble.
A place in next season’s Champions League remains tantalisingly in their sights, and this was a fine response to their defeat by Newcastle on Tuesday.
Emery said: “I’m happy because before the match we were very focused and it was a win that we needed.
“It was better than we were thinking at the beginning. We were clinical, and winning away is difficult.”
United had previously proved stubborn opposition for Villa in recent years. They had won their previous two home matches against them while in December they frustrated Villa with a draw to break Emery’s outstanding run of 15 home victories in a row.
Yet despite missing an early chance when Ben Brereton Diaz was sent clear, this was an alarmingly poor performance with Villa making the breakthrough after 12 minutes.
Ollie Watkins was sent clear by Douglas Luiz and though his clipped shot over United goalkeeper Wes Foderingham came back off the post, John McGinn was presented with the simple task of guiding the ball into the net.
Watkins extended their lead four minutes later with a low finish inside the area, after an excellent through ball from Douglas Luiz.
When Leon Bailey curled home the third goal, United supporters were already streaming out to the concourses, either to return home or drown their sorrows.
Villa became the first team to score four goals in the opening 30 minutes of a Premier League away game since Chelsea vs Bolton in October 2011 when Youri Tielemans produced a spectacular finish.
Could it get any worse? Of course it could. Alex Moreno volleyed in another fine strike 83 seconds into the second half.
United then opted for damage limitation, defending in numbers to halt the onslaught of pressure.
They did improve in the final stages, as Villa dropped off, and were frustrated by an excellent double save from Emiliano Martinez.
There was further frustration when Vini Souza’s goal was disallowed by the Var, after Robinson strayed marginally offside.
Wilder has much to ponder ahead of Saturday’s ‘six-pointer’ at Luton.
Sheffield Utd 0 Aston Villa 5: as it happened
07:29 PM GMT
Full time: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
A pre-watershed beasting by Aston Villa who outclassed Sheffield United in every aspect of the game.
07:28 PM GMT
90+7 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Sheffield United have Luton away next up. Now that’s a must-win game if Wilder can pick them up off the floor tonight.
07:26 PM GMT
90+5 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
The VAR check took three minutes so that will eb added on to the original five. Villa now just hold the ball and Sheffield United at arm’s length
07:25 PM GMT
Offside. That’s put the tin hat on it.
It stays at 0-5. Wilder folds his arms and he resembles that famous description of Colin Montgomerie by David Feherty about a bulldog licking a certain liquid off a nettle.
07:23 PM GMT
They're drawing the lines
Was Robinson offside when he headed it back across for Souza to hook in with a raised leg on the volley?
07:21 PM GMT
Sheff Utd 1 Villa 5 (Souza) VAR check for offside
07:20 PM GMT
89 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Archer is slipped in down the inside-left by Hamer and but he stumbles when he takes a touch too many that takes him wider than he wanted to be and bought Lenglet the time to block the shot when it came.
07:18 PM GMT
87 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Bramall Lane looks about a third full now.
07:16 PM GMT
85 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Interesting to see how Wilder manages to blame the officials or their sandwiches for this one.
Chance for Rogers as Villa cut through Sheffield United like a laser through lard. They work a shooting chance for the attacking midfielder at the edge of the area but he slams it over the bar.
07:15 PM GMT
83 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Ben Osborn gets behind Cash and into the area but then crosses to no one instead of shooting.
07:11 PM GMT
81 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Rogers ⇢ Tielemans. Signed from Boro on Thursday.
07:09 PM GMT
79 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Signs of life for the Blades from the corner, thwarted by a double save by Martinez when Ahmedhodzic telescopes out a leg to divert Hamer’s cross on goal from six yards and then from Robinson with the rebound.
07:08 PM GMT
77 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Ahmedhodzic slides in to dispossess Tielemans when he was showboating around the edge of the box with two colleagues. They had a 3 v 2 but he hung on to the ball too long. The ball ricochets to Davies who carries it forward and feeds Archer and his angled shot is blocked behind for a corner.
07:04 PM GMT
75 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Blades fans olé a string of United passes in their own half. You have to make your own amusements on days like these.
07:03 PM GMT
73 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Diaby Billy-Whizzes it in from the right, striding on to Tielemans’ lay off to burn past Trusty, the ball under immaculate control, to shoot with his left. Foderingham dives low to turn it away to the keeper’s right.
