This was a Premier League match with social distancing, temperature checks and no fans but there was a sense of familiarity at Villa Park with yet another controversial technology failure.

We are living in odd times and after the final whistle there was an “unreserved apology” from Hawk-Eye, the goal-line technology system, to Sheffield United after a ghost goal which could prove crucial in the club’s pursuit of European football.

Oliver Norwood’s free kick was clearly over the line, fumbled by Aston Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland three minutes before half-time, and these two missed points may be a costly blow when this truncated season is finally finished.

It lifts United into sixth place, a point behind Manchester United who they face at Old Trafford next week, but this technical error was inexcusable and does not deserve to be viewed as a defining moment in this memorable campaign. 

The fact that the Video Assistant Referee, the Premier League’s big hope, could not intervene only heightened the sense of farce.

Wilder said: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It just had the feel of a goal and the referee [Michael Oliver] said that to me, but you’ve got to rely on Hawk-Eye to make the decision.

“The emotions from both sets of players is that it had crossed the line. We believe it should have been referred [to VAR].

“We were waiting for somebody at Stockley Park to show a bit of courage and say they will make that decision but if they’ve not seen it and seven cameras haven’t seen it I suppose he will say that it was not their decision to make.

“We went to Tottenham last year, John Lundstram’s big toe was offside and I was hanging around at White Hart Lane in the pouring rain for 10 minutes waiting for a decision. I don’t understand why I can’t wait 10 minutes in Birmingham.”

The error offered an escape for Villa, who had impressed in patches but remain in the bottom three. Victory would have taken them out of the relegation zone yet it was a peculiar experience in front of an empty Villa Park, when over 40,000 people would have normally been present. 

Wilder described the game as “bang average” and he was spot on.

There was one huge plus for Villa with the successful return of midfielder John McGinn, making his first appearance since December after fracturing his ankle, but there will have to be a dramatic improvement over the final nine games.

They also have to face Chelsea, Wolves, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal before the season is over, while the final day at West Ham already looks hugely significant.

Dean Smith, the Villa head coach, said: “We’ve got away with one, certainly with technology not working, but I’ve been in the other position where technology has not been good for us.

“There’s always going to be some error, we’ve seen it with VAR, and now the first time ever with Hawk-Eye.

“I wanted to come out and show a good performance, and I felt we did that. We nullified a lot of what Sheffield United were about.

“We weren’t just reliant on Jack Grealish. It was a good performance today and we deserved more.”

Villa had been the better team for more than 30 minutes, wasting at least three decent opportunities to frustrate Smith standing behind the dug-outs.

Keinan Davis, the striker selected ahead of £10 million signing Mbwana Samatta, produced a promising performance but somehow headed over from four yards in the 11th minute.

United were typically well organised, adapting well to the absence of Jack O’Connell for the first time this season, while influential midfielder John Fleck was also injured. Fleck is set to return for Sunday’s game against Newcastle.

The pivotal moment of the evening came three minutes before the break.

Norwood floated over a free kick from the left and it eluded everyone, including Nyland, and the ball drifted over the line. As Nyland attempted to retrieve the ball he collided with Davis but was clearly leaning into the side netting on television replays.

Villa had the better chances of a dour second half, with Davis just missing El Ghazi’s cross after a fine run from Grealish before Henderson denied John McGinn, but the game faded towards an inevitable draw.

Player ratings

Villa (4-3-3)

Nyland 4; Konsa 5 (Elmohamady 76), Hause 6, Mings 6, Targett 5; McGinn 6 (Nakamba 76) Douglas Luiz 5, Hourihane 5; El Ghazi 5 (Trezeguet 69), Davis 6 (Samatta 69), Grealish 6.

Substitutes: Reina (g), Taylor, Baston, Jota, Vassilev. Booked: Douglas Luiz

Sheffield United (3-5-2)

Henderson 7; Basham 6, Egan 6, Robinson 6; Baldock 5, Lundstram 6, Norwood 6, Berge 5 (Freeman 69 5), Stevens 6; McBurnie 5 (Mousset 80) Sharp 6 (McGoldrick 69 5).

Substitutes: Moore (g), Jagielka, Osborn, Clarke, Rodwell. Booked: Lundstram

07:27 PM

Keith Hackett comments on the lack of VAR intervention

I’m not sure this story will feel quite as explosive tomorrow. Sheffield United will feel that it’s not fair – and it’s not – but accidents happen. The point, I suppose, is that there were two fail-safe bits of technology that didn’t work.

