Manchester United faced off against Aston Villa in the FA Cup for the 13th time in the club’s illustrious history. A mouth-watering clash awaited as United looked to shake off the disappointment of the Wolves calamity. While recent events had left very little optimism amongst the home support, an overwhelming 10-2 FA Cup-winning record against the Birmingham side was a reassuring omen. In fact, United had not tasted defeat against their opponents in the competition since 04 May 1957.
Steven Gerrard’s side arrived in Manchester without a win in their previous two matches, and a total of six losses from their last ten. Despite what is being painted as a cultivation of Gerrard’s vision, Villa were very much the underdog in this 3rd round tie.
United had won their last nine FA Cup home matches by an aggregate score of 20-2, and were also unbeaten in their last eleven at Old Trafford in the competition. In contrast, Villa had lost their last six FA Cup matches, their longest ever losing run in the competition.
As is usually the case in Manchester, the knives are well and truly out for manager and players alike. Forget social media and redundant speculation in the press, if you’re interested in showing the world that you actually care about this football club, you’ve got 90+ minutes to let the world see. That’s the simplest of messages and it doesn’t require a tactical genius to deliver it. It was entirely up to the XI men to deliver. Old Trafford expected!
With the omission of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho, United were still able to field an extremely strong team. It was a team that was built to hold a high position in the opposition half, with the inclusion of Diogo Dalot emphasising the desire to get in behind the Villa backline. In what was a welcome sight to the home crowd, United lined out in a 4231 to begin the game, with Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood hugging the touch lines.
The shift to a familiar setup allowed much early success. Scott McTominay and Fred controlled the centre of the park and switched the ball regularly to either wing. Rashford looked back to his regular self out wide and supplied an early headache for the travelling side. Despite the early joy down either side, it was the familiar partnership of McFred that broke the deadlock in the 9th minute. A very well-worked team effort, culminating in a sumptuous Fred cross being headed into the net by his partner. A deserved lead after an opening period of domination.
Villa grew into the game after the goal and began to ask questions of the United backline. This inevitably made it enjoyable for the neutrals, as it progressed toward an end to end affair. It only took ten minutes and we had ourselves a proper cup game.
As the back and forth ensued, it was the visitors that began to threaten more. Some sharp team play and dangerous balls into the box allowed more than a handful of opportunities. Ollie Watkins was extremely unlucky to hit the woodwork and Jacob Ramsey was denied a goal by McTominay’s thigh. United needed something to halt the momentum and this came via a brief injury stoppage for Dalot.
Following the stoppage, United looked the better of the two sides. Both Luke Shaw and McTominay tested Emiliano Martínez from distance and Rashford was a continuous threat out wide. Villa struggled to keep up with United’s increased tempo. The struggles led to frustration and ill discipline brought the game into a stop/start affair. The half ended with no further goals and both sides would feel they could have hit the net on a couple of occasions.
The second half began in a similar fashion to the first, with United threatening down either wing and generally looking comfortable. As any United fan knows all too well though, this side is never far from controversy. A routine Villa cross dealt with dreadfully and the ball found itself in the back of the net. Thankfully, following a lengthy VAR review, the goal was correctly ruled out for a foul on Edinson Cavani.
Villa responded well to the adversity and continued to press. Within 5 minutes, they’d again have a goal ruled out for offside. The away fans frustrations toward the referee reverberated throughout the ground and images of an unhappy Gerrard were met with sarcastic applause. It was a purple patch for Villa and one that United simply needed to see out.
An hour played and despite having much of the ball, United could count themselves somewhat fortuitous to remain in the lead. This pattern continued for the following ten minutes as a familiar sense of frustration echoed throughout Old Trafford. It’s all the visitors.
Cavani made way for Donny van de Beek in the 72nd minute and this saw a shift in structure. The aim was simple, retain the ball and attempt to negate the pressure. As time passed, Villa pressed for the equaliser, pushed high up the field and this allowed ample opportunities for United to counter. Despite the numerous opportunities presented, there was little more than huffing in the final third.
The game continued in an end to end fashion but lacked defining cutting edge. There were squandered opportunities aplenty from the home side, with the late introduction of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Elanga failing to add to the scoreline. The latter putting in a notably impressive cameo, however.
United had weathered the Villa onslaught and ultimately broken their spirits. It was achieved in a manner that will do little to silence the critics, despite successful progression to the 4th round. The one real shining light, in an otherwise underwhelming evening, was the continued presence of McTominay. His performance again earned him a MOTM award and I’m pleased to say that this matched my own selection.
United progress to a tie with Championship side, Middlesbrough. On these tight cup evenings, it’s better to progress than dwell on defeat. There’s much work to be done, but United remain in the hunt for a 13th winners medal in the famous cup.
5 talking points:
– A return to wide play. The ideals of a 4-2-2-2 may still exist within our manager’s plans, but it was a welcome sight to have our customary wingers on show. United are famed for marauding wing play and its benefits were on show from the offset.
– Rashford out wide. The first half saw Rashford on either side and he received a huge amount of ball. While it was far from vintage Wythenshawe, it was encouraging to see him grow into the game. The second half saw regression and he looked a frustrated figure. We’ll hope for improvement and ultimate success with his final ball.
– McTominay continues to impress. Few would ever doubt his commitment to the club and his performances of late have been extremely promising. He was United’s best player in the first half, starting many offensive moves and driving deep into the opponents final third. When under intense pressure in the second half, his presence was key in breaking up Villa’s momentum. Rightfully awarded man of the match.
– What pressing? Another game and still not quite pressing. Despite calls for the surfacing of gegenpressing, we’re yet to see evidence. Maybe, in moments, we get a sample. It remains to be seen whether or not it’ll surface anytime soon.
– A clean sheet. It was only United’s 2nd home clean sheet in 20 games. It may have been a case of riding your luck for large parts, but it is a much-needed statistic and a deserved 0 for David De Gea.