07:02 PM GMT
71 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
A change apiece. The return of the Macs (to the bench)
Iroegbunam ⇢ McGinn
Tom Davies ⇢ McAtee
07:00 PM GMT
69 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
It’s all slow-slow-slow-slow-quick from Villa at the moment, seemingly stroking the ball out purposelessly but then snap into action. They send Watkins in between Bogle and Holgate to square the ball through the box for Diaby but Trusty beats him to it and hoofs it away.
06:57 PM GMT
67 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Archer ⇢ Brereton-Diaz.
Both Blades double-barrels are off. Thanks, Chris. My aching fingers owe you one.
06:56 PM GMT
65 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Bogle wins the ball off Moreno but catches him with his arm as he turned away, conceding a free-kick.
06:53 PM GMT
63 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Bogle steps in to intercept and sends Brereton-Diaz down the right but Villa are not stand-offish and tear after him, Lenglet catching him and forcing him to run out of room and take the ball out for a goalkick.
06:52 PM GMT
61 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Villa pass the ball around unmolested, horse-showing it from side to side and across the centre-halves and back again.
06:49 PM GMT
59 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Double Villa substitution:
Cash ⇢ Konsa
Diaby ⇢ Bailey.
06:47 PM GMT
57 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Tielemans bends it to the far post and Konsa creeps round the back to head it. Trusty managed to get his leg up high enough to knock it behind and Konsa slides into the post, hurting his knee.
06:45 PM GMT
54 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Any comfort for Sheffield United? Only that this could be rock bottom. Villa continue to zip passes around a zombie home side until there’s a trip and Villa have a free-kick 25 yards out on the left.
06:43 PM GMT
52 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Sheffield United combine with Bogle and McAtee down the right and Bogle loops a shot wide that draws a ripple of sincere applause and some sarcastic jeers.
06:41 PM GMT
50 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
Osborn ⇢ Norrington-Davies
Robinson ⇢ Brooks.
06:40 PM GMT
48 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5
By not pressing and letting Villa do what they want in their own half, they run the risk of their fans thinking they’re not trying. Which is why they’re booing Villa being allowed to stroke it around.
06:37 PM GMT
Sheff Utd 0 Villa 5 (Moreno) Mistake from Trusty, letting Bailey take the ball to the byline and knock it back to Watkins who stands up a cross to the far post from the right and Moreno belts in a volley from 10 yards giving poor Foderingham no chance.
06:36 PM GMT
46 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
A change apiece.
Ramsey ⇢ Douglas Luiz
Hamer ⇢ Osula.
Sheff Utd carry on not pressing while McGinn drops deeper to let Ramsey play further forward.
06:20 PM GMT
Half-time: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
The home side are booed off. And rightly so. They’ve stunk Bramall Lane out and keep making the same mistakes. Villa have outclassed them, clinically taken their chances and are now in the happy position of stroking the ball around against a despondent, broken team. Wilder has to inspire something from hsi team but I don’t know how.
06:19 PM GMT
45+3 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
Tielemans slips a pass up the inside-left for Watkins to try to get to beyond Trusty but Foderingham hares out to grab it.
06:18 PM GMT
45+1 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
‘It;s going to be fascinating to see what the approach is in the second half,’ says Bill Leslie. I very much doubt it. It’s over and has been since 30 minutes. It’ll be more of the same training ground practice match vibes as Villa conserve their energy and the Blades try to stem the bleeding, I fear.
06:15 PM GMT
44 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
Bogle is booked for an exasperated foul.
06:15 PM GMT
43 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
Bailey turns Norrington-Davies inside out with a dip of the shoudler, spin and dart inside, leaving him lost and alone. But the cross doesn’t match the swazz.
06:13 PM GMT
41 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
Villa are playing with smiles on their faces in a very quiet ground. You can hear Emery and Wilder bellowing out to their players. United’s players have coat-hanger shoulders now, a study in abject dejection.
06:10 PM GMT
38 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
The game has momentarily, I hope, lost its sting. Emery wants them to be ruthless and up the tempo again. Sheffield United can barely get a kick.