07:14 PM

Hawk-Eye issue apology for technology fail

Well well well. That is big news. I think the bit to take out of that is “Never been seen before in over 9,000 matches that the Hawk-Eye Goal Line Technology system has been in operation.”

It’s basically like when a video game glitches – it doesn’t mean the game is broken. It just happens sometimes. Unfortunately this little glitch could cost Sheffield United or others millions.

07:11 PM

Some Opta stats to nibble on

  • Today’s meeting between Aston Villa and Sheffield United was the first English top-flight game to be played in the month of June since Sheffield United beat Stoke 2-1, on the 14th June 1947.
  • Aston Villa have lost just one of their eight Premier League games against Sheffield United (W5 D2), a 0-2 defeat in this season’s reverse fixture at Bramall Lane.
  • Sheffield United are the first side to stop Aston Villa from scoring at home in the Premier League since West Ham in September 2019 (0-0), ending their run of scoring in 10 consecutive league games at Villa Park.
  • Sheffield United have won 44 points from their opening 29 Premier League games this season; the highest points tally in the competition by a newly promoted side at this stage of a season since Birmingham City in 2009-10 (also 44 pts).
  • Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish has won more fouls this season (131) than any other player in a single Premier League campaign since Opta started recording such data (1998-99).
  • No goalkeeper has kept more Premier League clean sheets this season than Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson (11, also Burnley’s Nick Pope).
  •  Conor Hourihane created seven chances for his Aston Villa teammates in this game, the joint most by a Villa player in a Premier League game this season (Jack Grealish also seven vs Southampton in December 2019).
  • Sheffield United’s Jack Robinson made his second ever Premier League start in this game, 9 years & 55 days after making his first start in the competition, for Liverpool against Birmingham in April 2011 – the second longest gap between a player’s first two Premier League starts and the longest for an outfield player.

07:02 PM

Paul Hayward’s thoughts on the game

 

07:02 PM

VAR could have stepped in

An actual referee has told me that VAR could indeed have stepped in to correct that goalline technology error earlier. It wouldn’t have made the game much more exciting but it has denied Sheffield United a potential three points.

06:56 PM

FULL TIME

We waited over 100 days for this. This is what we came for. Two teams of lads shuttling into each other for 90 minutes and a computer that didn’t work. Excellent. 

If I sound ungrateful, let me confirm that I’m not. It was brilliant watching Premier League football again, I still have a buzz, even if I have already forgotten absolutely everything that has happened in this game other than 1million crosses from the right wing and The Goal That Wasn’t. Oh, and the brilliant Black Lives Matter knee-taking at the start of the game. 

06:52 PM

90 mins+2 – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

McGoldrick is down and in a lot of pain. The physio is wiggling his leg about to try and fix it. The miracles of medical science.

06:50 PM

89 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

FAO pub quiz fans: this may come in handy later in your life.

  • Dean Smith is the first manager to make four subs in a Premier League game.

06:49 PM

88 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

United are playing some really nice football on the right wing now, pinging passes about in a triangle, pulling players out of position… and they’ve crossed it in again. Villa clear.

06:47 PM

86 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

This is like really expensive Sunday League.

06:46 PM

83 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Still no sign of a goal coming here. Neither side able to get beyond the final third. Grealish does really well to drop back and block Mousset then clear up the mess.

06:42 PM

81 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

All the United attacks are coming down the right. I’m going to look the data up to see if I’m right… and yes. A total of 45.9 per cent of their attacks are going down that wing, with three players stacking up near the box and early crosses being hooked in. 

06:40 PM

79 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

A 1000 crosses. All Sheffield United are trying to do is overload the wing and cross the ball in. Villa can get the ball to the final third and then have no ideas. 

06:37 PM

76 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

This Villa goalkeeper doesn’t look great to me. He’s understandably nervous when crosses come in but that seemed to be the case when he cuddled the ball into his own net earlier on, and he’s now just managed to get away with punching a cross to Luiz inside his own area, not seeming entirely spacially aware.

06:34 PM

73 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

We’ve just heard tactical mastermind Chris Wilder yell “try something different Ollie”, at Norwood as he lines up a  corner. This time he chips it slightly higher towards the box and it’s a goal kick.

A few players appear to be suffering with a bit of cramp now.