06:09 PM GMT
36 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
Villa are crusing, have lit their cigars and are enjoying pribing with little urgency in the last few minutes, taking the momentum out of the game. Emery urges them out of their comfort zone.
06:05 PM GMT
32 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 4
There’s a big hole on the left side of Sheffield United’s defence and Villa are running into it at will. This is the kind of hammering that damages careers. Two of the scores of United fans streaming out of the stands and down the steps turn to the cameras to flash the Vs, presumably in protest at their club and an ownership that sent them into battle with a spud-gun.
06:00 PM GMT
Sheffield United 0 Aston Villa 4 (Tielemans) They’re being pumped now. Seconds earlier Tielemans volley from the back post had been cleared off the lien for another corner. So Villa pick out Tielemans again and he thumps in his shot from 18 yards, the ball crashing off the underside of the bar.
05:58 PM GMT
26 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 3
Now Konsa powers up the right. They can’t live with Villa’s running strength either, as well as their skill. Foderingham bails his defenders, who let him drive into the box to shoot, out with a save from close range with his feet.
05:56 PM GMT
23 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 3
McAtee whips over a free-kick from the right and Holgate gets ahead of his man and heads over from 12 yards. He should have buried that but may have been offside had it gone in.
05:54 PM GMT
23 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 3
Wilder can set them up anyway he wants but the gulf in talent is too vast to breach with spirit and organisation.
05:51 PM GMT
Sheffield United 0 Aston Villa 3 (Bailey) Again Sheffield United have the ball high on their right wing, give it away and Villa break like lightning, Tielemans and Kamara combining. Bailey is picked out with another diagonal pass, Norrington-Davies makes the mistake of not showing the left-footed Bailey down the line and allows him to cut back on his left and curl a shot into the top left from 18 yards.
Loads of Blades fans are streaming out. Presumably for a pint rather than off home. Who would blame them if it’s the former. Been a desperate season for Sheffield football, the home of the game.
05:50 PM GMT
18 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 2
What a difference four minutes make. Sheffield United had been doing OK but it’s all fallen apart. Going to be a cricket score ...
05:46 PM GMT
Sheffield United 0 Aston Villa 2 (Watkins) Bogle, high on the right with Osula and Brereton-Diaz waiting for the cross, passes it straight to Douglas Luiz who traps it and sets off. He makes 30 yards then bends a wonderful pass with the outside of his right foot from left of centre around Ahmedhodzic and out to the inside-right. Watkins takes it in his stride, dribbles into the box with a couple of touches then fires a shot into the bottom left corner.
05:42 PM GMT
Sheffield United 0 Aston Villa 1 (McGinn) Tielemans splits United’s defence with a right to left diagonal pas that sends Watkins through the channel between Ahmedhodzic and Trusty. Out comes Foderingham to the edge of his area to try to sweep up but Watkins dinks it over him and it bobbles towards the empty goal. Ahmedhodzic hurtles back to slide and hook it off the line but the rest of his team-mates didn’t shake a leg to help and let McGinn sprint down the middle to tap it in as the Blades captain lay sprawling in the goal.
05:42 PM GMT
10 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 0
Chance for Chile to beat Argentina when Brereton-Diaz gallops down the left, beating Konsa on his inside shoulder to shoot low and aiming for the far post from a tight angle. Martinez gets down to save but the ball nearly squirms under his dive and he has to hastily improvise to stop it.
05:38 PM GMT
8 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 0
The double-bangers team up down the left for the Blades again and Norrington-Davies flashes over a cross that again picks out an Aston Villa defender. More composure required, and maybe picking his head up.
05:36 PM GMT
6 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 0
Villa’s set-piece coach has come up with a new one in which Douglas Luiz rolls a 35-yard free-kick to McGinn with his studs to shift it wide of the wall. McGinn runs on to it and balloons it into the crowd.
05:35 PM GMT
4 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 0
Brereton-Diaz and Norrington-Davies combine down the left, the left-back underlapping the on-loan Villarreal man who taps the ball in to him as he enters the area. He tries to pick out Osula but Duego Carlos boots it clear and Brooks stops the counter by yanking Bailey’s shirt. Should have been a yellow card but the referee keeps it pocketed.
05:33 PM GMT
2 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 0
Osula tries to steal in and pounce on a Moreno pass back to Martinez but the World Cup-winner reacts quickly to smother ir.
05:32 PM GMT
1 min: Sheff Utd 0 Villa 0
Villa kick off as the last lines of the Greasy Chip Buttie song die down. United have an early free-kick just inside the Vill half after a trip. McAtee takes from the left towards the 18-yard line and Villa deal with it comfortably.
05:27 PM GMT
Out come the teams
Sheffield United in red and white stripes, black socks and shorts, Villa in a very meh shade of bluish grey.
05:08 PM GMT
Unai Emery's pre-match words
This is a very important match for us after the defeat we had at home to Newcastle. We are really excited and motivated to play.
We are going to try to focus 100 per cent on the match and it’s very important. It’s difficult as well because playing away is always difficult.
When teams are playing at home they try to show their supporters their qualities and wishes to play, trying to win.
I will face a team being more aggressive than when they played against us at home [a 1-1 draw in December]. Sometimes they will play defensively lower, but they were successful against us like that.
05:06 PM GMT
Chris Wilder's pre-match thoughts
If you’re playing well it will come to you. I believe we are playing well and I believe it will come to us.
It has to happen sooner or later, we understand that, and that’s the pressure we play under.
That pressure we should thrive upon and look to enjoy as well and why shouldn’t we enjoy the game on Saturday night?
It’s going to be a fabulous game. We’ve had some cracking games against Villa in the past, home and away.
Full house, Bramall Lane under the lights, half-five. It’s something we’re really looking forward to.
04:46 PM GMT
Now for those of you watching in black and white
Sheffield United Foderingham; Bogle, Holgate, Ahmedhodzic, Trusty, Norrington-Davies; McAtee, Vinicius Souza, Brooks; Brereton-Diaz, Osula.
Substitutes Amissah, Hamer, Archer, Norwood, Robinson, Tom Davies, Osborn, One, Larouci.
Aston Villa Martinez; Konsa, Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Alex Moreno; Douglas Luiz, Kamara; Bailey, McGinn, Tielemans; Watkins.
Substitutes Olsen, Cash, Chambers, Diaby, Rogers, Kesler-Hayden, Ramsey, Iroegbunam, Wright.
Referee Paul Tierney (Wigan)
04:40 PM GMT
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04:33 PM GMT
Rogers on the bench for Villa
Your Aston Villa team at Bramall Lane. 👊 pic.twitter.com/BRgnKhhxtO
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) February 3, 2024
04:32 PM GMT
Holgate makes his Blades' debut
— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) February 3, 2024
04:07 PM GMT
It was only 3½ years ago that Aston Villa hosted Sheffield United in the first Premier League match after the 100-day Covid hiatus. Villa, in 19th, somehow managed to get away with a 0-0 draw after goal-line technology suffered a spectacular failure and did not award Oyvind Nyland’s own goal to the Blades. The point moved Chris Wilder’s side up to fourth and kept Villa in 19th from where they would eventualy climb to 17th and stay up by one point over Bournemouth (who had a better goal difference).
That was Villa’s great escape and since sacking Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard they have gone from strength to strength. Wilder, meanwhile, is back at United, ranting about sandwiches, and stuck in bottom place, 10 points from safety. It’s as if they’ve passed each other on converging escalators.
The Blades were done out of two points at Villa Park in December by Nicolo Zaniolo’s 97th-minute equaliser but haven’t kicked on since then with only one point from the next four games including tight defeats in winnable matches against Luton and Crystal Palace. They have made a couple of very good signings – Ben Brereton Diaz and Mason Holgate on loan and Ivo Grbic on a longer-term deal to keep goal, one of the areas they most urgently needed to upgrade. Unfortuntaley Grbic has suffered a concussion and cannot play until next week. With only 16 games left, they seem already cooked but if they are to open the escape hatch by a sliver to give them hope, they really need to win tonight.
That isn’t going to be easy against Villa even if Unai Emery’s side were well-beaten last time out by Newcastle. They haven’t been in the best of form, needing a Douglas Luiz late winner to beat Burnley in their only victory since that draw against Sheffield United, but they have also made an astute signing in Morgan Rogers. Pau Torres, Lucas Digne and Zaniolo are all out, according to Emery at yesterday’s press conference.