06:32 PM

70 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Ohhhhh what a chance. A ball is passed directly along the 18 yard line and it is nowhere near Mings. McBurnie latches on, takes a shot and wins a corner, which is a real waste, and that then turns into Villa possession. This time they pass to their own players and find life is better.

06:30 PM

68 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

And here come the subs! After a water break. I’ll be honest… this isn’t the best game of football I’ve ever seen. 

06:26 PM

65 mins -Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Not sure why relying on Grealish to create would be funny in the first place actually. That doesn’t make sense. I’ve fallen into cliche, and have failed you.

06:26 PM

63 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

A turnover in possession in Villa’s half gives United a chance to attack but this game is not a classic. Neither of these teams has much about them going forwards and I feel like United won’t score unless it’s off a second ball or a cross. Villa are so reliant on Grealish to create it’s not even funny.

06:21 PM

60 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

SO CLOSE DAVIS! Ghazi fires a low ball into the six yard box after Grealish bursts through the middle and sets up the chance. The cross is a little too powerful and Davis slides in like Gazza v Germany and can’t quite reach it.

McGinn has the ball now near the box… launches a shot! Saved. Corner.

06:18 PM

57 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Norwood lifts in a poor corner, it is easily cleared… and the technology agrees that is not a goal. This time it is correct.

06:17 PM

55 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Villa keeping up the pressure, they’re taking the game to Sheffield United in this half. 

06:15 PM

53 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Here’s a great take on the Goal That Wasn’t.

 Sheffield United need to do some defending as Villa force a corner out of them. Nothing comes of it.

06:11 PM

50 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

The free-kick is whipped towards the near post, headed away, Ghazi takes a shot which clips off a defender and lands in the goalkeeper’s gloves.

06:09 PM

48 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Villa are on the attack from the start. Grealish is kicked in the ankle inside two minutes and goes down in a lot of pain.

06:07 PM

KICK OFF 2

We’re back! And now we have goal-line technology. Definitely. Apparently. 

Villa kick off and don’t put the ball in their own net, as would technically be the sporting thing to do.

06:05 PM

The system is now working

According to the referee team, “the system is now working”. That will please everyone involved with Sheffield United greatly.

06:02 PM

Aston Villa react

Nobody does tbf.

 

05:58 PM

Why didn’t the technology work?

Or did it? Still no confirmation that this wasn’t a goal, other than the video that I’m watching with my eyes that tells me it is, but I wonder what could possibly have happened. Did someone forget to connect them up? And because the goalkeeper threw the ball out, VAR could have overruled it and awarded the goal. 

Football is starting to become a bit like Formula 1 now isn’t it? The pit stop is the most exciting bit of the race. Now it’s whether a computer is broken because a dodgy goalkeeper couldn’t catch a cross.

05:54 PM

Reaction from people on the internet

 

05:51 PM

A video of ‘the incident’

Enjoy analysing this one. I need to see that hawkeye video from above. Prove me wrong, computer. PROVE ME WRONG!

 

05:50 PM

HALF TIME

I do not understand what I’ve just seen. Without technology I get it, but there is not only goal-line technology but VAR too. Chris Wilder has gone onto the pitch to investigate.

05:48 PM

45 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Oh referee. And there’s a VAR team too. They’ve completely goosed this.

05:46 PM

44 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

I mean… the goalkeeper is literally inside the side netting. He’s in it. With the ball. There is no possible way that this is not a goal. It’s amazing hahahaha. How!?!! HOWWWW!?!?!?!

05:45 PM

GOOOOOOOOOAAAA… wait what?!

A free-kick is hooked in from wide left to the back post, Nyland goes to catch it, does, and the ball is taken behind the line… but the video shows clearly that the ball has definitely gone over the line. It’s dreadful goalkeeping, a clear error…. but the technology says no. I have no idea why that isn’t a goal. Mike Oliver says the watch tells him it wasn’t a goal.

But it was! Wasn’t it!?

05:43 PM

42 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

I honestly can’t see that much of a difference in level in this game than what I’d expect were the world normal and people were allowed inside the ground. Would love to see the numbers to see if data backs thatup.

05:42 PM

41 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Balls that are kicked out of touch have to be disinfected before they can be used again, so they have heaps of balls around the pitch ready to go. This will prevent any particularly defensive teams taking advantage of a great way to waste lots of time. Hoof it out, run down a minute.

05:40 PM

39 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

McGinn makes a forward run beyond the defence as a forward pass is headed on, Robinson gets across immediately to cover and sees out the danger.

05:38 PM

36 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Hause attacks the near post as an out-swinging corner smashes off his shoulder. If that had been headable he would have buried it.

Grealish is absolutely wiped out by Berge, who is lucky not to be booked. That boy gets fouled constantly – he’s the most fouled player in the league by far.

05:36 PM

34 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Feel like the live audio editor must be terrified that the players and staff will swear at any moment and it will be absolutely audible. There’s a slight delay between the action and the broadcast so I wonder if they’ll consider having a censor button to use in future. Would make it quite funny to watch if anything.

Villa have a corner.

05:33 PM

31 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

A lot of switched diagonal balls by United are giving Villa an easy way of winning possession back. Neither side looks particularly good in the final third though. Villa keep running into trouble, United keep attacking down the wings and floating in crosses that nobody’s able to win. 

Really enjoying hearing the managers screaming things at their players though.

“POSITIONS!” shouts someone as the teams prepare themselves for a corner.

05:30 PM

28 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Ghazi throws himself to the ground after being bounced by a chasing Sheffield United player inside the box. I think with a crowd that could have been a penalty, he had his legs taken away. He also went down easily. But if it’s a foul then it’s a foul… surely? 

05:26 PM

Water break

It’s pretty hot, or humid at least, which means time for a water break with individually named bottles.

05:26 PM

24 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Lundstram tries to start a counter by launching a clearance near the throw-in line. Henderson collects. Not a good pass.

05:25 PM

23 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

McGinn is busy in midfield, leading the press as Villa try to force United back towards their own goal. Davis ends up winning a corner by annoying Basham when chasing a pretty poor forward ball. He’s playing well here.

05:22 PM

20 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

It turns out Douglas Luiz is called ‘Dougie’ by his teammates, which makes perfect sense. United are trying to get their centre-backs on the overlap now to overload Villa. Norwood wins a corner. 

05:19 PM

17 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Can confirm that the Sky Sports Premier League channel is much more watchable than the Main Event one with fake noise. That needs work.

United give the ball away near their own box, Grealish carries it, but Hourihane hits a useless cross to nobody in the box and it’s easily cleared.

One great thing about the lack of crowd is that Ghazi goes down under a tackle there and doesn’t roll around for 30 seconds. Amazing scenes. 

The ball is curled in from the free-kick, McGinn gets a head to it… and Henderson saves.

Egan knows he’s in a battle with Davis here. John McGinn just shouts “F***** brilliant!” to Davis as he bodies him to the floor.

05:16 PM

14 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Amazing. We genuinely just got an “AWAY!” from someoneon the pitch as a corner was hung towards the back post. Berge does well to put Davis off on the opposite side of the box to prevent him scoring.

Chris Wilder is screaming “That’s FOUR TACKLES WE’VE MISSED! FOUR!” as one of his midfielders slides in hard on Grealish. I think it’s Wilder, anyway. 

 

05:12 PM

11 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Mings clears the ball from his own box, smashes it at McGinn – who tries to control it – and the ball bounces back inside. A forward pass to Grealish causes another problem for his own team by cushioning the ball and being tackled while surrounded.

Here’s video of that powerful Black Lives Matter protest at the start of the game.

05:10 PM

9 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

Father and son, Mark and Glen Goodwin prepare to watch the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United which is taking place behind closed doors, in a Gazebo they have set up near Villa Park stadium – AFP

 These two lads are father and son and have set up a little gazebo next to Villa Park to take in the game. I am a big fan of this.

05:09 PM

8 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

HOURIHANE SHOOOOTS! And Henderson blocks at his near post. Good save following a corner. 

Davis has started really well and is causing problems upfront. He races onto a ball over the top, holds off a defender and is blocked by the goalkeeper on the edge of the box.. but was offside.

05:07 PM

5 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0

 That moment where all the players took the knee following the first whistle was incredible. You’ll see that image around a lot.

On the pitch, Mings tries a long pass which is easily blocked, Grealish darts through the middle and brings others into play, the midfield step up to keep a move going, and Grealish takes on the defence, wins, but Robinson steps in to block the cross.

05:05 PM

3 mins – Aston Villa 0 Sheffield United 0 

United on the attack from the start, Keinan Davis chases a clearance up the line and looks fired up. I think I’m going to have to go for the no-crowd noise option because it’s too strange.

05:03 PM

Black lives matter

All the players take the knee before the first kick of the ball. That was honestly brilliant. I didn’t know it was coming.

 

05:02 PM

KICK OFF

And we’re back. I’m watching the stream with EA Sports crowd noise to start, might switch at half time. 

05:01 PM

A minute’s silence

Grealish takes a second to decide whether he wants to change ends at kick off. Then we have a minute’s silence for those who have lost their lives during this pandemic.

05:00 PM

Pre-match shenanigans

The stadium announcer is going through the teams without anyone yelling ‘WAAAAAAY’ when they announce Jack Grealish, and a much more subdued ‘waaay’ when they announce the reserve goalkeeper.

04:59 PM

Here we go!

And the players are out! It’s really weird. It’s so Sunday League. But my god I’m glad it’s back.

It doesn’t make sense to me that these guys are going to be clawing each other at corners but are not allowed to bump fists etc instead of handshaking. 

They’re playing the Premier League theme music now too. Oh man it is genuinely weirder than I thought it was going to be, and I’ve watched a lot of Bundesliga the last few weeks.

04:58 PM

Even the nets are safe

Net supports are sprayed with disinfectant spray ahead of the Premier League match at Villa Park – PA

 Can’t be too careful. 

04:56 PM

Lack of sound

Oh. It is weird. Oddly hushed. Like something evil is about to happen.

04:56 PM

The press box

Not everyone in the press box gets a monitor to rewatch action because the press box is basically an entire stand! That’s going to be a nightmare for the writers inside the stadium. One of the hardest things to do in that job is accurately write about the action and also watch it at the same time, the replays are a life savour. Can confirm: is very hard at times.

04:54 PM

Jack Robinson

Injuries mean that Jack Robinson starts for Sheffield United, a player I’m sure you’ll remember was amazing in Football Manager in around FM15, according to my sources (Ricky Christie on Twitter).

04:53 PM

The teams

So it looks like Villa are in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 setup, Sheffield United are – as expected – in a 3-5-2. Sharp and McBurnie upfront.

04:45 PM

Our man John Percy on what it’s like being back at a football ground 

John Percy is at Villa Park to report on this game. Here are his words:

John Percy at Villa Park

It has been 100 days since I trudged back to my car in the pouring rain, having watched Aston Villa’s thrashing at Leicester’s King Power Stadium.

Now, three months later, I was watching Villa again in their battle to stay up and while their objective for the season remains the same, the world in which we operate could not be more different.

Covid-19 has ensured this is the “new normal” for Premier League football, where stadiums are virtually empty, eerily silent, and fans are forbidden to congregate outside. 

This was Project Restart Unplugged.

Anyone permitted entry to watch the match was instructed to wear a facemask, undergo a temperature test and submit a Health Declaration Form.

Hand sanitisers were everywhere, situated in places usually reserved for the burger vans.

Seats in the press box were limited, due to social distancing, so members of the written media were sat in the back of the stand behind the tunnel.

It could have been easy to forget this was a game of high significance to both ends of the table.

Sheffield United started the day in seventh place and rolled into Villa Park in three separate coaches just under two hours before kick-off.

Chris Wilder and his players have the Champions League in sight, a remarkable achievement, but due to hygiene and safety were given no option but to get changed in the press lounge in the bowels of the North Stand.

Villa’s players all arrived in their own cars.

Without fans, it was a hollow experience. There would have been over 40,000 here in normal circumstances – with over 3,000 travelling from Sheffield – but these are not normal times.

 Aston Villa flags are seen hanging inside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United – GETTY IMAGES

Flags adorned most of the stands around this magnificent, iconic old stadium and in the towering Holte End there was an orange steward’s jacket in memory of Ron Smith, the father of Villa head coach Dean, who passed away last month after a four-week battle with coronavirus.

Ron would undoubtedly have been here for the last game behind closed doors, when the club faced Besiktas in September 1982 as European Champions.

These are drastically different times for Villa now, both on and off the field.

04:39 PM

Dean Smith interview

Aston Villa put an orange steward’s jacket on Dean Smith’s dad’s old seat in Villa Park. It’s a really nice gesture.

Smith has talked about how the break has essentially been a mini-pre-season and his team has worked on a lot of things during it. He also spoke a lot about how the team had lost its confidence before the break… this time off could turn out to be crucial. That said, a bad defeat here could be disastrous to morale. 

04:36 PM

The warm-up without a crowd

General view inside the stadium as Sheffield United players warm up prior to the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park – GETTY IMAGES

I wonder how much a lack of crowd really effects the players. Joshua Kimmich said that he felt an absence of pressure when the Bundesliga resumed but I can’t see the managers of either of these clubs allowing anything other than maximum effort once the whistle blows. 

04:27 PM

Billy Sharp starts upfront

And his dad is watching.

 I’m assuming he will be going into a house at some point soon. TVs work better inside than they do on a country road. The electricity really helps.

04:25 PM

Crowd noise

If you are watching along on Sky Sports, there’s some good news. You can watch Main Event to get fake crowd noise and Sky Sports Premier League for purely diagetic sound. As in lots of players shouting “MAN ON” and “GET RID!”.

04:23 PM

Chris Wilder pre-match (socially distanced) interview

It’s a bit surreal but we get on it. We’re in the same situation as everyone else, just looking forward to getting back to football.

We had good momentum but we’ve got to pick ourselves up. But now the ball rolls. We’re in a good position, we’re desperate to finish it off. 

Wilder reveals that John Fleck and Jack O’Connell both have contact injuries from training. Jeez. 

04:03 PM

Micah Richards on Black Lives Matter

This guy is great. He’s just gone on a two minute anecdotal analysis of his life, other people’s, the reaction to it and how when he explains the structural racism that exists, his friends don’t understand what it is or what he’s on about. 

“It’s not black vs white, it’s everyone vs racism”.

04:00 PM

Starting lineups

 

03:56 PM

Who have been the best players in the Premier League this season?

I’ll tell you who! But you’ll have to click on this link and read the article first to find out. I’ll give you a clue: I very nearly chose a Liverpool player, but may have selected another club’s star player as the winner. 

One player from this Aston Villa vs Sheffield United game features quite high up the list. I suspect John McGinn may have made it if he’d stayed fit too… but United are amazing as a unit. They don’t really have a standout individual, and that is really what football is all about. But if you’re asking it’s John Fleck.

03:48 PM

Excited for Man City vs Arsenal?

That game follows this one live from the Etihad. This article is a detailed analysis of what Mikel Arteta has brought to Arsenal and what we might see tonight in the 8:15pm kick off. Includes a lot of our signature screen grabs with arrows and lines and annotations.

Manchester City vs Arsenal: The tactics Mikel Arteta has borrowed from Pep Guardiola and what to expect

03:40 PM

Sky Sports pundits standing apart

The Sky Sports broadcast is having to rely on a mega wide shot to get all the pundits on screen at the same time. Micah Richards has just said “rest in peace to all the people who died during coronavirus… but football is back”, and now Gary Neville is laying into Richards’ shoes. I think everyone’s bored of the coronavirus. At least we have acknowledged the many dead. And now for sports!

03:34 PM

Are Aston Villa fans excited? 

Find out here (the answer is yes – everyone is. Aren’t they?)

 

03:31 PM

IT’S BACK! 

IT’S REALLY HERE! The football is back – the real football – and Aston Villa vs Sheffield United is our very first Premier League game since the world was changed forever by coronavirus. But we’re here, there is football on TV, and we can all enjoy watching it together.

As you are undoubtedly aware, absolutely nobody except the few staff, media etc welcome are allowed into Villa park this evening, but the players have arrived and safety measures are all in place. We’re not doing this liveblog from the ground since only one writer from each establishment is actually allowed in, so rest assured we (I) are/am completely protected from the germs.

aston villa ground with no people – REUTERS

This game might not be the Galactic Name return match we might have expected, but as we know of the Premier League, every game is difficult.

Villa are in real danger of being relegated but the return from injury of John McGinn might give them a chance of surviving, and they need those chances. Opposition teams have worked out that they just need to suffocate the Villa midfield and isolate their other players to beat them, and by overloading the centre of the pitch so they outnumber McGinn, Luiz etc the match can be controlled.

Dean Smith doesn’t seem to be sure what his best formation and system is, having switched between a 3-4-3 and 4-1-4-1 in the weeks before lockdown. Grealish is best at influencing play as an ‘eight’ in the middle, but was being used wide left in both formations, able to influence play in the final third. It’ll be interesting to see where he starts today.

Sheffield United will absolutely stick to their 3-5-2 with overlapping centre-backs and the rest of the tactical fun. You can read about that (something I wrote at the start of the season) right here.

The table is the important thing to know about, and that looks like this:

All to play for! Could Sheffield United really qualify for European football?!

Kick off is 6pm so stay with us for all the action and live analysis. I’m very excited.